KOREAN SEX SLAVES: ‘Comfort women’ monument campaign gains momentum


Kim Bok Dong, 87, sits next to a memorial for women forced into sexual slavery for the Imperial Japanese military in Glendale, Calif. Kim said she spent eight years providing sexual services to Japanese troops after she was forcibly drafted when just 14 years old. Kyodo News photo

Kim Bok Dong, 87, sits next to a memorial for women forced into sexual slavery for the Imperial Japanese military in  Glendale, Calif. Kim said she spent eight years providing sexual services to Japanese troops after she was forcibly  drafted when just 14 years old.  Kyodo News photo
Kim Bok Dong, 87, sits next to a memorial for women forced into sexual slavery for the Imperial Japanese military in
Glendale, Calif. Kim said she spent eight years providing sexual services to Japanese troops after she was forcibly
drafted when just 14 years old. Kyodo News photo

LOS ANGELES — The successful campaign to install a monument in Glendale, Calif. honoring World War II-era “comfort women” signals that Korean Americans and other activists, energized by their victory, will continue to pressure the Japanese government to acknowledge its wartime atrocities.

The monument pays tribute to thousands of young women from Korea and other Asian nations who were forced by the Japanese Imperial Army to provide sex to Japanese troops fighting for Japan during World War II, according to the victims’ advocates.

Many of the surviving sex slaves, described by the Japanese military as “comfort women,” and their supporters are demanding an official and sincere apology, as well as just compensation, from the Japanese government for their pain and suffering.

Opponents of the memorial maintain that the women were not innocent young women forced into sexual slavery; they volunteered to work as prostitutes.

“Do you think your daughter would volunteer to serve as a prostitute?” asked Charles Kim, who was involved in the monument campaign. “No! You don’t send your kids into prostitution.“

Those young women were taken off the streets in many cases, he said. “The Japanese government has to stop denying everything. They need to take full responsibility.”

During the Pacific War, the Japanese government and the army established “comfort stations” in colonized Taiwan and Korea, and in occupied territories of China, the Philippines, throughout Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, as well in Japan, explained UCLA Anthropology Professor Kyeyoung Park in an e-mail to Nichi Bei Weekly.

The total number of “comfort women” drafted by the Japanese military is difficult to determine, but estimates indicate that they numbered between 80,000 and 200,000, Park stated. More than 80 percent were Korean women. Most of the women “were really children, often virgin girls ranging in age from 12 to 20, and many from poor peasant families.”

At least one-third of the so-called “comfort women” were conscripted, mostly by force, she explained. “They were often threatened, beaten or kidnapped. Others were lured or deceived with lucrative job offers providing great incentive due to the limited employment opportunities for uneducated peasant women of that time.”

During their ordeal of sexual slavery, the women had to serve an average of 29 men per day, with the exception of a 30-minute lunch break, the UCLA anthropologist continued. “Those who were not submissive enough were brutally beaten. Escape was impossible due to strict surveillance; those who tried to run away were simply killed.”

When these women finally returned home to their families after the war, she added, in some cases, they were beaten or killed. “Most of these women are now poor, often relying on welfare. Many suffered from physical and/or psychological problems.”

The sex slavery issue has been largely ignored in both Japanese and Korean historical accounts; Japanese articles focused on the effects of war on the Japanese people, the UCLA professor wrote. “Until recently, in Korea’s junior and senior high school textbooks, there had been no mention of comfort women. In recently revised versions, they portray comfort women as marginalized historical figures, at best, without discussing how and why these women were subjected to sexual and racial exploitation under colonialism and war.”

The American public sees this issue “as a crime against humanity and human rights, regardless of who the victims are, or who the victimizer was,” Park added.

The Japanese government is often, but not always, sensitive to what the U.S. and international community think of certain Japan-related issues, the professor theorized, and putting up monuments to the “comfort women” has been “the only way to persuade and influence the Japanese government to do something about the victims.”

The “comfort women” monument campaign actually started on the East Coast, where a monument was built in Palisades Park, N.J. in 2010 and another in Long Island, N.Y. in 2012.

“Japanese officials tried … to bribe the library board members to get rid of that statue (in Palisades Park),” Charles Kim related. “It got press coverage, it united Korean Americans and started the movement to actually build monuments all over the country.

The Japanese government’s attempts to quash the memorial exhibit … backfired.”

IN MEMORY OF AN ATROCITY ­— The Peace Monument Plaque is part of the memorial in Glendale, Calif., which honors the former “comfort women.”                        courtesy of Korean American Forum of California
IN MEMORY OF AN ATROCITY ­— The Peace Monument Plaque is part of the memorial in Glendale, Calif., which honors the former “comfort women.” courtesy of Korean American Forum of California

Monument in Glendale
The campaign targeted Glendale, Park said, because that city, with a large number of Armenian residents, “has a tradition of commemorating all kinds of atrocities against humanity: for instance, the Armenian genocide. (The activists) thought it might be a good idea to do so where there are substantial numbers of Korean immigrants as a way to educate their children about a piece of Korean history.”

On July 30, 2013, following a public meeting in which speakers representing both proponents and opponents of the monument argued their case, the city council approved a proposal by the Korean American Forum of California to install the “comfort women” memorial.

The Glendale monument is a replica of one built across from the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, where “comfort women” and their advocates regularly hold protests demanding an apology and reparations from the Japanese government.

Glendale Mayor Dave Weaver, who voted against the memorial, expressed regret in a letter to Mayor Yoshikazu Noda of Higashiosaka, Glendale’s sister city, after Noda protested Glendale’s decision to accept the monument.

Although other council members enthusiastically supported the monument honoring the Korean “comfort women,” Weaver said that Glendale, “a quiet little bedroom community,” had no business involving itself in international issues, according to the Glendale News.

In related news, Kyodo News reported on Dec. 11 that Nisshin High School in Higashiosaka canceled a student exchange program with Glendale following a disagreement over the “comfort women” memorial.

Buena Park Rejects Bid
Meanwhile, in Orange County, the City Council of Buena Park denied activists’ request to build a monument to the “comfort women” after Councilmember Art Brown stated at the Aug. 30 meeting he would not support it, and two other Council members followed suit, according to the Orange County Register.

Robert Wada, a 30-year Buena Park resident and founding member of the Japanese American Korean War Veterans Organization, had been “adamant” in his opposition to the monument. “Obviously I’m pleased with the decision,” Wada said of the City Council’s action. “Up to then, they were considering that memorial … So I wrote to Buena Park and sent my book about Americans of Japanese ancestry in the Korean War. I think my letter had some influence.”

Erecting such a monument in Buena Park isn’t what the more than 6,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry served for, and it isn’t what the 256 who gave their lives for, in the Korean War, the former U.S. Marine stated. “We fought and we died for the love of our country and the freedom of the people of the Republic of Korea.”

Opposition to the memorial doesn’t mean he condones or defends Japan’s actions, Wada stressed. “I am merely defending the Japanese American community.

“An apology is due from Japan, not from the City of Buena Park. This is an issue between two foreign countries.”

In 1997, Wada, who joined the Marines in 1950 — five years after his release from the Poston, Ariz., concentration camp — led the JAKWVO as it built a memorial, with the permission of the Republic of Korea government, near the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, listing by name each of the 256 Nikkei killed in the Korean War.

Raising Awareness
What the KAFC activists hope to accomplish through this movement, explained spokesperson Phyllis Kim via e-mail, is: “1) To raise the awareness among the American public about the horrible human rights violations that accompany any war, especially against women and children, to prevent the same atrocity from repeating itself; 2) To urge the government of Japan to officially apologize and take legal responsibilities for the surviving victims who are still waiting for the formal apology; and 3) To include this historical fact in Japanese history textbooks so that the young generation of Japan will learn about the past history without distortion.”

Americans who become aware of this issue are “plain shocked by the scale and magnitude of the atrocity committed against women of such a young age,” Phyllis Kim stated. “They view this as a human rights issue and women’s rights issue, regardless of the race or geographic area involved. Most of the opposition … came from Japan, but does not represent the sentiment of all Japanese people nor the Japanese Americans in the U.S.”

Rep. Honda’s H.R. 121
The campaign for a memorial to honor the “comfort women” started a few years after the U.S. Congress in 2007 passed House Resolution 121 that had been introduced by Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), Phyllis Kim disclosed. That resolution “urges the Japanese government to officially acknowledge, apologize and take full historical responsibility for the brutal crimes of sexual slavery committed against an estimated 200,000 young women during its military expansion in 1930s and WWII.”

Honda, who represents the Silicon Valley in the U.S. House of Representatives, noted via e-mail from Washington, D.C. that as an infant he was one of 120,000 Pacific Coast residents of Japanese descent imprisoned in U.S. concentration camps during World War II. Decades later, he participated in the successful effort to pass the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which granted an official apology and reparations to surviving Japanese Americans unjustly incarcerated during the war.

“I know reconciliation through government action that admits error is the only reconciliation likely to be long lasting,” the former teacher explained. “I know the importance of teaching and talking about tragedy to prevent future injustices in the world … I hope action is taken soon, as only about 60 surviving grandmothers are known in Korea, 140 in the Philippines, eight in Taiwan, and very few elsewhere.”

Honda upbraided Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, who insisted “comfort women” were “necessary to maintain discipline” in the Japanese military. “We don’t need irresponsible leaders like Mayor Hashimoto to undermine history … His hateful words remind us that Japan has yet to give a definitive, official government statement of redress.”

Consul General’s Response
The claim that Japan refuses to acknowledge its World War II-era atrocities or pay reparations to victims is “inaccurate,“ stated Consul General of Japan in Los Angeles Jun Niimi.

Japan has apologized for and accepted the fact that “it inflicted great suffering on the people of many countries,” and in 1995, then-Prime Minister Tomoichi Murayama “expressed deep remorse, which has been upheld by all administrations,” stated Niimi, who added that Japan provided reparations “in accordance with peace treaties, which legally settled the individual claims as well.”

The Japanese government has extended “its sincere apologies and established the Asian Women’s Fund, a cooperative effort between the Japanese people and their government, to provide atonement money to former comfort women and implemented medical and welfare support projects,” Niimi asserted in an open letter in July.

Victims Refuse Private Fund
The Korean “comfort women” refused to take compensation from that private Asian Women’s Fund, Charles Kim emphasized. “It was the Japanese government who did all the wrong … It’s all about honor and their dignity. That’s what the women care about … Their humanity and dignity were smashed by the Japanese Imperial Army.”

This campaign protests crimes against humanity, especially against women, Charles Kim contended. “Succeeding Japanese prime ministers have denied the apologies delivered by preceding prime ministers and have not accepted responsibility for the sex slaves and other atrocities.”

He said the Japanese government should be like the German government. “Look at Germany. Whatever damage they caused to other people in Europe, they trust Germans. I don’t see or hear anything like what’s happening between China, Korea and Japan in Europe. The Germans killed more people, but Germany made a complete apology.”

Nikkei Supporters
Harold Kameya of the San Fernando Valley chapter of Japanese American Citizens League and Kathy Masaoka of Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress both expressed their support for the movement.

“Attempts by today’s Japanese government officials to sanitize the WWII war crimes reflects badly on Americans of Japanese ancestry, though we are separated by several generations from the immigrant experience,” Kameya stated in an e-mail.

The most vocal critics in this country against the monument, he declared, are those born in Japan whose “culture and upbringing seem to have made the preservation of their country’s image of paramount importance, higher even than upholding the honor of one’s family name.”

But there are many Japanese in America and in Japan who support the “comfort women’s” campaign for justice, and there is a small Comfort Women Museum in a suburb of Tokyo, Kameya added. “There is also the Progressive political faction in Japan that feels it is important for the youth of Japan to know the horrors of war, as an entire generation in Japan has never experienced it.”

Opposed Fingerprint Law
Masaoka remembered going to Japan in 1988 and hearing about the “comfort women” issue. “That was while we were there supporting Koreans and other minorities in Japan who were fighting a law that required people — even those born in Japan — to be fingerprinted.”

NCRR previously worked with the Korean American community in a small protest around the “comfort women” issue, Masaoka recalled. “We were asked recently by the Korean American Forum of California mainly because … NCRR had taken a position of support for the comfort women in their demand for reparations and an apology from the Japanese government.”

The Nikkei successfully campaigned for the U.S. government to apologize for their wartime incarceration and to award them reparations, related Masaoka, one of countless volunteers who campaigned tirelessly for redress. “The U.S. government admitted they were wrong, and we’ve moved on. It would be good if Japan could acknowledge wrongs were done, and make up for it.”

Masaoka doesn’t want to see divisions between Japanese Americans and Korean Americans, and divisions even within the Nikkei community. “That would be terrible,” she stated. “Some of the newer Japanese immigrants, the Shin-Issei, are very upset about this monument because they’re from Japan and they feel like they’re being attacked. They shouldn’t look at it that way. They’re not being attacked. It’s about what Japan did in the past.”

NCRR believes that the Japanese government and Japanese military were involved in setting up these comfort stations and in recruiting women to serve as “comfort women,” Masaoka reiterated. “We support the victims’ demands for an apology and reparations. The Japanese government owes it to these people.”

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