Osaka-S.F. sister city relationship to end

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

Following San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee’s formal acceptance Nov. 22 of the memorial dedicated to the so-called “comfort women,” located in the city’s Chinatown, Osaka Mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura said at a Nov. 24 press conference that he would dissolve the two cities’ 60-year-old sister city relationship.

The Japanese Imperial Army sexually enslaved women and girls hailing from 13 Asian-Pacific countries, numbered in the hundreds of thousands, during World War II, the plaque installed with the statue located in St. Mary’s Square Annex in Chinatown states. While proponents of the memorial maintain that the statue is dedicated to the victims of wartime sexual slavery, various Japanese government officials, including Osaka’s current and former mayor, have criticized San Francisco’s support for the monument, claiming the memorial is “one-sided.”

Regarding the movement to install such statues, Jun Yamada, consul general of Japan in San Francisco, wrote in an op-ed published by the San Francisco Chronicle Sept. 21, that “Japan takes the issue of ‘comfort women’ very seriously and recognizes its past by sincerely addressing the wounds and trauma of former comfort women. …”

“The difficulty of this issue lies in the fact that there are wildly conflicting views, even today, as to what actually happened,” Yamada wrote. “Unfortunately, the aim of current comfort women memorial movements seems to perpetuate and fixate on certain one-sided interpretations, without presenting credible evidence, in the form of physical statues.”

Yamada wrote that the movement to install the memorials around the world is “rapidly alienating the entire Japanese public, who could otherwise be sympathetic.”

Yamada also said Japan would continue its efforts to faithfully pursue “an ultimate and genuine reconciliation” with South Korea in accordance to a 2015 bilateral agreement. According to Kyodo News, that agreement “resolved finally and irreversibly” the issue by having Japan pay 1 billion yen ($8.9 million) to a South Korean fund to support former “comfort women” and their families. The agreement, however, has come under question by South Korean President Moon Jae-In after he took office in May of 2017 after the impeachment of his predecessor.

Asian American community members organized with other San Francisco activists as the “Comfort Women” Justice Coalition to gift the statue to the city. The 10-foot-tall bronze statue designed by Carmel by the Sea, Calif.-based sculptor Steven Whyte, features three “comfort women” standing on a pedestal, representing the women enslaved from China, Korea and the Philippines. A fourth figure, a Korean grandmother, stands on the side, looking up at the three women.

Relationship To Be Dissolved
Yoshimura wrote to Lee Sept. 29 following the statue and plaque’s unveiling ceremony Sept. 22 that Osaka would dissolve the sister city relationship if Lee formally accepts the memorial as public property. The memorial was first installed on private property, which was scheduled to be donated to the city.

Lee expressed that he was “deeply disappointed” Yoshimura would consider ending the relationship in a Oct. 2 letter to Yoshimura.

“The cessation of our Sister City partnership would directly hurt the many residents of our two cities who have dedicated their time, resources and passion to building these bridges of friendship. … It would be a shame to penalize those who worked so hard to build a strong future of cooperation between our residents.”

While Yoshimura intends to give formal notice of his intention to dissolve the relationship by the end of the year, the relationship remains intact as of press time. Allen Okamoto, co-chair of the San Francisco-Osaka Sister City Association, said his organization can’t meet on the matter until Yoshimura sends the formal declaration. However, Okamoto said he hopes to keep his organization’s nonprofit status to “continue our Mission Statement of building bridges of friendship and commerce between the cities of San Francisco and Osaka.”

In Japan, Takayuki Toriyama, from Osaka’s Department of International Relations, said the dissolution is entirely under Yoshimura’s discretion, and that exchange programs between the cities would cease following the dissolution. “The sister city relationship serves as something like a platform for the exchange programs between the two cities,” he said in Japanese. “By losing this relationship, I believe that base for the exchange would be lost.”

While his relationship with the city is “solid,” Okamoto said his organization may change course to maintaining the direct relationships it has cultivated over the years in Osaka if official city-level connections are severed. He added that he remains hopeful following San Francisco’s visit to Osaka this past October.

“Despite the mayor’s statement, the trip was a ‘success,’” Okamoto wrote in an e-mail. “We met with many organizations and individuals in Osaka and strengthened our people-to-people relationships. This may not be the end but the start of a new venture.”

Affect On Monument
Eric Mar, who introduced the resolution to accept a memorial as a city supervisor in the summer of 2015, said he did not anticipate the sister city relationship would be jeopardized. “I’m saddened that (Yoshimura) has taken this action, but I know we did the right thing in approving and installing the memorial,” Mar told the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Mar said he hopes the people of Osaka understand that in installing the monument, San Francisco is addressing human rights issues and looking toward the future. He called Yoshimura’s decision a “very backwards decision” and said memorials about ending human trafficking and the suffering of women and girls should be “encouraged, not denounced.”

Julie Tang, who helped spearhead the “Comfort Women” Justice Coalition, said the memorial was “far more important” than the relationship. She noted the coalition has received support from more than 40 organizations and 200 individuals living in Osaka and Japan to support their memorial. “We will develop our people-to-people friendship with citizens of Osaka and Japan, which we value much more than a sister city committee exploited as a political platform and cast away like garbage by opportunistic politicians,” Tang said by e-mail.

She added that the Japanese government should “own up to each and every one of the war crimes committed against humanity. Apologize sincerely, educate your citizens truthfully and join hands with the world peace communities to make sure none of the atrocities committed by Japan during WWII will ever be repeated.”

Ramifications on U.S.-Japan Relations
While the dissolution upends a 60-year relationship, Osaka’s decision may not have much of an effect on Japan’s goal of discouraging future memorials, according to Kyu Hyun Kim, a professor of modern Japanese and Korean history at the University of California, Davis.

Kim argued that the “comfort women” issue touches on the foundation of modern-day China and Koreas. “They were countries that were built up on the defeat of the Japanese empire,” he told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “The collapse of the Japanese colonial empire is what created South Korea and North Korea today. If they approach things in this way, (the) ‘comfort women’ issue is really in some ways part of that dynamic, and the United States has not been able to really deal with this issue because their priority was … to create a bulwark for American democracy in East Asia.”

Kim did, however, note that Japan has some validity in arguing that they are not the only nation that needs to address the sexual exploitation of women during wartime. “I think this is recognized by many people in Asia that, currently for example, many Koreans are becoming aware of what they had done, including toward women, during the Vietnam War,” Kim said. “These are issues … that are endemic to modern empires and modern nation states and sexual exploitation of women, as in the ‘comfort women,’ is not an issue that only the Japanese are to be blamed. Having said that though, to argue this is some sort of made up thing by the Koreans or Chinese or that the Japanese are entirely blameless is of course fiction. … These things have gone on and there was terrible exploitation of young women and that has to be acknowledged.”

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