Seiji Yoshida's lies about "comfort women" exploited by Japan's right

Seiji Yoshida's fabrications about kidnapping Korean 'comfort women' have been an excuse to keep denying the darkest aspects of nation's past

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 October, 2014, 6:26am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 October, 2014, 6:26am

When Seiji Yoshida first bared his tortured soul about his actions in Korea during the second world war, he was acclaimed as a hero by the left wing at home, and by governments in parts of Asia that had felt the full force of imperial Japan's adventures in the early decades of the 20th century.

Here was a man who had overcome his loyalty to his nation and confessed to helping to kidnap more than 2,000 young women from across the Korean Peninsula to serve as sex slaves for the Japanese military.

Or so they thought. Originally from Yamaguchi prefecture, Yoshida had indeed served in the Japanese military during the war and was stationed in Korea, which was a Japanese colony at the time. But the rest of his story eventually began to unravel.

Though Yoshida died in 2000, his dodgy testimony is at the heart of a scandal that roils Japan to this day, with two universities last week reporting bomb threats against two staff who were involved in reporting the veteran's stories in the 1990s.

After his repatriation, Yoshida - whose real name was Yuto Yoshida - became involved in politics and was a member of Japan's Communist Party. In 1947, he ran as a communist in elections for the city council in Shimonoseki, but was unsuccessful. He earned a living as a writer and went largely unremarked until 1977, when he published a volume of his memoirs titled Korean Comfort Women and Japanese People.

Dealing with an issue that had previously been largely taboo in Japan - the abduction of young Korean women to serve as "comfort women" in military brothels - it attracted a great deal of attention, not least in South Korea.

Sensing he was on to a winning formula, Yoshida followed that book up with My War Crimes - The Forced Transport of Koreans in 1983, which was translated into Korean.

As well as attracting a great deal of media coverage, it led to speaking engagements for Yoshida and opportunities to return to Korea to express his remorse to former "comfort women". He bowed, he wiped away tears, he apologised.

In interviews recalling the abduction of women, he claimed: "The screaming was terrible, but that was my routine throughout 1943 and 1944."

"It was just like kidnapping," he told The New York Times in August 1992. "It may be the worst abuse of human rights in Asia in this century."

The second book ultimately proved to be his downfall, however, as Japanese historians pored over the details and identified discrepancies with his earlier memoirs. Even the South Korean media - which was supportive of efforts to wring an apology from Tokyo and former soldiers - sensed something was amiss with Yoshida's accounts.

In interviews with residents of Jeju Island, off the south coast of South Korea and where Yoshida had been stationed, they could find no-one who recalled a raid on a factory to abduct young women. The discrepancies began to stack up.

That Yoshida was able to keep the pretence going as long as he eventually did was remarkable, but in 1996 he finally admitted in an interview with the Japanese weekly Shukan Shincho that sections of his "memoirs" were in fact fictionalised accounts.

Justifying his actions, Yoshida told the magazine: "There is no profit in writing the truth in books. Hiding the facts and mixing your own assertions into the story is something that newspapers do, too," he added.

Unfortunately for all those who have campaigned to win redress for as many as 200,000 women across Asia forced into sexual servitude for Japanese troops, that admission has had dramatic consequences.

While the government of the day insisted it had not been influenced by the testimony of a single individual before drawing up an official apology to the "comfort women" in 1993, it is hard to believe Yoshida's testimony was not a factor.

Yoshida's testimony was also cited in the 1996 report on "comfort women" by Radhika Coomaraswamy, a Sri Lankan lawyer appointed as a UN special rapporteur on violence against women.

The left-leaning Asahi Shimbun had also been a fierce champion of Yoshida's memoirs, reporting them in regular stories, even after the Shukan Shincho interview had largely discredited them. It took until August of this year for the Asahi to announce that it accepted that Yoshida's testimony was a fabrication.

It retracted all the articles it had printed in the 1980s and 1990s quoting Yoshida, issued a grovelling apology and fired one of its most senior editors.

Other newspapers in Japan, notably the increasingly right-wing Yomiuri Shimbun and the tabloids, have not wasted the opportunity to lay into the only liberal daily with a nationwide circulation in Japan.

Politicians and the right have seized on the Asahi's retractions to claim that because Yoshida's testimony was false, none of the other evidence or testimonies can be trusted, and that therefore women were never forced into sexual servitude for the military.

They say the UN should withdraw its condemnation of Japan, that the US House of Representatives should similarly retract a 2007 statement on Japan's use of "comfort women", and that the Koreas and China should drop the issue.

Whatever his motivations, Yoshida is unlikely to have foreseen the consequences of his little white lies more than three decades ago.

"The man was a professional liar," said Yoichi Shimada, a professor of international relations at Fukui Prefectural University and an unabashed conservative.

"It is clear he lied about the forcible recruitment of the so-called comfort women and that testimony was then used by others as evidence to advance their agendas," Shimada said.

Shimada says Yoshida did not appear to be politically motivated in his tales, in spite of his allegiances to the Communist Party, but more probably simply enjoyed being in the spotlight.

"And there would have been a financial incentive to keep the lies going; he was invited to speak by various leftist groups and he got paid for his lectures, here in Japan and abroad," he added.

Shimada was more scathing of the newspaper that printed his testimony.

"Those who used him and his 'memoirs' should be condemned even more harshly. And I'm thinking of the Asahi Shimbun. They knew his testimony was fabricated and still they printed it as 'the truth'. That I find unforgivable," he said.

In comparison to the torrents of anger from the right in Japan, the left has been relatively - and understandably - quiet. And while liberals agree the paper's reputation hangs in the balance, they insist the attacks on the media mask something far more sinister.

"I think his books were something of a confession of his guilt for the war and everything that had gone on in Asia," said Makoto Watanabe, a lecturer in communications and media at Hokkaido Bunkyo University.

"There have been numerous cases of people who go through extreme experiences - even if they are only on the fringes - modifying and correcting their memories, good or bad."

He said he feared the saga might be used to clamp down on the media, including introducing a secrecy law.

"The Asahi was undoubtedly wrong in its reporting, but political forces are using Yoshida as a way of justifying their increasing control over the media," he said.