The Comfort Women memorial at St. Mary's Square in San Francisco Phyllis Kim
The Comfort Women memorial at St. Mary's Square in San Francisco (Phyllis Kim)

'Comfort Women' Statue Strains 60-Year San Francisco-Osaka Alliance

'Comfort Women' Statue Strains 60-Year San Francisco-Osaka Alliance

This year, San Francisco and the Japanese city of Osaka celebrate 60 years of their sister city alliance. But a new statue in San Francisco has angered Osaka officials, and endangers the cities' long friendship.

Last Friday, a statue memorializing the "comfort women" of the Imperial Japanese Army was unveiled in San Francisco's Chinatown. The statue, called Column of Strength, features three girls standing on a pedestal, holding hands. They represent the hundreds of thousands of young women from China, Korea, the Philippines, and other countries that were forced into sex slavery by the Japanese military in the '30 and '40s. A fourth, much older woman stands before the column looking up at the girls, exemplifying the age at which the surviving comfort women finally began talking publicly about the horrors they experienced.

Calling the statue "Japan-bashing," Osaka mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura said this week that if San Francisco officials continue with plans to integrate the statue into a public park, he will push to end Osaka’s sister city relationship with San Francisco.

"If San Francisco were to accept the donation, it will mean the city has expressed its wish to accept it in a public space," Yoshimura told reporters at a press conference earlier this week. "It would be the same as the city erecting it. Therefore, I will terminate our sister city relations."

Many conservatives in Japan dispute the prevailing narrative of comfort women, and many others feel the continuing campaign to recognize these atrocities is divisive -- including Jun Yamada, the Consul General of Japan in San Francisco. In a public statement released the day the San Francisco memorial was unveiled, Yamada released a statement condemning the campaign:

The difficulty of this issue lies in the fact that there are wildly conflicting views, even today, as to what actually happened. Unfortunately, the aim of current comfort women memorial movements seems to perpetuate and fixate on certain one-sided interpretations, without presenting credible evidence, in the form of physical statues.

But activists like Lillian Sing and Julie Tang of the Comfort Women Justice Coalition don't see their work as being one-sided. They spent over two years raising money and pushing for the installation of the Column of Strength in San Francisco's St. Mary's Square. To them, the statue represents a truth that won't be denied.

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"The more Japan wants to tear down memorials, the more I want to put them up," Sing said.

Comfort Women — the Secret No One Wanted to Recognize

Documents show that in 1932, Japanese Gen. Okamura Yasuji ordered the army to establish comfort stations to alleviate the growing incidents of rape and sexually transmitted diseases amongst units fighting in China. Initially, the women were Japanese prostitutes and locals who were tricked into the work with promises of a factory job. But as the invasion of China and Korea ramped up, women were abducted and taken to stations by soldiers guided by the "Three Alls Policy": kill all, burn all, loot all. At the comfort stations, the women were raped dozens of times a day. If they did not submit, they were beaten and tortured.

'Column of Strength,' taken at the unveiling ceremony on Sept. 22, 2017
'Column of Strength,' taken at the unveiling ceremony on Sept. 22, 2017. (Phyllis Kim)

The exact number of stationed comfort women is unknown. The most commonly accepted estimate is around 200,000, but researchers at Shanghai Normal University updated the number in 2012 to between 360,000 and 410,000 women. They were mostly Korean and Chinese, but some were Filipina and Dutch. Their average age was 15 years old.

Stories of the comfort women and the horrors they faced didn't reach the rest of the world until the early '90s, when some Korean survivors began speaking out. But there were few survivors. Tang says that around 87 percent of comfort women died while in captivity, mostly from suicide.

"If I were a 15-year-old girl in captivity, being raped 30 to 40 times a day, I would die in a week," Tang said. "They were commodities; they were not human beings. They were provisions that the Japanese military required."

Those surviving and able to speak out about their experiences had to first overcome the shame that came from living as comfort women. Lee Yong-Soo, who was kidnapped at the age of 16 and forced into sexual slavery for two years, said she couldn't talk about it until others began speaking out.

"I thought I was worthless. I didn't talk about it, and nobody asked me," Lee told the Washington Post in 2015. "My right to be happy, to marry, to have a family, it was all taken from me."

For decades, Japan denied forcing women into sexual slavery. In 1991, Lee and other remaining comfort women demanded recognition and an apology from the Japanese government. Two years later, following a study confirming reports of coercion, Yōhei Kōno, Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary, released a statement acknowledging the study's findings, along with an official apology.

South Korean former "comfort women" Lee Yong-Soo (R) and Gil Won-Ok (C), who were forced into wartime sexual slavery for Japanese soldiers, shout slogans during an anti-Japanese rally commemorating the death of nine former sex slaves this year in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul on December 30, 2015. South Korean "comfort women" and supporters vowed to step up protests against a deal between Seoul and Tokyo on resolving a long-running row over the comfort women.
South Korean former "comfort women" Lee Yong-Soo (R) and Gil Won-Ok (C), who were forced into wartime sexual slavery for Japanese soldiers, shout slogans during an anti-Japanese rally commemorating the death of nine former sex slaves this year in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul on December 30, 2015. South Korean "comfort women" and supporters vowed to step up protests against a deal between Seoul and Tokyo on resolving a long-running row over the comfort women. (Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images)

In recent years, both a conservative backlash against the Kono Statement and empathetic attempts to memorialize the comfort women have gained momentum. In 2007, while serving his first term as Japan's Prime Minister, Shinzō Abe refuted the Kono Statement and continues to do so today. And though it was Abe who reached an agreement with South Korea to provide financial support to the 46 comfort women still living there, the Korean Government was made to remove a statue near the Japanese embassy in Seoul as part of the settlement.

"Japan and South Korea are now entering a new era," Abe said at the time. "We should not drag this problem into the next generation."

Now, the revisionist backlash has come the United States. In 2014, the pro-Japan Global Alliance for Historical Truth (GAHT) sued the southern California city of Glendale to stop the installation of a comfort women memorial. The legal battle went on for three years and finally ended when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

Tang later said that the Glendale suit was "to intimidate and chill the local grassroots efforts to build 'comfort women' peace memorials." But the opposition hasn't succeeded. Since 2010, eight comfort women memorials have been erected in the United States, in smaller cities like Southfield, Michigan; Union City, New Jersey; and Fairfax, Virginia. On Sept. 22, San Francisco became the first major city to host a comfort women memorial.

San Francisco Versus Osaka

The fourth woman in San Francisco's comfort women memorial, 'Column of Strength.'
The fourth woman in San Francisco's comfort women memorial, 'Column of Strength.' (Phyllis Kim)

Of its 18 sister city alliances, San Francisco's relationship with Osaka is its oldest. Established in 1957 under San Francisco Mayor George Christopher, the alliance not only allowed the fostering of commercial relationships but cultural ones as well, such as a long-running student ambassadorship. In 2007, San Francisco celebrated the 50th anniversary of the alliance by re-naming a block of Buchanan Street "Osaka Way."

The relationship began to fray in 2013, after Tōru Hashimoto, then mayor of Osaka, declared that "there is no evidence that people called comfort women were taken away by violence or threat by the [Japanese] military." After an international uproar, Hashimoto updated his statement to admit that there were comfort women, but that they were "necessary" so the soldiers could "rest" during the war.

In response, an unnamed San Francisco city official sent a message to Hashimoto asking him to cancel a scheduled visit to the city, stating, “The people of San Francisco do not, at present, welcome Hashimoto’s trip to the U.S.” Hashimoto abandoned his travel plans. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors followed up with a resolution condemning Hashimoto's statement a month later.

In 2015, San Francisco reignited the debate when it unanimously approved the installation of a comfort women memorial in the city's Chinatown area.

With each major step in the two-year process to design and build the memorial, the city endured pushback from Osaka officials and others. For example, when the Board of Supervisors approved sculptor Steven Whyte's design for the memorial back in January, Osaka Mayor Yoshimura sent a letter to San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee expressing concern "whether the [the statue] will negatively affect the exchange between our cities."

Whyte later told the San Francisco Chronicle that he's received over 1,000 emails demanding the project be aborted.

Steven Whyte's drawings for 'Column of Strength'
Steven Whyte's drawings for 'Column of Strength.' (via Facebook)

The Battle Continues

This week, when asked by reporters about plans to have San Francisco representatives visit Osaka in celebration of the 60th anniversary of the sister city alliance, Yoshimura responded, "If San Francisco accepts [the statue] at the municipal government level, then we cannot shake hands with them and smile.”

On Tuesday, the Osaka City Assembly considered a resolution ending the sister city alliance, but rejected it. For Sing and Tang, the rejection was not surprising.

Lillian Sing and Julie Tang celebrate the unveiling of the 'Column of Strength'
Lillian Sing and Julie Tang celebrate the unveiling of the 'Column of Strength' (via Facebook)

"The people of Osaka are our greatest supporters," Sing said. Tang says that over 25 organizations based in Osaka support their work.

For Sing and Tang, the San Francisco memorial is just the beginning. Both are former judges who retired from their jobs to dedicate their time to the Comfort Women Justice Coalition. They plan to push for more memorials honoring the comfort women, in the hopes that rape will stop being accepted as an inevitable result of war.

"I look forward to the day when there's a memorial to the comfort women in Tokyo, Japan," Sing said.

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