Last year, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution to create a “comfort women” memorial. The resolution garnered broad support from both within the Japanese American community as well as veterans, women’s and labor rights groups, students, educators, and scholars. However, there was also opposition from some members of the Japanese and Japanese American community.
For many of us within the Japanese American community, the annual Day of Remembrance is a time of reflection. What does our history of incarceration and reparations mean in the context of current-day issues?
As a Sansei whose father and grandparents were incarcerated in Japanese American concentration camps, I wholeheartedly support such a memorial. As one of the few groups of people recognized by the U.S. government for having been racially targeted, Japanese Americans can draw upon our history to connect with the plight of other communities of color. For instance, former wartime inmates, such as noted poet Hiroshi Kashiwagi, recently spoke out on behalf of the rights of Syrian refugees. Both former inmates and their children, like myself, have taken the familiar mantra, “To never happen again” to any other group of people seriously. It’s as if Japanese Americans, through obtaining reparations, have occupied a unique place in advocating the rights of other marginalized communities. As a proud Japanese American, I have taken this seriously in my own life, dedicating my career in nonprofit community services to children and young adults in Oakland and San Francisco.
To connect with the trauma that “comfort women” had endured would mean that the Japanese American community would need to grapple with painful, hidden experiences that women faced in camp. Only in the more intimate, safe community programs such as the intensive Tule Lake Pilgrimage, did I witness former inmates and their children reporting darker experiences of sexual violence in the camps. That was back in 2009, more than 60 years after incarceration. There, a courageous former inmate, Marion Masada, told an auditorium full of participants that she had survived sexual molestation in camp but was able to rise above it. She told her story in such a way that had the entire audience up on their feet, giving her a rousing standing ovation. Her revelation and resilience meant as much for the rest of us as it had for her. I think we could extend that empathy towards “comfort women” as well.
Our community has never fully explored the degree of sexual violence that occurred in camp because we have never asked that question and have not always created a safe community space and culture to support it. Masada herself was aware that she was not the only one. She reported how there were young mothers with infants in camp, suggesting that they were too young of age to give consent. If we were to delve further into this issue, could it remind us of how war makes young women even more vulnerable to being sexually abused and even exploited? Could we include that narrative when we stand up for the rights of Syrian refugees? That young girl depicted in “comfort women” memorials could very well have been about the same age as Masada who was 10 years old when she was incarcerated in camp. (http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2013/12/19/japanese-lawmakersdemandremovalofcaliforniaworldwariimemorial.html).
I approached Masada about how she might relate to the experiences of ‘comfort women,’ both distinctly different and yet both subjects of sexual violence in the context of war.
Masada was supportive of “comfort women” issues and full of compassion, “They need to be affirmed as women for their fortitude and all that they endured. We need to hear their stories…how they endured that pain all those years is a phenomenon.” I wondered what it would be like to have Masada and Yong Soo Lee, the Korean ‘comfort woman’ survivor who testified at the hearing with the SF Board of Supervisors on the memorial, meet one another.
On its surface, the recent agreement between Japan and South Korea appears to provide the resolution that Korean “comfort women” survivors would appreciate and suggests that there is no longer a need for a “comfort women” memorial. However, closer examination of the agreement reveals many fundamental flaws. First, the deal was struck without any input from the Korean “comfort women” survivors themselves and flies in the face of the quality and scope of reparations that they and “comfort women” survivors from other countries have been demanding for years. It would be as if Japanese American former inmates were to be shut out of the process of reparations, never testifying on their experience for official record and never having a say in the goal of such an agreement. Secondly, the deal neglected to include an official apology from the Japanese government as a body, a key demand from all “comfort women” survivors. They have maintained that a statement of apology from an individual government official is not the proper standard for an apology by the Japanese government on behalf of the nation for state-sponsored international sex trafficking and sex slavery. Again, the counterpart would be as if President Reagan had personally apologized to Japanese American former inmates without official recognition from the U.S. government. Moreover, all such apologies open the door for later politicians to rescind them, which had taken place in Japan by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in his first term. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights have repeatedly advocated for Japan to officially acknowledge legal liability and educate the public. While Korean and other “comfort women” survivors staunchly oppose the Japan-SK settlement, they have directly supported the “comfort women memorial” as one international step towards restoring their dignity and promoting public education.
Furthermore, according to Emi Koyama of the Japan-U.S. Feminist Network for Decolonization, the vocal Japanese opposition to the SF memorial also involved supporters of right-wing Japanese organizations who have testified in San Francisco, Glendale, and other cities where resolutions for “comfort women” memorials have been considered. At times, they even pose as Japanese Americans invoking our incarceration history as reason to oppose such resolutions. (https://www.nichibei.org/2015/09/proposed-memorial-in-s-f-for-sex-slaves-causes-divided-opinions) I am wary of the larger agenda they are promoting including the scrubbing of the history of Japanese military atrocities in textbooks. In Japan, educators, upset by the right-wing political efforts to portray inaccurate historical accounts, have also rallied in support of “comfort women” issues. They have issued statements denouncing conservative efforts to rewrite textbooks and “glossing over” the “comfort women” issue. (http://rekiken.jp/english/appeals/appeal_20150914.html).
While the “comfort women” struggle for justice spans international politics, it also hits home locally. As an Oakland resident and clinical psychologist working in community mental health settings, I have witnessed the experiences of sexual exploited Asian and African American minors. The trauma they experience often robs them of their own self-worth and enshrouds them in shame. While not in times of war, sexual violence towards women and girls and human trafficking should not be tolerated in any context.
Supporting “comfort women” issues recognizes women’s rights for safety and dignity under any circumstance, even in times of war. If Yuri Kochiyama were alive today, she would be adding her voice in support of this memorial, too, since she had been a staunch supporter of the “comfort women” struggle. She stood firmly against all forms of oppression, whether it came from Japan or the United States governments.
Currently city agencies, such as the Arts Commission and Parks and Recreation Department have been prompt in responding to community-led planning of the “comfort women” Memorial. They have been working collaboratively with community supporters, including the Comfort Women Justice Coalition. All of these efforts should be applauded, particularly in ensuring that there are no delays in its implementation.
For this Day of Remembrance, as I think of my own young daughter, who is both Japanese and Korean American, I write this article in the hopes that she can eventually learn and appreciate both sides of her heritage: That brave Japanese American and Korean women, like Marion Masada and Yong Soo Lee, speak out about their experiences so that no other women would have to endure such sexual molestation and violence.
Lisa Nakamura, a Sansei from Oakland, works as a clinical psychologist in San Francisco. The views expressed in the preceding commentary are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.