National / History | KANSAI PERSPECTIVE

Osaka threatens San Francisco ties over sister city's 'comfort women' memorial

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

The 60-year sister city relationship between Osaka and San Francisco looks to be heading for retirement if Osaka Mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura and his allies in the city who oppose San Francisco’s new “comfort women” memorial get their way.

The memorial to the so-called comfort women, who were forced to provide sex for Japanese troops before and during World War II, was unveiled last month after the Japanese government as well as some Japanese residents in the U.S. and Japan protested.

Yoshimura, a conservative with Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka), a local political group, has a plurality in the city assembly, has charged that San Francisco’s erection of the comfort women memorial last month is a form of “Japan-bashing.”

In a letter to San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee in late September, Yoshimura threatened to rethink the sister city relationship. Lee’s response was that the two leaders should look to the future, not the past.

Yoshimura, whose handling of the issue has angered human rights activists in the U.S. and irritated some in Japan’s ruling parties who worry about the impact on bilateral relations, struck a more diplomatic tone in a follow up letter dated Oct. 23.

“I once again strongly urge you to treat this issue with careful consideration. In this letter I hope you can realize the heartfelt request that I wish to convey,” the mayor said.

Those in Osaka who oppose San Francisco’s comfort women monument are especially upset with the inscription on it that says hundreds of thousands of women and girls were sexually enslaved by Japanese Imperial forces in 13 Asian-Pacific countries between 1931 and 1945.

“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 the wartime harm,” Yoshimura told Lee in the September letter.

Historians continue to debate the exact number, but most figures remain controversial. No detailed written records to corroborate various estimates, which range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands, have surfaced yet, a point that Yoshimura and his allies have repeatedly stressed.

But for San Francisco’s statue supporters, the larger issue is to properly memorialize — and symbolize — the suffering of women during wartime so that history does not repeat itself.

On this point, the political leaders of Osaka and San Francisco are unlikely to ever see eye to eye, making a formal breakup before next year even more likely.

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