Spat over WWII brothels shows Japan's trouble in facing past

A journalist close to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has defended her view that Korean women who were sent to Japanese wartime military brothels were not sex slaves, and accused a liberal-leaning newspaper of fabrication.

One of the newspaper's reporters said a day earlier that the journalist's comments triggered threats against him and had interfered with the settlement of the issue between Japan and South Korea.

Their public spat — a defamation suit by reporter Takashi Uemura against journalist Yoshiko Sakurai — highlights Japan's struggle to come to terms with its wartime atrocities more than 70 years after World War II.

The two represent the divide. The conservatives hold the Asahi newspaper, where Uemura used to work, responsible for spreading the impression that all so-called "comfort women" were coerced. Liberals say evidence, including court documents and accounts of the women, shows many people were forced into sexual slavery.

Sakurai told a news conference on Friday that she sympathizes with comfort women despite their being "prostitutes" but that "I still think the Asahi and Mr. Uemra should be held accountable" for hurting Japan's image. She said Japan can't have a unified view of its wartime history because of what she called media bias.

Sakurai spearheads the view of Japanese nationalists that comfort women were voluntary prostitutes, and that Japan has been unfairly criticized for a practice they say is common in any country at war. Sakurai, a former newscaster at Nippon Television, is close to the country's powerful conservative political lobby, which includes many lawmakers in Abe's Cabinet and ruling Liberal Democratic Party and backs Abe's campaign for an amendment of Japan's pacifist constitution.

Uemura, who currently teaches at a university in South Korea while heading a liberal Japanese magazine, says he is worried about a widening gap in the understanding of wartime history between the two countries. The comfort women and other wartime issues have often strained relations between Tokyo and Seoul, most recently after a South Korean court ruling on Japan's forced mobilization of Korean laborers during the war.

Uemura in 2015 filed a defamation suit against Sakurai and three publishers that carried articles by her that alleged his stories were "fabrication." A district court in Sapporo in northern Japan ruled last Friday that Sakurai's articles hurt Uemura's reputation but did not amount to defamation.

Uemura wants Sakurai and the magazines to publish an apology and pay 16.5 million yen ($146,000) in compensation. He said he will appeal to a high court. He has also filed other libel suits against a scholar and a publisher in Tokyo.

Historians say tens of thousands of women, including Japanese, Koreans and others from around Asia were sent to front-line military brothels to provide sex for Japanese soldiers. A 1991-1993 Japanese government investigation concluded many of the women were recruited against their will, leading to a landmark Japanese apology. The investigation found no written proof in official documents, and conservatives have cited that in arguing the women were not coerced.

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