Osaka mayor terminates sister city ties with S.F. over ‘comfort women’ memorial

A procession from the memorial in St. Mary’s Square to the City College of San Francisco’s Chinatown Branch on Sept. 22 to mark the one-year anniversary of the installation. photos by Kyodo News and William Lee

Osaka Mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura terminated his city’s sister city ties with San Francisco over the “Comfort Women” Column of Strength memorial installed on the St. Mary’s Square Annex in the city’s Chinatown. The Oct. 2 decision comes a few weeks after the “Comfort Women” Justice Coalition, the monument’s proponents, celebrated the one-year anniversary of the statue’s unveiling Sept. 22 and days before the relationship would have celebrated its 61st anniversary Oct. 7.

Terminated in Name
Since the summer of 2015 —when the San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors first began considering the memorial’s installation — two separate Osaka city mayors have sent multiple public letters to then-Mayor Edwin M. Lee. Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto and Yoshimura, his successor, repeatedly asked Lee to reconsider the memorial, calling its message “one-sided.”

Following San Francisco’s acceptance of the memorial, Osaka officials moved to terminate the relationship, but delayed their decision after Lee unexpectedly died Dec. 12, 2017.

“It is not fair to make an important notification when its mayor is absent,” Yoshimura said, Dec. 13 according to a Kyodo News report.

Once London Breed was sworn in as mayor of San Francisco July 11, Yoshimura sent another letter July 24 asking Breed to reconsider the memorial and requested a response by the end of September.

With no response from Breed, Yoshimura announced Oct. 2 that he was terminating the relationship. Breed responded to his latest letter with a statement: “One Mayor cannot unilaterally end a relationship that exists between the people of our two cities, especially one that has existed for over 60 years,” Breed said. “In our eyes, the Sister City relationship between San Francisco and Osaka continues today through the connection of our people, and San Francisco looks forward to strengthening the bonds that tie our two great cities together.”

The relationship is largely maintained by members of the San Francisco-Osaka Sister City Association, a nonprofit organization spearheaded largely by Japanese American community members in San Francisco.

Despite Osaka cutting ties with San Francisco, the sister city association said it will continue carrying out their mission.

“We are all of course sad at Mayor Yoshimura’s action to terminate the San Francisco-Osaka Sister City relationship. However, and with the blessing of the San Francisco Mayor’s Office, our association will continue with our people-to-people exchanges,” Kathleen Kimura, co-chair of the San Francisco-Osaka Sister City Association, wrote in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly. “Our relationship with the people of Osaka will never be terminated. San Francisco high school students will continue to go to Osaka. Students from Osaka will continue to come to San Francisco.”

Allen Okamoto, co-chair of the association, said in an interview with the Nichi Bei Weekly that the termination will have a minimal impact on the organization’s work, noting that it will omit a visit to meet the mayor when delegations from San Francisco visit Osaka.

A TALE OF TWO CITIES — November 2017 photo shows a statue in San Francisco symbolizing Asian “comfort women” forced to work at wartime Japanese military brothels. Kyodo News photo

Osaka Faces Backlash
Yoshimura said in his latest letter that he would consider re-examining the relationship if San Francisco decides to remove the memorial, but Breed has held fast.

“The San Francisco Comfort Woman Memorial is a symbol of the struggle faced by all women who have been, and are currently, forced to endure the horrors of enslavement and sex trafficking,” she said in her statement. “These victims deserve our respect and this memorial reminds us all of events and lessons we must never forget.”

“I don’t think the people at San Francisco City Hall are so upset, because we’re not upset,” Okamoto said. “Life goes on, and the relationships are just as strong as ever.” He added that the Sept. 29 Osaka Matsuri in Japantown featured a delegation from Osaka’s youth and other connections the association has nurtured over the years.

Meanwhile, the “Comfort Women” Justice Coalition protested Yoshimura’s decision. The coalition, which features representatives from various Asian American communities and organizations, called the decision “outrageous,” and accused Yoshimura of denying the experience of all women who have experienced sexual violence, especially the “comfort women,” the hundreds of thousands of women the Japanese military forced to serve as sex slaves during World War II.

“They’re going to terminate and abrogate a 60-year-old relationship between people because they don’t want a statue that tells the truth?” Judith Mirkinson, president of the coalition, remarked to the Nichi Bei Weekly. “We also feel this is a revictimization of all those women who have actually come forward. It’s coming at an interesting moment for the U.S. and the world as we watch on television countless women talk about the impact of rape and sexual violence on them.”

Mirkinson added that the “comfort women” first spoke publicly about their sexual enslavement in 1991, leading the United Nations to declare rape as an instrument of war a crime against humanity.

“I’m disappointed in Mayor Yoshimura’s decision to dissolve the sister city relationship. It’s a shame that he has permitted his political motivation to poison this intercultural partnership and all that has been good in it,” Dr. Jonathan Kim, the coalition’s Korean American representative, said in response to the termination.

Sister Cities International, a nonprofit organization founded to serve as the national membership organization for individual sister cities, counties, and states across the United States, declined to comment on Osaka’s decision directly, but said the termination of a relationship over political differences was “counterproductive.”

“While every citizen should feel free to express their own opinions in keeping with his or her own conscience, the suspension of a sister city relationship due to disagreement over a government policy or practice or historical events can be counterproductive and contrary to the stated mission of sister city relationships promoting ‘peace through mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation — one individual, one community at a time,’” the organization’s policy states. “Suspending sister city relationships closes a channel of communication through which meaningful dialogue may be held. Our policy is to encourage our members and U.S. communities to keep their sister city relationships active, especially when political issues threaten to disrupt the positive, constructive relationships that have been made.”

Support for the Memorial in Japan
Two groups from Japan attended the Sept. 22 anniversary celebration. Six delegation members of the Osaka-based Kansai Network to Resolve the Comfort Women Issue and four members of the Forum for the Improvement of Osaka attended the event.

Pang Chung Ja led the Kansai Network delegation, representing six organizations and some individuals. “Even if the mayor of Osaka proceeds with the termination, I feel that our relationship with the people of San Francisco has only deepened these past few years and only continues to grow stronger,” Pang said. “Let us work together to solve this issue.”

Pang told the Nichi Bei Weekly that while her organization had not conducted any formal polling on Yoshimura’s decision, it has received “a great deal of support” since the mayor gave his ultimatum July 24.

Hisaye Ogawa led the Osaka Forum delegation, representing 19 organizations that have united to resist Japanese right wing politics. Ogawa told the Nichi Bei Weekly, “We came to America as Japanese citizens seeking an apology from our own government. We really want to stress that ‘Japan must apologize.’”

Speaking on behalf of the Osaka Forum delegation, Kazuko Yamahara also spoke at the Sept. 22 ceremony. She expressed the shame and indignation she felt about Yoshimura’s threat to terminate the sister city relationship and criticized Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push to relocate an American military base in Okinawa.

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