In the northern Los Angeles suburb of Glendale, population 192,000, sits a public park with a simple statue that has become a lightning rod in the brewing political storm among the United States, Japan and South Korea over the past few months.
Erected by the Glendale city council last summer, the statue is of an Asian girl sitting in a chair with an empty chair beside her. Beside that chair is a plaque that reads: “I was a sex slave of (the) Japanese military.”
The empty chair, the plaque explains, “symbolizes comfort women survivors who are dying of old age without having yet witnessed justice.”
The plaque adds that the monument is dedicated to the “memory of more than 200,000 Asian and Dutch women who were removed from their homes in Korea, China, Taiwan, Japan, The Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, East Timor and Indonesia to be coerced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Armed Forces of Japan between 1932 and 1945.”
It’s the last part of this description that has escalated tensions between right-wing local-level politicians in Japan and human rights organizations and local governments in the U.S., adding to more general worries and frustrations in the U.S., South Korea and China over Japan’s political direction.
American concern over the issue morphed into a bilateral crisis in 2007 after Shinzo Abe, during his first term as prime minister, issued a Cabinet statement saying the government did not find anything that directly proves there was coercive recruitment by the military or government authorities.
A major uproar in Washington followed. California Rep. Mike Honda introduced a resolution, which was unanimously passed, calling on Japan to “formally acknowledge, apologize, and accept historical responsibility in a clear and unequivocal manner for its Imperial Armed Force’s coercion of young women into sexual slavery during its colonial and wartime occupation of Asia and the Pacific.”
But the resolution was nonbinding, and Japan ignored it, prompting American human rights groups to go local.
“We waited for Japan’s positive reaction to the House resolution, to no avail. That’s when we decided to erect memorials for the victims on U.S. public land,” said Phyllis Kim of the Korean American Forum of California.
An intense lobbying campaign began and in 2010 Palisades Park, New Jersey, became the first U.S. locality to erect a comfort women memorial. In 2012 and 2013, following Abe’s return as prime minister, American local government actions on behalf of the comfort women once again increased.
Today, there is another comfort women monument at the Veterans Memorial at Eisenhower Park in Nassau County, New York, while state legislatures in New York, New Jersey and Illinois have voiced support for the comfort women.
Earlier this year, President Barack Obama signed into a law the 2014 appropriations act that contained language urging Secretary of State John Kerry to officially raise the comfort women issue with Japan.
While Kerry is not legally obligated to do so, pressure from Honda, who pushed for the language in the appropriations act, and other activist groups, including Asian-American groups and human rights groups, shows no signs of fading. Earlier in February, Honda wrote to Kerry explaining his stance.
“There are those who believe the Japanese government has apologized and sufficiently addressed this issue. I vehemently disagree. As is evident from the statement by the Mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto (last year), that the comfort women system was necessary, the visit to Yasukuni Shrine by Prime Minister Abe, who once considered ‘comfort women’ as ‘prostitutes,’ and recent remarks by (NHK chairman) Katsuto Momii, this issue remains unresolved for the survivors and human rights advocates, destabilizing for regional and global security, and relevant in light of ongoing conflicts and gender-based violence,” Honda said.
While the Abe administration has remained relatively quiet over specific efforts by local governments in the U.S., Japanese local politicians who deny the comfort women were sex slaves visited Glendale and other cities, claiming that the monuments and resolutions are the result of Korean discrimination against Japan, and that Japanese in the U.S. are being bullied by Koreans.
“In Glendale, we conducted hearings of local Japanese. They told us their children were suffering from Korean bullying. Koreans say that the comfort women problem is a human rights problem. But the situation (with the comfort women statue) can only lead to a new conflict, which means racial discrimination towards Japanese,” said Yoshiko Matsuura, an assemblywoman from Tokyo’s Suginami Ward who recently led a delegation to Glendale and other cities to protest the comfort women monuments.
Matsuura and Tomoko Tsujimura, a municipal assemblywoman from the Tokyo city of Komae, told foreign journalists in Japan earlier this week that the claims the comfort women were coerced or that the Japanese military or government was involved were a complete fabrication, though they offered no evidence to support that assertion.
For their part, Japanese-American group leaders deplored the attempt by Japan’s right-wing to try to paint the comfort women redress movement as one only Koreans are interested in and support. They also dismissed Matsuura’s and Tsujimura’s allegations of Japanese children being bullied over the Glendale statue as exaggerations at best, saying they’d heard of no such incidents.
“I feel that among U.S.-born Japanese-Americans who have studied the issue, their sympathies would be for the comfort women. There is a sizeable population of shin-isseis (postwar new immigrants) in Southern California. Many of them are naturalized citizens. I’m generalizing, but their schooling in Japan, the intensity of their schooling in the importance of patriotism and loyalty, and their sanitized history schoolbooks seems to have produced an attitude of ‘our country, right or wrong,’ ” said Harold Kameya of the San Fernando Valley chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, which supported the Glendale statue.
David Monkawa of Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress, which also supported the Glendale statue, said that, while politicians like Matsuura and Tsujimura cry about alleged bullying by Koreans of Japanese in the U.S., they have a broader agenda of increasing the militarization of Japan and don’t seem bothered by Koreans in Japan getting bullied by right-wing groups.
“Their extreme social ‘nationalism’ and scapegoating of the comfort women atrocity as falsified history fosters hatred for Koreans and others. Just look at the demonstrations in Tokyo (in Shin-Okubo) and other cities last year, with mobs chanting ‘Koreans, get out of Japan,’ ” he said.
Mindy Kotler, director of the Washington D.C.-based Asia Policy Point, agrees with charges in Japan that Korean-American groups are heavily involved in pushing the comfort women issues at the local level, but adds that Japan’s right-wing politicians are missing a fundamental point.
“Koreans are coming of age politically in the U.S. They are practicing ‘retail politics’ as every ethnic group in the U.S. has. They are not doing anything different than the Irish, the Armenians, the Jews, or the Greeks.
“It’s a Japanese worldview that sees this as an effort to embarrass Japan. It is not viewed that way here, only as standing up for your heritage,” she said.
Meanwhile, in Glendale, the controversy continues. Last week, a Glendale resident and a Los Angeles resident filed a lawsuit with the U.S. federal court to have the statue removed. Dave Weaver, the mayor of Glendale, is also uncertain of the wisdom of having the comfort women memorial.
In a letter to Glendale sister city Higashi-Osaka last year, he apologized for the statue and said the comfort women problem was between South Korea and Japan, and not something Glendale should have gotten involved in.
But as the political battle between Japanese politicians, local and national, who deny the comfort women were forced into prostitution by the state, and U.S. human rights groups and local governments pushing for more comfort women memorials gets nastier and continues to expand, it’s clear Weaver’s words to Higashi-Osaka are ringing hollow.
Given recent comments by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga that the government will consider re-examining the testimonies of 16 comfort women that led to the 1993 comfort women apology — known as the Kono Statement — combined with anger in Washington over the separate issue of Abe’s visit to Yasukuni late last year, international distrust of Abe’s motives and exasperation at Japanese right-wing attitudes toward history continue to grow.
That means no end in sight to the continued political clashes at the national level and, as the American comfort women memorial movement shows, more intense clashes at the local political level.
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