NHK and the Comfort Women: War Guilt and Media Self-Censorship in Japan and Elsewhere

Story posted October 15, 2003

Henry Laurence, associate professor of government and Asian studies kicked
off the fall faculty seminar series his talk, "NHK and the Comfort Women: War Guilt and Media Self-Censorship in Japan and Elsewhere."

While researching the funding of NHK, the Japanese public broadcasting company, for his next book, Laurence managed to get a front row seat to observe NHK's handling of situation that put the broadcaster at odds with the Japanese government.

The comfort women were about 200,000, mostly Korean, women who were used as sex slaves during World Ward II by the Imperial Japanese Army. The availability of the comfort women were intended to prevent the soldiers from rape in the field and thus prevent the spread of venereal disease.

From the end of the war in 1945 until about 1990, almost nothing was heard from or about these women. War crimes trials following the war did not address the crimes against the comfort women, and in a series of bi-lateral treaties the Japanese government's liability was waived.

"Not just the Japanese denied that this system happened. It was denied also by the Chinese and Korean governments," Laurence said. "So all the Asian governments were complicit in this silence that went on until 1990."

Then women began speaking out, and their stories found an audience. Among those listening was Yoshimi Yoshaiaki, a Japanese historian, who investigated and found evidence that the government had known about and been involved in the comfort women system, which he published in his book, The Comfort Women.

Today, according to Laurence there are several widely believed myths concerning the comfort women and Japan.

  • Japan has never apologized for these atrocities: In fact in 1995 the Japanese government issued a formal, and very humble, apology to the comfort women. Still, it was an apology that many saw as inadequate and insincere.
  • Japanese textbooks don't mention the comfort women: Actually, many text books include this episode in history.
  • Japanese people don't know about the plight of the comfort women: "That's complete rubbish," Laurence said. "I have yet to meet a Japanese person that doesn't know about the comfort women and what happened to them."

What is a more difficult question to dispense with is whether the Japanese government has taken responsibility for its actions: Though it has said publicly that it accepts moral responsibility, the Japanese government continues to deny any legal responsibility. The government established The Asian Women's Fund, to pay reparations, but the money for the fund comes from the private sector, and individual claims brought directly against the government have been quickly dismissed by the courts.

And because of treaties absolving Japan in the past, other governments consider the case closed.

"The American government absolutely endorses this line," Laurence said. As recently as July of this year, the US government said that there should be no further discussion of the Japanese government's legal responsibility toward the comfort women.

"That has not been satisfactory to many of the survivors and also to NGOs and women's organizations that take their side," Laurence said. Many of these organizations feel that Japan's claim to legal immunity is shaky from the standpoint of international law. "The key issue has become: If the Japanese government is sincere about the apology, it will pay compensation."

Because they had been denied legal claim by the Japanese government, the tribunal was an important public airing of the grievances of the comfort women.

Organizers had gathered surviving comfort women and soldiers to testify before the tribunal and international legal scholars to sit in judgment. One such scholar was Gabrielle Kirk Macdonald, who was also chair of the International War Crimes Tribunal for Yugoslavia. Organizers hoped to demonstrate that the involvement of the Japanese government in the comfort women system had been proven and that the imperial government had been guilty of war crimes.

"This had never been aired in a legal way with real legal scholars," Laurence said.

Laurence discovered that a private documentary working under contract for NHK was filming the proceedings. The resulting documentary was to be one part of a four-part series on crimes against humanity and international law.

The proceedings of the tribunal took place before a crowd of spectators and international journalists. About 85 former comfort women shared their emotional stories; all of the women cried and some collapsed. One of the most remarkable parts of the proceedings, Laurence said, was the testimony of two former Imperial soldiers. They testified that they had raped the comfort women and that they and others also continued to rape women in the field. They testified that the government knew about it.

In the end, the judges declared Emperor Hirohito guilty of crimes against humanity.

All of this was filmed by the documentary crew, but throughout the month of
January, as they went from production, to a completed draft to a final version,
the documentary was radically altered. Laurence outlined the changes:

  • As of January 1, the title was "Sexual Violence by Japanese Military in World War II."
  • On January 15, the crew filmed their commentators, including a Japanese historian who asserted that the international legal community believed Japan to be liable for crimes against humanity despite post-war treaties.
  • On January 25, the film had been completed, and the title altered slightly. The new title, "Japan's Military Wartime Sexual Violence," was published in the television listings.

    Upon viewing the title, conservative nationalist groups became furious and began bombarding NHK management with faxes, letters, and e-mails.

The approved script contained the verdict, the aforementioned commentary by the Japanese historian, the testimony of the comfort women, the testimony of the former soldiers, and the judgments that the sex slave system was a crime against humanity and Emperor Hirohito was guilty of war crimes.

  • On January 27. Outraged nationalist groups stormed into the NHK offices. Soon after, additional editing began.

    A revisionist historian, who denied that the comfort women system existed as a system, was brought in to add his commentary. The original historian was called in to answer additional questions, including whether he felt that the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were war crimes. (He said yes.)
  • Also on Jan. 27, the director double-checked to ensure he had the permission of the Japanese soldiers to air their testimony.
  • On Jan 28, the script was mostly intact, but the revisionist historian's commentary had been added. The documentary was 45 minutes long.
  • On January 29, according to press reports, there was a special airing of the documentary for NHK officers.
  • On January 30, the documentary was aired on television. It was 40 minutes long. It had a new title with no reference to the Japanese military: "Questioning Wartime Sexual Violence."

    The testimony of the Japanese soldiers had been cut and replaced by an explanation of the mechanisms of the tribunal. The narrator was much more critical of the tribunal, than in the original script, saying that some viewed it as a "kangaroo court."

    Footage had been added of the US dropping bombs on Vietnam. The historian's comment that the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan amounted to crimes against humanity had also been added.

    So much of the historian's original commentary had been cut that he complained that he had essentially been misquoted.

    The interview with the revisionist historian had been added. He was permitted a monologue (without having to answer questions) which included the claim that the tribunal was organized by the United States.

    The judgment of the tribunal had been cut and replaced with a post tribunal press conference and reports of overseas media reaction.

    All references to the organizers of the tribunal were gone, something that was not in accordance with normal NHK protocol.

While it might seem normal, commendable even, to show both sides of this controversial topic, Laurence said that NHK documentaries frequently showed one-sided documentaries (particularly when they dealt with survivors of the atomic bomb blasts). The insistence on inserting an opposing view was unusual for NHK.

NHK claimed that all of the changes were the result of normal editing. The organizers of the tribunal took NHK to court over the documentary, but the trial is still pending.

"That's where the story rests," Laurence said. Though he drew several conclusions about the treatment of controversial issues by the Japanese media.

It seems acceptable, he said, to discuss the suffering and to empathize. The women's testimonies were left in the documentary, and their suffering was acknowledged as real.

However, it seems that in Japan one has to invoke the "moral equivalency clause." In other words, it's fine to talk about the suffering of comfort women, but you have to show the suffering of Japanese at the hands of others as well. This was done in the documentary by discussing the atomic bomb blasts.

Finally, in Japan, he said, "It's okay to talk about suffering as long as you say you've suffered too, but you can't talk about responsibility."

This was not NHK's first effort at addressing the question of responsibility for the comfort women. In 1997, NHK produced a documentary about the comfort women, but the Ministry of Justice forbade the producers to make the assertions contained in the documentary, claiming there was no evidence to prove the Japanese government's involvement.

NHK's self-censorship challenges the idea of a truly independent public broadcasting entity, a question Laurence plans to address in his book. But though it would be easy to castigate NHK for its handling of the situation, Laurence suggests there was some courage in daring to make the film in the first place.

"The public broadcaster was the only broadcaster to touch this tribunal," he said.

Despite the fact that the tribunal made front-page news in all the major papers in Asia and in all the English-language papers in Japan, it wasn't covered by any of the commercial broadcasters in Japan, and it warranted only a short, deep-within-the-paper mention in Japan's most liberal newspaper.

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