The Rafu Shimpo: ‘Comfort Women’ Memorial Unveiled in San Francisco

Japan consul general objects, Osaka mayor threatens to end sister-city relationship.

SAN FRANCISCO — Two years after it was approved by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, a monument dedicated to the “comfort women” of World War II was unveiled in the city on Sept. 22.

The event was attended by local Asian American leaders, including some Japanese Americans. Meanwhile, Japanese officials reiterated their opposition, including the mayor of Osaka, who has threatened to end its 60-year-old sister-city relationship with San Francisco.

Located at St. Mary’s Square in Chinatown, the memorial sculpture consists of Korean, Chinese and Filipina girls on a pedestal with a halmoni (Korean for “grandma”), a former comfort woman, on the ground looking up at them. An inscription states that hundreds of thousands of mostly Asian women and girls were abducted before and during the war and forced to serve as sex slaves for the Japanese military.

The monument is one of eight in the U.S. and the first in a major city. A memorial was erected in Glendale in 2013 and has been the target of legal action by the Global Alliance for Historical Truth, which sought its removal. Members of GAHT also testified against the San Francisco memorial.

The San Francisco effort was led by retired judges Lillian Sing and Julie Tang, who have also been involved in the Rape of Nanking Coalition, which accused the Japanese government of trying to cover up war crimes.

Sing said of the monument, “It represents my soul. It represents the soul of all the womeh who have suffered so much. It represents the soul of our next generation and generations to come. Japan wants to tear down memorials; we want to build memorials. Japan wants to visit Yasukuni Shrine [in Tokyo], which is where the Class A war criminals are buried … We in San Francisco build memorials for peace. We in San Francisco honor the victims.”

Yong-soo Lee, a former comfort woman who testified before the Board of Supervisors in 2015, was the special guest. “Two years ago, I and these two judges … made a promise that they will build a memorial dedicated to comfort women in San Francisco and I promised them that I will be here to attend the unveiling ceremony,” she said through an interpreter.

“This is not just an issue for Korea, not just an issue for China … This is a universal human rights issue that affects everyone in the world,” Lee added. “… This history issue is not just an issue that happened in the past … This is about a sincere apology from the government of Japan and this is important. A sincere apology means an acknowledgement and it has to come with legal compensation.”

The Japanese government established a fund to compensate the women, but the survivors and their advocates objected, saying that it is a private fund and does not constitute reparations from the government.

Former Rep. Mike Honda (D-San Jose), who introduced a House resolution a decade ago in support of the comfort women, praised “the victims of sexual slavery of the 1930s up to the end of World War II [who]have decided not to keep their silence … [We] support that their voices be heard and we amplify them.”

Emphasizing that he was “not talking against the Japanese people,” Honda criticized Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party, “who consistently say what happened was a shame, then on the other hand they deny what happened.”

Although Abe’s “womenomics” policy has the goal of increasing the number of women business leaders in Japan, Honda said, “When he does not acknowledge the history, when he has not apologized or recognized the social responsibility of the Japanese government [and]the importance of making this information available in school textbooks … it rings hollow.”

Former Supervisor Eric Mar, who introduced the monument resolution, said, “My heart is so full of joy that Halmoni/Grandma Yong-Soo Lee is here today representing the several dozen surviving members … ‘Comfort women’ is a euphemism. Though we use the term, I always know that they are hundreds of thousands of girls and women that were forced into sexual slavery. I don’t want to focus on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors because what we did with paper and political work behind the scenes is less important than the living history that we have on the stage today.”

Dr. Jonathan Kim, a member of the organizing committee, said that the Korean, Chinese and Filipino American communities worked together to make the monument a reality. “Our intercultural reatinship is very special.”

The design was chosen from more than 30 submissions from all over the world, in a double-blind competition, meaning that the judges did not know the names or backgrounds of the artists.

Steven Whyte, a Carmel-based sculptor, recalled that when his design was selected, “we were warned early on that we might be up against some backlash. We got about 1,200 emails and calls and, should we say, encouragement to drop the project … I knew that the design we’d come up with … is something that can resonate this story with others. I hope after today’s big vent that you’ll find the time to come back and spend your own time with the piece. It’s such an honor to be part of the project.”

Judge Tang said of the survivors, “A lot of people are very impressed with the bravery and heroic acts of these grandmas, but they may not know that what these grandmas did was change the landscape of how the world looks at women and look at the realities of sexual trafficking and wartime strategy used in modern times. The U.N. passed a resolution to decry any kind of sex trafficking, and also using women during wartime for sex slavery is a human rights crime … So it is because of the grandmas that we have that law now in effect.”

When opponents of the Glendale monument filed a lawsuit, Tang noted, “The Japanese government entered as an official party under an amicus brief, alleging that the memorial must be taken down because it involves national interest … Japan lost in that case, but it doesn’t take away the threat that we feel, so we’re at all times vigilant and prepared.”

Sing added that more monuments are needed. “Japan will never silence us. Japan wants to wait until all the women are gone …. [But] we’re going to educate our descendants … and continue our mission to tell the truth.”

JA Leaders' Comments

In addition to Honda, Japanese American speakers included San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who said he was honored when Sing and Tang asked him to e part of the memorial committee.

“When I first came to San Francisco in 1978, it was the really Korean community that embraced myself and other activists,” he recalled. “We were involved in the case of a young man named Chol Soo Lee, who was wrongfully convicted of a crime here in Chinatown. The community really got behind him and it was through that experience that I really learned about the Korean community and really how much they have done and given to our country. And this memorial, I think, is such an important day for history and for justice because this is going to memorialize the suffering that so many endured during World War II at the hands of the imperialist Japanese.”

Speakers at a post-unveiling reception included Karen Korematsu, daughter of the late civil rights icon Fred Korematsu. “My father never gave up hope for almost 40 years that someday he could reopen his U.S. Supreme Court case,” she said. “Julie and Lillian epitomize my father’s commitment and dedication to standing up for what is right. They never gave up hope.

“San Francisco is an international sanctuary city. We are the gateway to Asia. We have the responsibility to make sure that the rest of the world understands the lessons of history so we don’t repeat them again. We need to continually bring out the atrocities of World War II even in the 21st century. And education is the key so that we don’t make the same mistakes again. Through the Fred T. Korematsu Institute, we have created curriculum kits that we have sent out to teachers across the nation and around the world … Also, what we’re going to be doing is adding a curriculum for the comfort women.”

Noting that the mission of the Korematsu Institute, which she founded, is “to advance racial equity, social justice and human rights for all,” she concluded, “As my father said, don’t be afraid to speak up.”

Other speakers included Professor Tomomi Kinukawa, a member of the Comfort Women Justice Coalition, and poet Peter Yamamoto.

Response from Japan

Osaka Mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura on Sept. 25 denounced San Francisco’s plan to integrate the plot of land containing the statue into a municipal park, calling it “Japan-bashing,” according to The Asahi Shimbun.

Yoshimura said that he and his predecessor, Toru Hashimoto, have already sent give letters to San Francisco protesting the statue.

The inscription that accompanies the statue “is against the standpoint of the Japanese government,” Yoshimura said. “It is Japan-bashing based on a one-sided view.”

To celebrate the 60th anniversary of the sister-city relationship, representatives of San Francisco are scheduled to visit Osaka this month. But the mayor said, “If San Francisco accepts [the statue]at the municipal government level, I can’t shake hands with them and smile.”

Jun Yamada, consul general of Japan in San Francisco, made the following statement in The San Francisco Chronicle on Sept. 21: “Japan takes the issue of ‘comfort women’ very seriously and recognizes its past by sincerely addressing the wounds and trauma of former comfort women. Accordingly, Japanese government administrations have expressed apologies and feelings of remorse to former comfort women on numerous occasions.

“The 2015 agreement between Japan and the Republic of Korea is being implemented, having been accepted by two-thirds of surviving former comfort women in the country. Japan will continue its efforts to faithfully pursue an ultimate and genuine reconciliation with the Republic of Korea, one of our most important neighbors, based on a multitude of diplomatic and grassroots efforts.

“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.

“This is unwarranted and hardly conducive to objective fact-finding and mutual agreement, let alone a final reconciliation. Rather, they are rapidly alienating the entire Japanese public, who could otherwise be sympathetic to the wartime plight of these women, by unduly exacerbating emotional antagonism.

“As it stands, particularly regarding the inscription that obstinately singles out the Japanese case, this new San Francisco memorial is surely destined to be yet another addition to the existing quagmire surrounding ‘controversial statues.’

“What we urgently need now is more unity and solidarity — among all Asian Americans domestically, and between Japan, the Republic of Korea and the United States on the global stage.”