Wrong Choice of Words

Setsuko Kamiya 神谷説子

Reflecting on the events in Japan’s media in 2014, the most significant was undoubtedly the Asahi Shimbun’s retraction of past erroneous reports on the Yoshida Testimony as well as on the so-called comfort women issue. Facing a backlash from conservative forces, in August the liberal newspaper retracted some of its articles from the 1990s on the contentious history of women who worked in wartime brothels for Japanese soldiers. But the most recent apology related to this controversy came from none other than the Yomiuri Shimbun, the leader of the anti-Asahi campaign. But its apology received more attention from the foreign press than its domestic counterparts.

In late November, the Yomiuri, which has the largest circulation in Japan, stated that the paper’s English version, the Daily Yomiuri, had used “‘sex slaves’ and other ‘inappropriate expressions’” in a total of 97 articles on the comfort women issue that ran through 1992 to 2013. The Yomiuri also apologized that some articles in its English version, now called the Japan News, “defined comfort women to have been ‘forced into prostitution by the military’ as if coercion by the Japanese government or the army was an objective fact.” The Yomiuri made it clear that such expressions never appeared in the original Japanese articles. This happened in the English version, the paper explained, because the term “comfort women” was difficult to understand for non-Japanese readers without any knowledge of the subject, and the misleading wordings were applied based on “inaccurate perception and using foreign news agencies’ reports as reference.” A list of headlines of the articles in question was attached, and the Yomiuri said each article was now accompanied by a note stating that they contain inappropriate expressions.

The apology by the newspaper, which appeared in both language editions, received relatively little attention by other Japanese newspapers. They simply provided the facts and quoted a Yomiuri spokesman who said this will never happen again. But the foreign media, who often refer to the comfort women as a Japanese euphemism for sex slaves, observed this as an issue of much greater gravity. They claimed that the move by the broadsheet was a challenge against the views held by many historians and the South Korean and Chinese governments, where many of the women came from. For example, the New York Times said that this was part of the Yomiuri’s “campaigns to correct what it sees as unduly negative portrayals of Japan’s wartime behavior.” Such observations were echoed by others including the Economist which wrote that for the Yomiuri, “the apology is a way of protecting the newspaper from counter-attack, while thumbing its nose at its ideological opponents.”

Amid the general decline in readership of newspapers, the Yomiuri is the only Japanese paper that can still afford to print its English version daily. I worked for its competitor the Japan Times, an independent paper with no Japanese edition. Thus I have no idea how it works between Japanese and English versions of a paper, but I do know how important and challenging it is to choose the right words to translate Japanese terms into English that accurately convey the original meaning. The nature of the apology was definitely in line with the Yomiuri’s long-held stance towards the issue, but the fact that they overlooked the inconsistency over the terminology of something so important for them for two decades was quite astonishing. This is actually embarrassing for the Yomiuri as it revealed the paper’s ignorant attitude towards English publishing and its international audience. And with the Yomiuri’s in-house investigation taking place after the Asahi’s apology, this indeed also indicates that the conservatives are geared towards strengthening their attacks.

Among the foreign press, the British public broadcaster BBC said the Yomiuri’s revision was “definitely another victory for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his right-wing nationalist supporters” who have long sought to revise the country’s view of World War II history. It pointed to the fact that earlier this year, public broadcaster NHK, whose leaders include those appointed by the Abe administration, had issued new guidelines for its English language news channel to terminate the use of “sex slaves” when referring to the comfort women. Could this even escalate with Abe’s victory in the latest general election?