- Associated Press - Monday, December 22, 2014

TOKYO (AP) - An independent panel said Monday there is no clear evidence that reports by the Asahi newspaper quoting fabricated witness accounts led to international criticism over Japan’s use of Asian women in wartime military brothels.

The Asahi appointed the seven-member committee of experts unrelated to the newspaper - Japan’s second-largest - to investigate the reports after they were widely criticized. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said they tarnished the country’s image.

The group examined the newspaper’s use of comments by a wartime labor official named Seiji Yoshida in a series of articles published in the 1980s and ‘90s. In his books and speeches, Yoshida said he “hunted” Korean women on a southern Korean island of Jeju in 1943, forcing them to become prostitutes at Japan’s military brothels.

Examination by experts in the early 1990s reached a broad consensus discrediting his accounts, and in August the Asahi retracted its articles based on Yoshida. The Asahi eventually issued an apology, but only after coming under harsh attack from the right-wing media.

The panel, appointed after this incident, concluded the articles weren’t directly responsible for establishing the general impression that Japan coerced women from Korea, China and elsewhere as “comfort women” to provide sex for Japanese soldiers before and during World War II.

A 1993 government investigation concluded many of the women were recruited against their will, and historians say ample wartime documents and witness accounts support that.

But Abe and other right-wing revisionists deny that the government or military coerced the women, and that most of them were prostitutes tagging along to make money. They say Yoshida’s account was the root cause of wrongful accusations of forced recruitment and sexual slavery that led to Japan’s landmark 1993 apology on the matter by then-chief Cabinet spokesman Yohei Kono.

Some lawmakers, including senior members of Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, have been seeking a new statement replacing the apology, known as the “Kono statement.”

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