More than 2,000 sue Japan paper over 'comfort women' reports

TOKYO (AFP) - More than 2,000 people are suing the liberal Asahi newspaper to demand that it place international advertisements apologising for its coverage of wartime sex slavery, saying it has stained Japan's reputation, local media said Thursday.

The move is the latest salvo in the battle over Japan's history, which pits an increasingly aggressive revisionist right wing against an ever-more cowed mainstream that accepts the country's guilt over its World War II atrocities.

The group of plaintiffs, including Japanese nationals living in the United States, filed the class action with the Tokyo District Court on Wednesday, according to Japanese newspapers, including the Asahi.

They argued that Asahi reports on the so-called "comfort women" system have been instrumental in forging global opinion that the Japanese state and its military were involved in organising a formalised system of sex slavery.

They also claim that the paper's reports contributed to the drive to build statues of former "comfort women" in California and other US locations, which they say led to their mental distress.

The claim is demanding the Asahi pay 3 million yen (S$317,000) in compensation and place advertisements in major US and European newspaper apologising for the coverage.

Last month, some 8,700 people, including conservative lawmakers and professors, filed a similar lawsuit with the district court against the Asahi.

Despite a dearth of official records, mainstream historians say up to 200,000 women, many from Korea but also from China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Taiwan, served Japanese soldiers in military brothels called "comfort stations".

Most agree that these women were not willing participants and that the Imperial Japanese Army and wartime government were involved in their enslavement, tacitly or explicitly.

Right-wingers, however, say the women were common prostitutes engaged in a commercial exchange, and are fighting a vigorous rear-guard battle to alter the narrative.

The Asahi has become the focus of their ire because it published a series of articles in the 1980s based on the now-discredited testimony of a Japanese man who said he had rounded up Korean women to work in military brothels.

After years of pressure, the paper retracted the articles, and apologised. The company's president also resigned.

Conservatives leapt on the Asahi's climbdown, and nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who wants a more sympathetic telling of Japan's history, took the move as proof of a smear.

Mainstream Japanese opinion holds that the state was culpable for the system, and rejects the revisionist drive. Supporters of the position say the Asahi articles were not the only basis for their belief.

The Asahi said it would respond "in a proper manner" when it receives court documents.