By Mari Saito and Ami Miyazaki
TOKYO (Reuters) - Early in December, dozens of journalists and editors from the Japan Times gathered for an emergency meeting in a glass-walled conference room in their brand-new 14th floor office.
On the agenda was a single, incendiary issue: the newspaper's new descriptions of how Japan compelled thousands of foreigners into military brothels and labor during World War Two.
In the past, the Japan Times described Korean workers as "forced laborers" and comfort women as those "forced to provide sex for Japanese troops before and during World War II."
But the five-sentence note published on Nov. 30 said the country's oldest English-language paper would refer to Korean workers simply as "wartime laborers."
The paper also said that because of the varied experiences of comfort women, it would describe them as "women who worked in wartime brothels, including those who did so against their will."
Such terms are social flashpoints in Japan and a topic of bitter dispute with South Korea, whose government argues comfort women were clear victims of wartime abuse.
The changes come amid simmering tensions; South Korea's Supreme Court ruled in October that Japanese companies must compensate South Koreans forced to work during the war.
The executive editor of the Japan Times, Hiroyasu Mizuno, told staff in the December meeting that he had two goals: to avoid creating the perception the paper was "anti-Japanese," and to increase advertising revenue from Japanese companies and institutions.
Some readers said the change glossed over Japan's wartime actions.
Prominent Japanese conservatives, meanwhile, applauded the move, calling it a coup for nationalist activists agitating for English-language news outlets to change such descriptions.
In an email, Mizuno told Reuters he and senior editorial managers decided to revise the paper's descriptions to "better reflect a more objective view of topics that are both contentious and difficult to summarize."
He said the Nov. 30 note did not signal a change in the paper's editorial direction, adding: "I categorically deny any accusations that The Japan Times has bowed to external pressure."
The Japan Times has an outsized impact on how the country is perceived abroad - it is distributed in Japan with The New York Times - and is seen domestically as an unofficial style guide for other English-language outlets.
A New York Times representative said that the editorial operations of the two organizations were separate, and that the paper used precise language on the topic and would continue to do so.
Reuters interviews with nearly a dozen Japan Times employees - all of whom requested anonymity out of fear of reprisal - along with hundreds of pages of internal emails and presentation materials, show the editorial changes started taking shape when the paper changed hands in June 2017.
Some media critics say self-censorship is a problem in Japanese newsrooms, fed by fear of losing access, advertising revenue and subscribers.
In the past, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his top aide, Yoshihide Suga, have singled out the liberal Asahi Shimbun for criticism, including over its articles on comfort women and the Fukushima disaster, some of which it later retracted, citing errors.
Suga told Reuters the government would not comment on media companies' editorial policies, including those of the Japan Times.
Conservative groups in Japan have pushed hard to change how Japan's World War Two activities are described.
For instance, an Australian-Japanese organization that protests comfort women statues, saying the monuments feed anti-Japanese sentiment, along with Kent Gilbert, a well-known conservative commentator and lawyer who has worked in Japan for decades, petitioned Asahi Shimbun last year to remove "forced" from its description of comfort women.
The paper did not amend its wording, saying in a public statement that it took care "to use the most appropriate phrasing" for stories.
Similar pressure led the conservative Yomiuri Shimbun to apologize to readers in 2014 for using "sex slaves" to refer to comfort women in its English-language edition.
"The Yomiuri Shimbun apologizes for having used these misleading expressions," the paper's English site said in a statement at the time.
The chilling effect in newsrooms often comes from within the organization, experts say.
"It's less a result of direct government pressure and more from people inside newsrooms looking to their superiors and the public," said Minako Beppu, a journalism professor at Hosei University who studies media censorship. "It's things like, 'Let's not criticize them too much,' or 'Let's tone things down a bit.'"
At the Dec. 3 staff meeting, Mizuno said the changes were not political.
"I want to get rid of criticism that Japan Times is anti-Japanese," he said, according to a transcript and audio recording.
He added that the decision would attract advertising. A senior manager in charge of sponsored content then said the paper had already increased government ad sales and scored an exclusive interview with Abe after dropping a column by Jeff Kingston, director of Asia studies at Temple University Japan, who had been writing weekly on what he saw as the Abe administration's historical revisionism.
"From a journalistic standpoint, that's fatal, really," a senior Japan Times reporter responded, according to the transcript.
On Friday, South Korea's foreign ministry said in a statement: "We regret that some Japanese media organizations have adopted terms that distort the historical facts regarding the victims of comfort women for the Japanese military, and forced labor, which is merely an attempt to sidestep the essence of the problems."
In December, Reuters received a letter from a Japanese government official objecting to the term "sex slave" in a Nov. 22 article about South Korean comfort women.
Reuters removed the term because the wording breached the agency's stylebook guidance on "comfort women."(http://handbook.reuters.com/index.php?title=C#.22comfort_women.22)
Founded in 1897, the Japan Times has a circulation of just 45,000.
After years of losses and the death of its previous owner, the paper - published under the banner "All the news without fear or favor" - was sold in 2017 to News2u, a PR company.
It's not unusual in Japan for new management to shift a paper's editorial stance, and readers may miss subtle changes.
But a few months after the sale, some longtime contributors, including Kingston, were told their regular columns were being cut.
"I got an email out of the blue saying, 'We're terminating your column,'" Kingston said.
Mizuno said the paper was open to future submissions from Kingston, but did not say why the column was canceled.
"We have retained commentary writers and columnists that are, when appropriate, critical of the Japanese government," he said in an email.
Several reporters also said they felt more editorial pressure.
In August 2017, when a local newspaper reported that Tokyo's governor would snub an annual memorial for Koreans killed by mobs after an earthquake in 1923, reporters rushed to cover the news. But the reporters said they were particularly shocked when, in an email seen by Reuters, Mizuno told staff, "I think there is absolutely no value for us to report on this."
A SWIFT CHANGE
A few months after the paper's exclusive sit-down with Abe in February, Mizuno tried to revise the paper's style on comfort women and other sensitive topics, presenting editors with more than 100 meticulously annotated articles and columns.
In the notes, seen by Reuters, Mizuno objected to calling comfort women "victims" or mentioning that they included girls; questioned referring to Japan's occupation of Korea as "brutal"; and criticized the paper's reporting and stories by wire services, including Reuters, as generally "pro-Korea" and not adequately reflecting Japan's view.
"We're not historians or arbiters of history, nor are we judges," he wrote.
Ultimately, he failed to persuade others, and the matter was put on hold.
But the South Korean court ruling in October led to a swift denunciation from the Japanese government and a flurry of coverage.
Mizuno turned to senior managers and the board of directors to make broader changes, according to Japan Times employees.
Around the same time, the ultra-conservative think tank Japan Institute for National Fundamentals called on English-language media and specifically the Japan Times to refer to plaintiffs in the Seoul case as "wartime Korean workers," leaving out references to coercion.
Two weeks later, the editor's note appeared in the Japan Times.
($1 = 108.10 yen)
(Reporting by Mari Saito and Ami Miyazaki; Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin in Seoul; Editing by Gerry Doyle)