The Imperial Japanese army’s system of sexual slavery during World War Two was not wrong judged by the standards of the time. At least not according to the new chairman of NHK, Japan’s giant public broadcaster. Katsuto Momii, recently appointed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, set off a firestorm last week with remarks dismissing the forcible rape of twenty thousand Asian “comfort women” as morally no worse than the red light district in modern Amsterdam. He described demands to compensate surviving victims as “puzzling.” Momii then announced his belief that NHK’s foreign news coverage should support government policy on controversial issues such as the Senkaku/Diaoyu island dispute with China.
These comments prompted fierce criticism across East Asia (as did later remarks by NHK governor Naoki Hyakuta denying the Nanking Massacre). Momii’s statements also led to some harsh questioning in the Japanese Diet. Yet Abe and his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) are standing by their appointee. The episode reveals a deep-seated misogyny within Japan’s ruling elites which casts serious doubt on Abe’s professed commitment to improve the status of women, a key part of the as-yet-undelivered structural reforms essential for the success of Abenomics. Equally troubling, Japan’s most prominent news organization is now headed by someone who, rather than fighting for editorial independence, is openly sympathetic to political influence. If Momii does let NHK’s foreign reporting be guided by the hawkish prime minister, the consequences could be terrible for peaceful relations across East Asia.
Momii’s comments reveal profound indifference to the problem of sexual violence against women. It bears repeating that there is no doubt among reputable historians that the “comfort woman” system involved coercion, rape, and often lethal violence. Revisionists argue that the women entered the arrangement voluntarily, hence Momii’s equation of the system with prostitution. Even granting the use of “voluntarily” to describe actions made by desperate teenaged girls living in societies which treated them as virtual chattels, there is ample evidence that many were forced or tricked into service. Some women did volunteer, but many others were beaten or killed resisting. Few would grant moral equivalence between the sexual slavery of the Imperial Army and the consensual commercial sex of today’s Amsterdam. In any case, the undoubted fact that women were (and are) mistreated in other countries does nothing to excuse Japan. The comfort women system was wrong even by the standards of the time, and the meticulous destruction of records ordered by Japanese officers at the end of the war suggests they knew that all too well.
Momii soon retracted his comments about the comfort women. His apology made clear, however, that he was not sorry for the content of his remarks, just that they had been made at an official press conference. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) stood by their man, with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshide Suga announcing that since the remarks had been intended as a personal opinion rather than an official statement “It’s not a problem.” Abe, questioned in the Diet, refused to comment.
Japan’s conservative politicians have a long history of interfering with the press, but this latest episode could signal a dangerous new turn. NHK has hitherto been one of the Japan’s most trusted institutions. The national broadcaster is publicly funded by annual fees of about $140 levied on all television owners, and has a well-deserved reputation for the thoroughness of its national news coverage. It is the go-to source for information during crises such as the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear “triple disaster” of March 2011. As such, its editorial tone is of the utmost importance to the quality of Japan’s democratic discourse. NHK is legally required to be non-partisan, but insiders know that political interference and threats to funding result in a great deal of self-censorship. NHK journalists are as good as any, but their freedom depends on their bosses. Sometimes senior management stands up to political pressure, but often reporters who embarrass the powerful find themselves sanctioned or marginalized. A quiescent chairman and an interventionist prime minister is a terrible combination for editorial autonomy.
Momii, who has no previous experience in broadcasting, was appointed by the LDP late last year alongside a slate of new NHK governors, nearly all of whom have close ties to Abe or his hawkish allies. Abe himself has a well-deserved reputation for strong-arming the news media, and was the central player in the notorious muzzling of a NHK documentary about the comfort women that took place a few years ago. The documentary in question concerned efforts by women’s rights groups in Japan to highlight the government’s failure adequately to compensate surviving comfort women. Abe, already a very senior government official, paid a personal visit to NHK shortly before airtime to insist that the documentary be “fair and neutral.” NHK management immediately called the producers to demand drastic editorial changes to the already completed program. Last-minute revisions included the removal of all criticism of LDP policy and Emperor Hirohito. Also cut were dramatic confessions by two Japanese veterans admitting rape. Criticisms of the women’s movement were hurriedly inserted, including an interview with a discredited revisionist historian. Even the program title was whitewashed, from “Japanese Military’s Wartime Sexual Violence” to “Questioning Wartime Sexual Violence.” Far from being “fair and neutral” the final program was a lop-sided swipe at the redress movement and a complete exoneration of the LDP. In 2007, the Tokyo High Court cleared Abe of directly ordering revisions but found NHK guilty of “overreacting” by making changes in response to his visit. The Court noted “No public broadcaster can fulfill its mission if it is incapable of standing up to politicians.”
The danger now is that Abe’s administration is engaged in a worsening war of words with China over a host of issues and public opinion in both countries is hardening. If, as Momii thinks appropriate, NHK foreign news coverage gives unconditional support to government policies, that will do nothing to soften growing Japanese hostility towards China. Moreover, NHK’s news and current affairs programs are an unrivalled platform for politicians of all stripes, its quasi-official position as the national broadcaster adding to the international visibility of whatever is said on its programs. Momii’s announcement of editorial intent will surely embolden hardliners in the LDP and outspoken fringe groups such as the Japan Restoration Party to stake out extreme positions during interviews where they may now expect a sympathetic hearing and a wide audience. The existing cycle of provocation and counter-provocation between Japanese and Chinese extremists could get worse. Already the war of words between the two countries has spilled on occasion into concrete gestures and military brinksmanship. Each provocation makes over-reaction more likely as politicians play to increasingly jingoistic audiences. The last thing Asia needs is an echo chamber for Japanese nationalism, but that’s where NHK may be heading under Katsuto Momii. The consequences could be disastrous.
Henry Laurence is the author of numerous articles and books about Japanese and British politics. He has just completed Visions of the Common Good: a Political History of Public Broadcasting in Britain, Japan and the U.S. (Book manuscript currently under review at Cambridge University Press). He was a research associate at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University from 2007-2008 and a visiting research associate at the University of Tokyo 2000-2001.