San Francisco Japanese-Americans ask why city needs a ‘comfort women’ memorial



San Francisco lawmakers voted in September to set up a “comfort women” memorial, becoming the first major U.S. city to plan such a tribute to the women and girls forced to provide sex for soldiers of the Imperial Japanese military.

While the decision by the city’s Board of Supervisors was unanimous, it has baffled Japanese residents and Japanese-Americans. They ask why the West Coast city needs a monument addressing an issue that is a point of controversy between Japan and its neighbors.

If it goes ahead with the plan, the city will join a handful of smaller U.S. municipalities that already have comfort women monuments, including Glendale, a suburb of Los Angeles, which built a statue in 2013.

“I think Glendale’s is actually a good type of design, but I know that San Francisco has lots of artists and communities that would give input as we move the process forward,” Eric Mar, the board member who introduced the motion to set up the memorial, told a reporter visiting his office at City Hall.

Glendale set up a bronze statue of a young Asian woman sitting on a bench with a bird on her shoulder.

It symbolizes the suffering of women and girls, mainly Korean and Chinese, who were forced to work at Japanese military brothels during the war. Some Japanese deny they were forcibly recruited.

Glendale’s memorial sparked a backlash from some quarters of the local Japanese-American community and prompted a lawsuit calling for its removal. That legal battle is still pending.

Mar said he hopes the San Francisco monument’s design will symbolize a range of issues together, including encouraging education about the trafficking of women, and will thereby solidify support from residents.

Seiko Fujimoto, who has lived in the city’s Japantown since moving to the United States more than 40 years ago, is one of those opposed to the statue.

“I don’t understand why they have to destroy the relationship of coexistence among Japanese, Chinese and Korean ethnic groups,” Fujimoto said.

The number of Japanese-Americans living in the city has been dwindling.

Many shops in Japantown are run by Korean-Americans, one longtime resident said. The neighborhood is no longer vibrant like the city’s Chinatown, which is within walking distance.

The British Columbia city of Burnaby, adjacent to Vancouver, earlier this year announced plans to erect a memorial to comfort women — but reversed track when the issue proved divisive.

A group of Koreans visited Burnaby, a sister city of Hwaseong, South Korea, and proposed setting up a statue alongside the Korean War Memorial in the city’s Central Park.

Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan did not decline the Korean proposal, which came with a donation of 50,000 Canadian dollars, according to Gordon Kadota, an influential Japanese-Canadian in the community.

The mayor, however, seemed unaware of the East Asian sensitivity of the comfort women issue, telling the local Japanese community paper, the Vancouver Shimpo, that he had not anticipated serious repercussions.

Kadota, himself opposed to the monument, said the Korean proposal has been effectively withdrawn from the mayor’s agenda.

“Vancouver has nothing to do with comfort women,” said Kadota, who was born in Vancouver and has lived in that part of Canada all of his life except for a decade centering on World War II. “Erecting the monument goes against Vancouver’s belief in accommodating immigrants and advocating ethnic diversity.”

Comfort women monuments have been erected in at least five locations in the United States, all in relatively small communities.

The statute in San Francisco, with its historical ties with Japan, would have different implications, at least from the Japanese perspective.

The plan has already drawn a strong protest from Osaka, a sister city of San Francisco, whose mayor, Toru Hashimoto, is a populist figure in Japanese politics.

Hashimoto said in a letter to San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, “I have no intention of (legitimizing) or defending the issue of ‘comfort women,’ nor do I intend to do so in the future,” but “every country must squarely face their own past problem and engage in addressing this issue.”

Hashimoto maintains that Japan is not the only country to have had military brothels for soldiers during wartime. In the letter, he requested that the mayor consider the plan carefully, noting that the city is home to many Japanese.

Asked about the potentially divisive nature of the plan in an ethnically diverse society, Mar said San Francisco needs the monument because it is a town of immigrants with different backgrounds and cherishes human rights.

Mar added, many Japanese-Americans support the memorial. Kadota, too, admitted that some people in the Japanese community are reluctant to back his initiative to scrap the plan.

In explaining the background to the San Francisco resolution, Mar, of Chinese descent, said one factor that motivated him was the Imperial Japanese Army’s occupation of China.

The city supervisor said the plan has already drawn $140,000 in funds for construction and potential sites have been identified.

They include Lincoln Park, which overlooks the Pacific Ocean and hosts a Holocaust Memorial.

Steps away from that memorial stands a monument celebrating the centennial of the 1860 port entry of the Japanese warship Kanrin Maru on the occasion of the signing of the Treaty of Amity and Commerce with the United States.

The Golden Gate Bridge, one of the city’s major tourist attractions, comes into view behind a monument to the ship, gifted by the city of Osaka.

San Francisco is also where a peace treaty between Japan and the Allied Powers was signed in 1951, formally ending World War II.

  • Pedro

    San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors are just a bunch of opportunistic politicians. They want to make a name for themselves to promote their own careers. They should instead focus on the real issues of San Francisco – homelessness, lack of affordable housing, potholes on Geary and other roads destroying Muni vehicles, dog/human crap everywhere, sweetheart deals with companies like Airbnb and Twitter, a ridiculous/dangerous sanctuary city policy welcoming illegal immigrants, and allowing corporations like Google and Facebook to bus their employees from distances no sane person would otherwise commute in their car.

    I believe Japan needs to atone for their terrible sins and evil history during WWII; but the US military also turned a blind eye to sex industrialization and abuse at bases like Subic Bay in the Philippines.

  • hudsonstewart

    This is simply misguided do-goodery by ill-informed residents and bureaucrats who are being played by the Chinese and Korean propaganda machines. Of all the atrocities (alleged and real) that have occurred in the world, why is this one being singled out for a monument in a country not at all related to the issue?

  • wrle

    Whats controversy? If the japanese government didnt try to erase the comfort women from history this never would have even become an issue in the first place. The fact is japan should be taking the initiative to remember all victims of the war. Look at the Germans. They are the ones building monuments to remember the jewish victims.

  • Hmmm

    There is nothing wrong with having a monument for the victims of Japanese sexual slavery in SF as forced repeated rapes of sexual slaves by the Japanese is a crime against humanity, not just to the women and girls of China, Korea, Netherlands, Philippines and elsewhere.

    There are numerous monuments to the Holocaust victims in the middle of the Washington DC and elsewhere in the world including Germany, teaching us to be forever vigilant for the potential for man to practice extreme evil in the name of nationalism.

    The good people posting here should be asking instead why Japan
    does not have such a monument on her soils to teach the next generation the
    evils of racism and nationalism and to honor the victims of her atrocities.

  • Richard Solomon

    A monument like this might upset those of Japanese descent who are in denial about the realities of the Comfort Women during WW II. The mayor of Osaka is one of those politicians of nationalist leanings who tries to at least minimize, if not deny, what the Japanese government did to these women at that time. Those who acknowledge the misdeeds that the government committed back then can see it as a way to help reconcile, even strengthen the bonds between, the various Asian immigrant communities in the Bay Area. I support such a monument as a constructive act…as I do those built to memorialize the Jews who died inn the Holocaust.

  • Forest2014

    Where are monumnets of comfort women during Korean War, provided as “the 5th supply” with girls in oil drums carried? Where are monumnets of victims raped and killed during Vietnam War? Where are monumnets of Japanese girls killed and slaughtered by Chinese and by Russians? the number of victims doesn’t matter does it?

  • disqus_vBekJrf7g5

    I just don’t get it; the wartime Jaoanese regime was brutal to Japanese too, so ordinary Japanese today should have no reason to defend its image. Like Aug 15th, Japanese mourn when they should be celebrating their own liberation from their rulers.

  • Starviking

    The statues are not about a deep and honest opposition to sex-slavery – they are a grubby attempt to secure votes from a politically-active minority in the US.

  • bwprager123

    The only place on Earth where the issue of whether or not these crimes
    took place is still being “debated and disputed” is Japan. It is the
    aggressive denials of high-level Japanese state officials – Abe, Aso,
    Hashimoto, etc – and worldwide traveling and campaigning of Diet members
    and funding of groups to oppose commemoration, that intensifies the
    necessity of construction of memorials such as these to defend
    historical memory against the impositions of Nippon Kaigi and the LDP.
    In the contemporary context of the Japanese government’s turn to
    constitutional revision and prioritization of militarization, and its
    craven relationship with the United States in which it continues to make
    itself the forward position of US empire, the commemoration of the
    horrors of the colonization of E. Asia and Japanese aggression in WWII
    remain live issues. Once Japanese educators and officials cease their
    active denials, the heat of this issue might subside. But that will not
    happen as long as Japan continues to be governed by the right wing of
    the LDP with its historic ties to Japanese fascism and US Cold War

  • AJ

    I haven’t heard a single good argument against building the memorial and the arguments expressed make it all the more convincing to build them in California, such as there are very few memorials dedicated to women victims of war or that Japan is sensitive to the issue and feels it should only confront the issue with Korea and China.

    Japan is free to build all the monuments it wants to memorialize female victims of wars in other places and urge the world to stop such atrocities. In fact, please do so.

  • AJ

    Also, a note for the JT: Japanese-American is an outdated term and implies a lack of acceptance that shouldn’t exist. There should be no hyphen and Japanese is an adjective describing an American. It might be proper for Japanese in America who want to straddle both cultures or want to identify as Japanese even if they become American, but the impression is that most Japanese living in America want to be Americans. The same applies to Korean Americans.

  • http://lesstalkmoreactivism.blogspot.com/ Canaan

    Yes, we can never forget the lessons of the war. What lesson did we learn from the Axis? Weakness invites oppression. Remembering atrocities won’t make a difference if you don’t have the strength to resist it.

    History is being appropriated in a scheme to try to lock 21st century Japan into a posture of weakness. Japan can and does show remorse, but it cannot show weakness.

    Historical amnesia would be for Japan or any country to fall into the trap of displaying weakness.

  • WorkerX

    Actually, it’s an American tradition for cities and towns to build memorials related to national and international issues. In San Francisco we have a Holocaust memorial, a statue of Mahatma Gandhi, and memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr., among others. In nearby Santa Cruz there is a Collateral Damage statue to remember the innocent civilians of all nations killed in American wars. Many cities and towns have issued statements and built memorials on international matters, so here this is perfectly proper. I don’t know what the general tradition in Japan is, but note that they do have the Yasukuni Shrine, which includes Class A war criminals. The “Comfort Women” stations were officially operated under Imperial Japan’s government, which makes them quite different from criminal sex traffickers outlawed by most governments. This is why it’s important for the Japanese government to take official responsibility rather than simply having high ranking Japanese officials speaking only for themselves rather than the government.

  • KobayashiDamien TakijiLucas

    have you ever heard of Tenno heika,banzai?You think all those millions of Japanese and other imperial soldiers were sent to their deaths for no reason?they were sent to their deaths to extend the Japanese empire.So,the emperor should have taken responsibility after the war ended,but of course,he didn’t.And the Americans let him and the Japanese ruling class off the hook.

  • R.R.

    In Germany the belligerent are called Nazis, not Germans, what should the Japanese call the belligerent in their case?

  • Forest2014

    Thanks vm R.R. for your link to the article.

  • 0w24bva

    You misunderstand these incident.
    Firstly there are not evidence that Japanese military forcibly moved them.
    Only Korean and Chinese government and some ex-prostitute grandma advocate that we forcibly were moved.If forcibly moving is real, Why their family don’t resist forcibly moving. Korean don’t say this incident at all until recently.
    Secondly if you want to make Japanese don’t forget this incident, Why you don’t built 洋公主(USA and Korean military use prostitute during Korea war、period of occupied japan. Korean government recruited prostitute by fraudulent way) and Lai dai han’s(Korean raped Vietnamese
    women during Vietnam war, after that Vietnamese women unwanted born a lot of Korean half) statue.Korean were not victim. Reason why Korean were Japanese and Japanese military at that time. Korea and China want to make this incident become political problem for handling japan and manipulating territory problem between Japan.

  • Forest2014

    Is it just matter of way of expression of apologies? i.e. were not like Willy Brandt?

  • R.R.

    I was merely describing the difference between being able to attribute the atrocities to a belligerent named after a political party.

    Your analogy isn’t entirely right either, crimes and misdeeds committed during wartime is vast and isn’t confined to a single crime, hence whenever a statement of apology is made, it is only reasonable to use a general term in order to refer to all of the misdeeds.

    The Koreans and Chinese are angry because of nationalism, thats my hypothesis, Japan had apologised multiple times throughout the last 70 years, and during the 80s and 90s, Korea & China happily accepted economic aid and technological aid as part of the compensation in order to put the past behind and move forward together, apologies are never sufficient for the Chinese, they have an ever increasing requirement on how the apologies should be like and that is akin to not attempting to reconcile but rather to throwing a spanner in the works, my question on the other hand is, does the Chinese truly want to reconcile?

    Are you Chinese? have you ever seen a situation in Chinese history where the emperor are being placed on trial by his government? no? well, of course.

    The position of an emperor is an icon, it is impossible to place on trial a national icon without causing societal turmoil, Hirohito attempted to commit ritual suicide to atone but General McArthur stopped him and encouraged him to stay on in order to maintain order, him not being placed on trial is for the sole purpose of preventing more chaos and destruction.

    another example though not entirely relevant, the Qing, Ming, Tang, Sui, Han and Qin Dynasty of China all invaded other countries as part of China’s expansionist goals, have the emperor been placed on trial for any of them?

    Have you actually read those text books you’re talking about? because last I saw them, they described Japan’s role in the war rather well and its certainly not whitewashing history nor a “systemic denial” of war crimes.

    Don’t let emotions get in your way of objective thought, I can see that you are rather emotionally invested in this topic and hence I was rather hesitant to reply to your comments for its almost impossible to get an objective message across to someone emotionally invested

  • sizzle8

    As usual, know-best Westerners creating division under the guise of social conscience.