In the early 1980s, the well respected left-leaning national newspaper the Asahi Shimbun ran a series of articles based on accounts by author Seiji Yoshida of his involvement in wartime atrocities which brought the “comfort woman” issue into the mainstream consciousness for the first time. Unfortunately, however, Yoshida’s reputation was tarnished when it was revealed that much of his “autobiographical” writing had been heavily embellished or simply made up. The discrediting of Yoshida’s testimony handed an easy win to the resurgent right that allowed them to cast doubt on Japan’s history of wartime sex slavery.
In 1991, the truth became much harder to deny when former comfort woman Kim Hak-sun came forward to tell her story publicly. Asahi Shimbun journalist Takashi Uemura wrote an article based on a taped recording of her testimony shortly before her own press conference but soon found himself the prime target for nationalist trolls who harassed not only the Asahi Shimbun but Uemura himself along with members of his family. In 2014 more than 20 years since the article was published, they once again swarmed when it was revealed that Uemura had accepted a part-time teaching position at woman’s university which was later rescinded because of the continued “bashing” both he and the institution received which included several death threats.
Shinji Nishijima’s sometimes unfocussed documentary Target (標的, Hyoteki) is concerned less with the comfort woman issue itself than the scandal’s place in an ongoing culture war which has been quietly intensifying since the late 90s with the foundation of ultra-nationalist lobby group Nippon Kaigi in 1997 which is coincidentally the year that Kim Hak-sun passed away without seeing justice. Many other papers had run similar articles based on Kim’s taped testimony using the same terminology which reflects that used by Kim, yet only the Asahi Shimbun and Uemura himself were singled out as “traitors” to Japan and in the view of some more extreme commenters deserving of the death penalty. The article was branded a “fabrication” which is a serious accusation to make of a journalist at a major newspaper though in actuality the charges that are levelled at him concern only potential “inaccuracies” in his writing regarding use of terminology and the omission that Kim had trained as a kisaeng (the Korean equivalent of the geisha) which was revealed during her press conference but not included in the taped testimony while the journalist who later attacks Uemura relies on the same tired arguments insisting that there was no forced recruitment and the women at the comfort stations were established sex workers employed locally or trafficked by family members and middlemen.
The argument put forward by the documentary suggests that Uemura was a convenient target because his wife was Korean and his mother-in-law was the head of the Association for the Pacific War Victims though the true target was the Asahi Shimbun which had long been a bugbear for nationalists because of its liberal democratic outlook. Part way through the documentary, Uemura visits the grave of a journalist who was murdered after penning an expose of police mistreatment of the Korean community in Osaka who had begun resisting fingerprinting on the grounds that it was discriminatory. The implication is that this is a campaign to silence the press and one which has proved increasingly effective with outlets largely choosing to self censor unwilling to upset the government and lose their access by addressing topics that might be thought taboo such as Japan’s wartime past. Meanwhile under the Abe administration there was a concerted campaign to revise school history textbooks to erase the concept of comfort women altogether along with other mentions of wartime atrocity.
Suing the journalist who branded him a “fabricator” for defamation Uemura explains that his aim is not so much to vindicate himself and the story but challenge encroachments on free speech in an increasingly authoritarian society. Though the courts agree he has been “defamed” they find no “illegality” while upholding the conservative view that denies the existence of comfort women. As it later transpires the journalist who had attacked him in the press had previously written a similar article herself and had largely based her current views on those of a prominent conservative university professor without bothering to interview either Uemura or any of the surviving Korean comfort women in person ironically including several “inaccuracies” in her own writing owing to some fairly shoddy journalism and lack of familiarity with the source material. In any case, as someone puts it the most important thing is to record an accurate version of the truth so that nothing like this happens again while halting the erosion of democratic freedoms through creeping authoritarianism.
Target streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.
International trailer (English subtitles)