TOKYO — Japan’s biggest newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun, has apologized to its readers for using the term “sex slaves” and “other inappropriate expressions” to describe the women forced to work in Japanese military brothels during World War II.
The conservative paper instead used the more euphemistic term “comfort women” in its apology.
The move — which one analyst described as “astonishing” — comes amid a broader movement in Japan, led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, to reassess Japan’s wartime history and cast it in a better light. It is certain to inflame already-rocky relations with South Korea and China, where most of the women came from.
In an editorial published in the Yomiuri newspaper and on its English-language Web site, the Japan News, on Friday, the paper said it had conducted a review of its coverage and found it had used terms like “sex slaves” in 85 stories published in English between February 1992 and January 2013. This was because it was difficult for non-Japanese people to understand the term “comfort women,” it said.
There were also 12 articles that did not use “sex slave” or its equivalents, the editorial continued, but “defined comfort women in such terms as ‘forced into prostitution by the military,’ as if coercion by the Japanese government or the army was an objective fact.”
“The Japan News apologizes for having used these misleading expressions and will add a note stating that they were inappropriate to all the articles in question in our database,” it said.
The issue of “comfort women” is extremely sensitive among Japan’s neighbors, especially South Korea, which contends that its former imperial master has not properly atoned for its wartime actions.
Figures are disputed and difficult to verify, but the consensus among historians is that as many as 200,000 women from Korea, China, the Philippines and other Asian nations were forcibly recruited by Japanese occupation troops during the war.
After a Japanese government investigation concluded that the women were coerced to sexually serve the soldiers and “lived in misery at comfort stations,” Tokyo in 1993 issued a formal apology to women who were “recruited against their will.” Some of the most conservative factions in the ruling party want that apology revised or overturned, but Abe has said he will let it stand.
The Yomiuri did not give a reason in its editorial for conducting the review, but a spokesman said it was triggered by a huge retraction by the Asahi Shimbun, the left-leaning newspaper, which in August retracted decades-old stories quoting a Japanese man who said he had kidnapped 200 Korean women and forced them to work in military brothels.
“The Yomiuri Shimbun thinks the point of the issue is whether or not there were ‘comfort women who were carted off by the military during the war,’ ” the newspaper spokesman said. “We have been criticizing Asahi’s reports that spread this inaccurate view in and out of Japan that ‘the military coerced women’ and setting those inaccurate reports right.”
Part of that involved clarifying Yomiuri’s own terminology, said the spokesman, who asked that his name not be used, as is the convention in Japan.
The Asahi’s retraction has been used by many nationalist-minded conservatives to suggest that the entire history of the sex slaves was made up and that the women were not coerced but were simply prostitutes.
“This is part of a larger story,” said Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Sophia University in Tokyo. “The government is trying, with some success inside Japan, to create an impression that the comfort women issue is an Asahi fabrication.”
Abe, the nationalist prime minister who says he wants to make Japan a “normal” country, and his close aide, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, leapt on the Asahi retraction when it was made in August.
Abe said that the reporting by the Asahi had caused the “suffering of many people and discredited Japan’s standing in the international community,” while Suga said he hoped that the retraction would result in “a correct recognition of history.”
In its manifesto for next month’s lower house elections, Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party states that it will restore Japan’s “honor,” which has been sullied by unjustified accusations, although it does not specifically mention comfort women.
A spokesman for Abe declined to comment.
Yuki Oda contributed to this report.