OSAKA – The Osaka city assembly has called on the central government to pressure San Francisco to remove a statue to wartime “comfort women” — a euphemism used to refer to the women and girls who were forced to work in Japanese military brothels before and during World War II.
The statement of opinion was passed Tuesday, the same day San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee died suddenly at age 65. Lee, who had worked as a civil rights lawyer and city bureaucrat before becoming mayor, had been a strong backer of the statue and memorial.
But actions by Lee and San Francisco drew condemnation from Osaka Mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura, who scrapped the six-decade sister city relationship over the issue. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also weighed in, expressing regret that the statue had been erected.
“In December 2015, the Japanese and South Korean governments announced that the issue of comfort women, with an involvement of the Japanese military authorities at that time, was a grave affront to the honor and dignity of large numbers of women and that Japan would take responsibility,” the Osaka assembly said. “It was agreed the problem had been solved ‘finally and irreversibly’ and that the governments would refrain from accusing or criticizing each other regarding this issue in the international community.”
Japan has provided ¥1 billion ($8.9 million) toward a South Korean fund for former comfort women and their families. However, the 2015 agreement has been criticized by South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who said a great majority of the country’s public cannot “emotionally” accept the deal.
Activists in South Korea and the U.S. opposed to the agreement continue to push for local statues like the one in San Francisco, which the city of Osaka charges is still a violation of the 2015 agreement.
“San Francisco established the statue and inscription, and designated Sept. 22 Comfort Women Day. We’re forced to say these actions injured the spirit of the Japan-South Korea agreement, and it can’t be overlooked that they were regrettable for our sister city relationship,” the Osaka city assembly statement read.
The inscription says that hundreds of thousands of women were enslaved, a claim that the national government and the city of Osaka dispute. Historians say the exact number is impossible to confirm.
“We strongly call upon the central government to continue to make efforts toward getting San Francisco to remove the statue from public land and abolish Comfort Women Day,” it concluded.
The statement was backed by assembly members from Yoshimura’s local Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka) party as well as the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito. Only the Japan Communist Party opposed it.
“Recently, (Lee) signed the city resolution to make the ‘Comfort Women Column of Strength’ the city’s own ‘comfort women’ memorial, despite the unjust threat of ending the sister city relationship from the mayor of Osaka, Japan,” the San Francisco-based Comfort Women Justice Coalition said in a statement following the announcement of Lee’s death.
London Breed, who became San Francisco’s acting mayor, held a news conference Tuesday, but did not touch on how she would deal with the issue.
While Yoshimura formally announced his decision to scrap Osaka’s sister city relationship to city leaders Wednesday afternoon, it is unlikely to take effect until after a new San Francisco mayor is elected sometime around June.
Expressing surprise and condolences at Lee’s sudden death, Yoshimura told reporters he made the decision to hold off immediate notification because it would not be fair to San Francisco if Osaka notified it the relationship was over at a time when there was no official mayor.