SAN FRANCISCO – Now 89, former World War II “comfort woman” Lee Yong-soo clutched a microphone in one hand Friday in a park outside San Francisco’s Chinatown, thrust her other clinched fist in the air, and made a vow.
Lee, abducted from Korea at 15 and forced into a brothel for Imperial Japanese soldiers, was speaking at the dedication for the latest of dozens of statues popping up around the world to commemorate the ordeal of thousands like her who were rounded up before and during World War II.
Japan has not gone far enough in apologizing, and the statues memorializing the comfort women, as Japan euphemistically calls them, will keep going up, Lee told the scores at Friday’s unveiling ceremony.
“And at the end, we will have a memorial in Tokyo. So they can say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry’ when they pass by,” said Lee, who came from South Korea for Friday’s dedication ceremony, one of at least four she has attended in the United States alone.
Historians say at least tens of thousands of girls and women in Asian territories were seized or duped or coerced into working in Japanese military brothels, but estimates vary. The issue has remained an open rift between Japan and other Asian nations. Japan annexed the Korean Peninsula in 1910 and engaged in colonial rule there until it was liberated by the Allied powers in 1945.
Some surviving comfort women and their supporters rejected Japan’s formal expression of “apologies and remorse” in the historic 2015 bilateral agreement aimed at permanently settling the issue, saying it did not go far enough in acknowledging what they say was the Japanese government’s responsibility.
Lee, her frame bent in traditional green and pink Korean robes, said she would not rest until all was made right.
“If Japan does not like” the continued focus on the comfort women, Lee told the crowd through a translator, “Japan must apologize.”
On Friday, the South Korean and Japanese foreign ministers, meeting in New York, agreed to work together to resolve their countries’ lingering differences over the issue, Kyodo News reported.
No more than a few dozen former comfort women remain alive, said retired San Francisco Judge Lillian Sing, who was a leader in the effort by California’s Korean, Chinese and Filipino communities to commission and install the statue in a park on the edge of Chinatown.
“What these grandmas did was change the way the world looked at sex trafficking,” Sing told the state and local dignitaries and others in the audience.
Tokyo maintains that all settlement and reparations related to the war were finalized with the 1965 pact that normalized bilateral diplomatic relations.