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Sunday, April 7, 2002


Did NHK balk at covering war tribunal?

It was indicated last week that the International Criminal Court, a permanent judicial body with the power to try individuals and groups accused of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity, will soon be formally established. So far, 56 nations have ratified the Rome Statute of 1998, which states that 60 countries are needed to make the court a reality. Cambodia, Ireland, Jordan and Romania have expressed their intention to ratify by July.

The United States and Japan haven't. The U.S., which considers itself the world's police force, sees the ICC as a potential political tool of countries and organizations that don't appreciate what America is doing in the world militarily.

Japan's reasons for not participating are murkier, and, ostensibly, have to do with the fact that there are no domestic laws in place to address the kind of issues the court would handle. Basically, the Japanese government is still nervous about the past, since much of the world believes that Japan has yet to own up to crimes it committed in World War II.

Right-wing groups and conservative politicians are usually the ones who deny these past wrongs, but the media itself has never been keen on discussing the darker aspects of Japan's imperialist past, though it thoroughly enjoys presenting the drama of former sex slaves weeping on camera and war orphans being tearfully reunited with relatives after decades of separation.

It is this paradox that is being challenged by a current lawsuit, brought by the Japanese nongovernmental organization Women Against Violence in War Network (VAWW), against the nation's public broadcaster, NHK, and two production organizations. In December 2000, VAWW-Net co-sponsored the Women's International War Crimes Tribunal in Tokyo. Several months beforehand, NHK negotiated with the group to cover the proceedings.

The purpose of the tribunal (which had no legal authority) was to gather testimony from victims, and then, based on international laws that were in place during WWII, to "try" groups and individuals for rape or sexual slavery, i.e., forcing women to sexually service Japanese soldiers. Not all of the accused were convicted, but the late Emperor Showa was, because, as the leader of the country, he was ultimately responsible for the sex-slave policy.

NHK broadcast its footage on Jan. 30, 2001, as part of a four-part series called "How is War to be Judged?" VAWW-Net was very disappointed with the program and later filed suit against NHK, NHK Enterprise and Document Japan for breach of trust.

The main complaint was that the program did not cover the tribunal as a tribunal, but only as a group of women discussing the matter of sexual violence in war. NHK did not specifically mention that Japan's "comfort women" policy was on trial. Consequently, the verdicts weren't mentioned, either. In a letter answering VAWW-Net's complaints, NHK claimed that these matters had no bearing on the original "aim of the program," part of which was to "search for a path toward reconciliation between Japan and its Asian neighbors."

VAWW-Net says that the finished program completely misrepresented the purposes and the meaning of the tribunal and believes that NHK was somehow convinced to change its original production plan by outside forces.

In any case, the tribunal, though covered extensively by foreign media, was effectively ignored by Japan's vernacular press -- only Asahi Shimbun and Kyodo News produced stories -- and commercial TV. And regardless of whether or not NHK was pressured by outside forces (the broadcaster denies it, though one rightwing group has boasted on its Web site that it persuaded NHK to change its mind), the program seemed to purposely downplay the significance of the tribunal. Near the beginning, the announcer stresses that this is a "citizens court"; that the defendants, as well as some of the plaintiffs, are dead or absent; and that the testimony cannot be verified.

All true -- and completely beside the point. In addition, a historian is allowed to present his opinion that the so-called "comfort women" were professional prostitutes. NHK does not question anything he says and does not allow anyone from VAWW-Net to respond directly to his comments. The two experts who offer commentary in the studio mostly approach the issue as an academic exercise, a text to be deconstructed.

But the main point lost on the program was why the tribunal was necessary at all. The allies did not bring up sex slaves at the Tokyo Tribunal of 1946-48, supposedly because they considered the matter a crime against Japanese civilians (many of the sex slaves were from Korea and Taiwan, Japanese colonies at the time), which would have brought up the matter of the U.S. military's own killing of Japanese civilians.

The sex-slave issue was buried for more than 40 years. The purpose of the 2000 tribunal was to finally give the victims their day in court and to clarify the accountability of the men who made them suffer. This is exactly what Japan wants to avoid -- and why it doesn't plan to ratify the ICC.

Another purpose of the Women's International War Crimes Tribunal was to make sure that the story itself is never forgotten. The findings and the verdicts may not be legally binding, but they have validity in a world where soldiers still use rape as a weapon. Whenever the Japanese media cover the sex slaves of the Pacific War, the issue is always presented in a context that says all countries have committed sexual violence during wartime. This is a cynical strategy, a "balanced" presentation that is meant to neutralize any one country's responsibility -- as if rape could ever be a neutral topic.

For more information, see the Women Against Violence in War Network Web site at www.hri.ca/partners/vawwnet

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