SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - One of Japan's largest media companies asked a federal judge on Thursday to dismiss claims that it defamed former World War II comfort women by labeling them "voluntary prostitutes."
Hee Nam You and Kyng Soon Kim, two elderly Korean women who say they were kidnapped and made to serve as "comfort women" during the war, sued 19 defendants including the Japanese government and its prime minister in July.
Although publisher Sankei Shimbum is not listed as a "wartime defendant" in the suit, it still faces claims of conspiracy and aiding and abetting crimes against humanity, in addition to allegations that it defamed and intentionally inflicted emotional distress on the plaintiffs.
In its motion to dismiss, Sankei argued that two editorials and one article cited in the plaintiffs' first amended complaint do not refer to any individual plaintiffs, making the burden to show an actionable claim of defamation very difficult.
"The editorials and articles cannot fairly or reasonably be read as saying that any specific 'comfort woman' was a willing prostitute, much less that all 'comfort women' were willing," Sankei argued in its motion.
During Thursday's hearing, U.S. District Judge William Alsup said he was inclined to rule in favor of Sankei's argument on jurisdiction and asked both parties to focus their arguments on that issue.
Sankei attorney Stacie Kinser said the plaintiffs cannot establish jurisdiction because the publishing company has no significant presence in the United States.
Class attorney Hume Joseph Jung pointed to a 1996 Ninth Circuit case, Gordy v. Daily News, in which jurisdiction was based partly on the fact that the Daily News circulated 13 copies of its daily edition and 18 copies of its Sunday edition to subscribers in California.
The fact that Sankei circulates its papers in the U.S. through third parties, earns revenue by selling stories to U.S.-based Japanese community papers and operates three news bureaus with six employees in the U.S. satisfies the requirements for jurisdiction, Jung argued.
"The licensing to reprint articles in the U.S., the revenue is negligible, and there are no allegations that these three [allegedly defamatory] articles were reprinted in the U.S.," Kinser replied.
Sankei's attorney said a major reason jurisdiction was established in the Daily News case was because the defamatory articles were written about the plaintiff, a California resident, and in this case, the plaintiffs reside in Korea.
"Since 1991, eight lawsuits were filed by comfort women in Japanese courts and all failed," Jung said. "There is no alternative court for my clients to have fair treatment for their trial. America is the only option that they have."
Kinser responded that the lack of an alternative forum makes up only one of several factors that must be considered to establish jurisdiction.
The Sankei attorney also argued the plaintiffs failed to properly serve the company notice of the lawsuit.
An assistant manager working in Sankei's Washington news bureau was served with the complaint on July 28, but Kinser said only an employee with a full managerial role can be properly served with the lawsuit.
"It needs to be a managing agent," she said. "He's an assistant manager."
Alsup asked Kinser if any Sankei representative in the U.S. could be served with the lawsuit, but the attorney had no answer.
The judge was incredulous at the notion that Sankei could do business in the United States and "take advantage of our economy" without having someone in a position to be served with a lawsuit.
"So you get to send six people over here and exploit the economy of the U.S., and they're immune from process," Alsup said. "That doesn't sound right to me."
After about 20 minutes of debate, Alsup ended the hearing and indicated the plaintiffs face a tough challenge in establishing personal jurisdiction to sue the publishing company.
Earlier this month, Alsup granted the U.S.-based subsidiary of Mitsui's motion to dismiss the plaintiffs' class action complaint against it.
Other corporate defendants include Nissan, Toyota, Mitsubishi Group, Nippon Yusen Kabushiki Kaisha and their American subsidiaries.
The lawsuit also lays blame on the Japanese government; its prime minister Shizno Abe; the former Japanese empire's minister of munitions, Nobuke Kishi; former Japanese Emperor Hirohito; and Hirohito's heir, Akihito.
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