San Francisco ‘Comfort Women’ Memorial unveiled

San Francisco unveiled “Comfort Women: Pillar of Strength,” a memorial dedicated to World War II sex slaves Sept. 22. photo by Kenji G. Taguma/Nichi Bei Weekly

The “Comfort Women” Justice Coalition unveiled a monument Sept. 22 at the Saint Mary’s Square Annex in San Francisco’s Chinatown, capping off a two-year effort to install a memorial dedicated to Japan’s wartime sex slaves. Organizers estimated that more than 500 people attended the unveiling, including former Rep. Mike Honda, Consul General of the People’s Republic of China in San Francisco Luo Linquan, elected officials representing San Francisco and California such as San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, and former Korean “comfort woman” Yong-Soo Lee.

According to the multi-ethnic coalition led by former San Francisco Superior Court Judges Lillian Sing and Julie Tang, this effort succeeded in installing the eighth memorial statue dedicated to the former sex slaves in the United States. It is the first major American city to do so. The woman-led coalition was spearheaded by Sing and Tang, who are of Chinese descent, along with Korean, Filipino and other ethnic communities, including Japanese and Japanese Americans.

In addition to unveiling the memorial, the coalition called on the Japanese government to “make a sincere, official, and legally binding apology; pay full reparations to the victims and their families; conduct a thorough investigation of the crime and punish those found guilty in a court of law; memorialize the victims and continue to teach its citizens an accurate and truthful history of Japan during its era of imperial expansion and World War II.”

Lee, known as Halmoni (Grandma) Lee, spoke to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 2015 when the memorial was first proposed in a resolution by then-Supervisor Eric Mar. She returned to America to witness the unveiling. “This is not just an issue for Korea. This is not just an issue for China. This is the issue that affects everyone, this is a universal issue that affects everyone in the war,” she said through a translator. “This is not about money, this is about a sincere apology from the government from Japan.”

Then-San Francisco Supervisor Eric Mar introduced legislation to install the monument on public land in San Francisco. photo by Kenji G. Taguma/Nichi Bei Weekly

“My heart is so full because Halmoni Lee is with us … She was living history before our committees and our board of supervisors in San Francisco,” Mar said during the unveiling. “She is also women’s movement history. She is pan-Asian community history. As she courageously said to the ultra-nationalists and fascists that tried to silence her during our board of supervisors hearings, she will never be silenced. This memorial will also ensure that. After we are all gone, … our future generations will know the history and courage of our halmonis and grandmothers.”

While Japanese Americans were among the memorial’s supporters, support was not unanimous within the Nikkei community. Some community members warned that the memorial may sour relations with Osaka, which celebrated the 60th anniversary of its sister city relationship with San Francisco this year, or encourage discrimination against Japanese and Japanese Americans. Proponents of the memorial stressed that they hope to educate detractors to help them understand why the memorial is important to have.

Mar acknowledged that some Japanese Americans remain opposed to the memorial, but said that even they will accept it in time. “I think it’s smoothing over as people see the beauty of this, and that it’s not targeting Japanese people or the Japanese government, but is a universal message about human suffering and how we can never allow this to ever happen again in the future,” Mar told the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Yong-Soo Lee, a former “comfort woman” and former Congressman Mike Honda attended the unveiling ceremony photo by Kenji G. Taguma/Nichi Bei Weekly

“With the Japanese American community, if they went to camp, if they took part in the Redress Movement, if they accepted the apology of our government in 1988, and if they received and accepted the reparations, they have no moral basis to oppose this,” Honda told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “If they were born after camp, then it’s important for them to study this issue with an open mind so that they understand the validity of our rationale.”

The memorial, entitled “Comfort Women: Pillar of Strength,” is a life-size statue of three teenage girls standing hand in hand on a metallic pillar. The girls represent the Chinese, Korean and Filipina women who were enslaved by the Japanese Imperial Army during the war. A fourth older Korean woman looks up to them below.

“Art should not only beautify, art should also educate,” Steven Whyte, the memorial’s sculptor, said.

Sing said the she is already looking toward the future to mount more pressure on the Japanese government to apologize. “What is the future plan? To build more monuments,” she said. “Japan wants to tear down monuments? We want to build more monuments. Japan wants to wait until all the women are gone. We will never allow this to happen.”

“If Japan does not like the memorial, if Japan is afraid of the memorial, Japan must acknowledge and apologize for what they did and make legal compensation,” Lee said. “We will build more memorials in Korea. We will build more memorials around the globe. At the end, we are going to have a memorial in downtown Tokyo, so the people of Tokyo and Japan will know what happened in the past and they can say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry’ whenever they pass by.”

According to Kyodo News, under a 2015 agreement to “finally and irreversibly” resolve the “comfort women” issue, Japan disbursed 1 billion yen ($9.1 million) last year to a South Korean fund to provide support to former comfort women and their families. But South Korean President Moon Jae In, who took office in May, has said “the majority of the country’s public” do not approve of the agreement that was inked by his predecessor, Kyodo reports.

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