‘Comfort women’ exhibit opens in State Bldg. in S.F.

‘Comfort Women’ exhibit at the State Building, 350 McAllister in San Francisco photos by Kenji G. Taguma / Nichi Bei Weekly

While the subject of so-called “comfort women” continues to cause controversy between Japan and its neighboring countries in Asia, a new photo exhibition recently opened at the California State Building designed to shed light on one of the darkest chapters of World War II — the sexual enslavement of women throughout Asia by the Japanese Imperial military.

Said to be the first such exhibit on state grounds, a press conference was held at the building at 350 McAllister St. in San Francisco’s Civic Center in honor of the one-year anniversary of the “‘Comfort Women’ Column of Strength” memorial installed last September in San Francisco’s St. Mary’s Square. It comes following a recent spate of vandalism to the memorial, as well as a letter by the Osaka mayor threatening the withdrawal of the two cities’ sister city relationship if the memorial wasn’t removed.

“It’s very important that we memorialize their stories, because unfortunately many of them are not alive to tell them,” said California state Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), who sponsored the exhibit along with colleague Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco). “And unfortunately, they have been bullied and terrorized to also not speak about it.”

“You’ve heard this before just how important it is to remember our history, because history does repeat itself, and those who forget history often and always do repeat it,” added Chiu. “The atrocities of the past are something that we have to remember this very day, because atrocities still continue, and if we are not watchful, if we are not ready, terrible things happen.”

Also on hand for the introduction was former Congressman Mike Honda, who represented San Jose in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the California state Assembly before that. “In 1994, I came across a photo exhibit much like this at Stanford and realized what the Japanese Imperial military had done in Asia,” Honda recalled. “I learned a lot of what happened in Europe, but we were not taught much about what happened in Asia.”

Honda would go on to pass legislation, first as a state assemblymember and then as a U.S. congressman, to urge Japan to apologize and give redress to victims of military atrocities during World War II.

“I feel that we have a moral obligation to recognize their right for an apology by the government of Japan, and for their children to be taught what had happened at the hands of the Japanese military in Asia,” Honda said.

“The fact that we have a public photo exhibition is really very, very significant,” said retired San Francisco Superior Court Judge Lillian Sing, a co-chair of the “Comfort Women” Justice Coalition.

“We can no longer remain silent. We have to talk about it publicly, and everywhere.”

Sing said that the recent vandalism to the “comfort women” statue made it feel like the victims were “being violated once again.”

“Her eyes were painted white, as if she was blinded,” she described. “She almost looked like a spirit, a ghost. I was so saddened by that, so aghast by it. Her skirt had paint on it. Our inscription was scratched, not once, but twice. So, there were four (incidences) of vandalism on our memorial.”

“Today we show you evidence, evidence of what happened,” added “Comfort Women” Justice Coalition Co-Chair Julie Tang, also a retired San Francisco Superior Court judge, pointing to the exhibit. “These are but a few of the victims of the 13 countries. Here we honor them for their bravery and courage.”

The exhibit included stories of women from countries such as Indonesia, China, Korea, East Timor, the Philippines, Japan, and includes a map of where Japanese military “comfort stations” were located.

According to the exhibit, “from 1931 to 1945 Japanese Imperial forces created the largest institutional system of sexual slavery in the twentieth century,” with young women – the majority being teenagers — lured or kidnapped and forced into a system of brothels in more than 13 countries conquered by the Japanese during World War II. The system, the exhibition stated, involved 180,000 Koreans, 250,000 Chinese and “thousands of young women from every colony under Japanese occupation.”

Hirofumi Yoshimura, the mayor of Osaka, wrote to then-San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee last year, saying his city would pull out of the sister city relationship if the statue was not removed. Following the inauguration of Mayor London Breed in July, Yoshimura repeated the threat in a July 24 letter, stating that he would terminate the relationship if the statue isn’t removed from “the city’s public property.” He gave her until the end of September to respond.

The “Comfort Women” photo exhibition will be on display until Sept. 20 at the State Building, and then will be relocated to the City College of San Francisco Chinatown Campus from Sept. 22 to Oct. 19, said Tang.

A one-year anniversary of the “Comfort Women” Memorial will be held on Saturday, Sept. 22, beginning with an 11 a.m. ceremony at 651 California St., followed by a group procession to the City College Chinatown Campus at 12:30 p.m. A lunch, program and screening of the film “Da Han” will follow from 1:30 to 4 p.m. at the City College campus.

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