SAN FRANCISCO – 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.