The debate over statues memorializing “comfort women,” who were forced to work in Japanese military brothels before and during World War II, is threatening to upend a six-decade sister city relationship between Osaka and San Francisco.

In an exchange of letters made public Wednesday, San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee expressed disappointment in Osaka Mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura’s announcement that he might cut the tie-up over the U.S. city’s new comfort women memorial.

“I am deeply disappointed that you are considering the cessation of our Sister City partnership. Our citizen organizations bring our people together and create mutual understanding on a daily basis,” Lee said in a letter dated Oct. 2.

“It would be a shame to penalize those who worked so hard to build a strong future of cooperation between our residents,” he added.

Lee was responding to a letter from Yoshimura dated Sept. 29, one week after San Francisco became America’s first major city to erect a memorial to comfort women.

Yoshimura’s local political group, Osaka Ishin no Kai, part of the national party Nippon Ishin no Kai, objects to the memorial, claiming it is historically inaccurate and being erected by those who are anti-Japanese.

Local governments in the United States that have built memorials or supported the movement to remember the comfort women see the issue as a humanitarian effort and an attempt to educate the public about the suffering of all women, regardless of nationality, during wartime.

“There is disagreement among historians regarding historical facts such as the number of ‘comfort women,’ the degree to which the former Japanese Army was involved, and the extent of wartime harm,” Yoshimura wrote. “I am gravely concerned that by regarding uncertain and one-sided claims as historical facts and inscribing them onto the plaque would not be squarely facing the past, but a criticism of Japan.”

“Although the Comfort Women Memorial and plaque is currently established on private property, I have been informed that there are plans for it to become a public property. However, if the Comfort Women Memorial and plaque were to be located on public property as an expression of the will of the City and County of San Francisco, not only would it be extremely regrettable, but the City of Osaka must then rethink the sister city relationship,” he added.

It remains unclear if Osaka will formally end the tie-up, which began in 1957. Despite Yoshimura’s threats, there are concerns among Osaka officials and business leaders that cutting off the relationship could lead to negative publicity overseas at a time when Osaka is seeking international support for its 2025 World Expo bid. Paris is Osaka’s main rival for the expo.

The San Francisco memorial makes reference to “the suffering of hundreds of thousands women and girls euphemistically called ‘comfort women’ who were sexually enslaved by the Japanese Imperial Armed Forces in thirteen Asia-Pacific countries from 1931 to 1945.”

Estimates of the number of comfort women vary. Historian Yoshiaki Yoshimi has calculated at least 50,000, while some mainstream historians estimate as many as 200,000.

The Japanese government and some historians dispute the fact that the military directly enslaved the women. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said no historical materials have been found to show the military forcibly or directly abducted numerous women in a systematic manner.

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