On Friday, The Japan Times — the oldest English language newspaper in the that country — announced it has changed how it will describe women who were used as sex slaves and people who were forced into grueling labor in Japanese-owned companies before and during World War II.
The shift has triggered widespread criticism of the newspaper which has been accused of adopting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's conservative political agenda, spreading propaganda to reshape Japan's wartime history.
From now on, the paper will replace the term "forced labour" with "wartime labourers" to describe Koreans, Chinese, American POWs or anyone else who was conscripted into working in Japanese mines and factories from 1910 to 1945.
In an editor's note, the paper explained:
"The term 'forced labour' has been used to refer to labourers who were recruited before and during World War II to work for Japanese companies. However, because the conditions they worked under or how these workers were recruited varied, we will henceforth refer to them as 'wartime labourers.' "
The Japan Times used the same logic in explaining its revision of the definition of "comfort women." Where it previously defined them as "women who were forced to provide sex for Japanese troops before and during World War II," it will now use the following language: "Women who worked in wartime brothels, including those who did so against their will, to provide sex to Japanese soldiers."
According to the note, the purpose of the changes is to clarify terms "that could have been potentially misleading."
Mindy Kotler, director of Asia Policy Point, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, told NPR she was outraged by the shift and called it "a very frightening and troubling development."
"It is a classic [history] denier move. It feeds into a cancer around the world where people want to change historical narratives for a political and ideological goal that depends on making the past a prettier place," Kotler said.
The first step toward accomplishing that, she explained, is by introducing the idea that there are alternative narratives and "you start playing with language."
"But Japan's wartime past is not pretty and there's too much documentation and too many records that make the case," Kotler said.
The newspaper's decision to alter the framing of forced labor workers and the tens of thousands of girls, women and young boys who were forced into sex work, comes on the heels of a dispute last month between the mayor of Osaka, Japan, and its California sister-city, San Francisco.
As NPR's Sasha Ingber reported Osaka's mayor broke ties with the city over an San Francisco statue honoring comfort women, saying the inscription presents "uncertain and one-sided claims as historical facts." The mayor added that "the number of women who were enslaved and how they were treated during their time in captivity were embellished," Ingber reported.
Historians say as many as 200,000 women were forced or deceived into working in Japanese military brothels near the frontlines.
Japan's government waited decades to acknowledge its wartime atrocities, eventually taking the step in 1993. Then Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa conceded that the Imperial Army had forced captive Asian women to serve as sex slaves for soldiers between 1932 and 1945. He offered his "sincere apologies and remorse."
Japan Times readers were also incensed by the newspaper's announcement and expressed their dismay over Twitter.
A woman who goes by @Leznver wrote, "A signifier that @japantimes is bowing to Government pressure and as a news source is contaminated by bias pressure. No longer a trustworthy news source. Sorry."
"This is too much," Twitter user @HarryHaruhi wrote. "I have to cancel subscription after reading it every morning for nearly 20 years!"
Sung-Yoon Lee, a professor of Korean studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, told NPR The Japan Times' revised description of forced labor workers and comfort women omits "government involvement, or any implication of the government running the system."
"There is no government culpability" for what was "state-sponsored military slavery," Lee said, adding that that is the message Abe has been "obsessed" with promoting.