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Unsisterly Act : Refusing to remember the "Comfort Women"

By Carolina Ruiz


In a 10-page letter addressed to San Francisco's first black female Mayor, London Breed, the Mayor of Osaka, Hirofumi Yoshimura, ended Osaka's "sister city" ties with San Francisco on October 2, 2018. San Francisco and Osaka have been "sister cities" since October 7, 1957 and if not for Osaka's decision to break ties, would have celebrated their 61st anniversary of friendship and exchange. Read media coverage about it here

Photo credit: Getty Images

In his letter, Mayor Yoshimura objected to San Francisco's Comfort Women Memorial, claiming that the inscription was unacceptable to Japan. The plaque that accompanies the memorial reads: "This monument bears witness to the suffering of hundreds of thousands of women and girls, euphemistically called "Comfort Women," who were sexually enslaved by the Japanese Imperial Armed Forces in thirteen Asian-Pacific countries from 1931-1945. Most of these women died during their wartime captivity."

Yoshimura noted that Japan "holds a distinctive standpoint on perceiving history." His objections to the memorial fixate on the meaning of the text of the accompanying plaque, where he notes a "disagreement among historians when regarding the historical facts such as the number of "comfort women," "the degree to which the former Japanese Army was involved," and the extent of the wartime harm. He then raises straw man arguments, such as the issue of war time sexual violence committed by Allied powers during World War II, as well as the continuing prevalence of wartime sexual violence against women. Like many deniers, Yoshimura does not bother to mention or recognise the existence of any of the actual comfort women, nor does he make any attempt to engage them or address their testimonies.

On the surface, Yoshimura's position invokes a position of care towards all victims of wartime sexual violence and calls for a more inclusive engagement of perpetrators "from all sides" of the war and across history. The position Yoshimura invokes is a familiar one and makes it appear that he is not really against the acknowledgement of wartime sexual violence as a serious issue - that is as long as Japan's actions are not singled out. But the result is that the particularities of actual survivors experiences - in this case the victims of the Japanese Military - some of them still living, are dismissed. Yoshimura's position offers no direct response to those who suffered under the Japanese Military brothel system. Instead, he narrates a laundry list of interpretative "historical disagreements" regarding the precise numbers of victims, the degree of military involvement as well as the issue of measuring the extent of harm, as if to say that absent a way of quantifying these matters with absolute precision, there can be no certainty that any of these atrocities happened at all!

As for taking on a stance against all acts of sexual violence against women that is committed by any perpetrator (regardless of nationality, culture and across history), arguably a key legacy of the social justice movements led by the former "comfort women" is precisely the way that their personal experiences at the hands of the Japanese Military became the vehicle for the broader recognition of universal human rights norms; including the classification of wartime sexual violence against women as war crimes. Ultimately, Yoshimura's position is founded on historical denial because it rejects survivors' testimonies and fails to recognise their contributions. In the end, these arguments do not offer much as a direct or categorical refutation of the truth about "comfort women" and of Japan's actions, but they function as a deflection of the Japanese government's responsibility.

The political fallout between San Francisco and Osaka over a memorial to "Comfort Women" is by no means the first time that a historical commemoration of survivors has turned into a political controversy with diplomatic repercussions, although the historical ties between the two cities involved in this case imbues it with an additional local dimension as opposed to a global or exclusively geopolitical character. This is not to say, however, that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did not exert any diplomatic pressure on the local government of San Francisco. Last year, Abe himself issued an objection to the memorial addressed to then San Francisco Mayor, Edwin Lee.

In January this year, a similar memorial was unceremoniously removed in Manila under cover of night. While the local government initially claimed that the removal was only temporary (citing drainage work in the area), President Rodrigo Duterte has since taken a position that the memorial does not belong on public land - a stance that meets the Japanese government's approval.

Representing the Survivors and their Legacy

The memorial in San Francisco depicts three young women of Korean, Chinese and Filipino descent holding hands along with a fourth figure of an older woman in traditional Korean dress, who is standing alone. The figure of three young women holding hands stand atop a plinth, but the fourth, older woman, representing Kim Hak Sun, the first survivor who spoke publicly about her experiences and one of the plaintiffs in the first lawsuit filed against the Japanese government, stands at ground level and appears as if she is about to speak, shoulders squared, looking straight ahead with hands clasped together in front. Although the heads of the three younger figures are slightly bowed, their shoulders are straight just like the older figure on the ground. Their forward facing stance while holding hands reflects strength as well as solidarity.

Japanese Military records recovered (and translated) by the Allied forces, as well as the testimonies of actual survivors of military sexual slavery indicate that military brothels (a.k.a. "Comfort Stations") were established in several other locations all over Southeast Asia and the Pacific - a fact mentioned in the text of the plaque. The three countries represented by the statues of the memorial comprise only three of the national identities of those who later came forward to testify. Eventually, survivors from these three countries, along with others lent their voices to what essentially became a transnational movement for justice, reparations, and reconciliation.

The figures of the women evoke a striking symbolism: the less powerful (or possibly the powerless) finding the strength to take on something far more powerful than them and overcoming seemingly impossible odds. By coming forward to speak publicly about traumatic experiences, particularly of sexual violence, survivors were not merely holding the perpetrators to account, but were also challenging the state power behind the perpetrators. On top of that, these survivors also confronted the systems of patriarchy prevalent within their own cultures - the societies that shamed them into silence for many decades after the war.

In their stances, these figures are very much like "Fearless Girl," the bronze statue of a little girl standing in front of the famous Wall Street Bull who appears to be staring down the charging bull, and of course, the Peace Statue in Seoul Korea, perhaps the most iconic memorial to "Comfort Women" in the world. The Peace statue is a young girl sitting quietly and patiently with an empty chair beside her. She looks straight ahead, hands clenched on her lap. In spite of her size and her youth, her resolve is palpable.

The original statue in Seoul sits in front of the Embassy of Japan. Replicas of the statue are located in different parts of Korea, as well as around the world. A replica in Toronto can be found at Toronto's Korean Community Centre, the Korean Canadian Cultural Association (1133 Leslie St.)

The Politics of Denial

Like his predecessor, Mayor Yoshimura objected to the display of the memorial commemorating the bravery of former "comfort women" and the plaque on public property. He set forth an ultimatum that its removal from public property would be the only acceptable condition for resuming sister city relations with San Francisco. In 2015 Mayor Tōru Hashimoto, (Yoshimura's predecessor) expressed "grave concerns" regarding the establishment of the memorial. As mentioned earlier, diplomatic pressure also came all the way from the top.

Notably, almost 80 per cent of Yoshimura's 10-page letter to Mayor Breed are taken directly from Hashimoto's previous letters to San Francisco's Board of Supervisors. To observers of the politics of denial in Japan, Yoshimura's move is proof of his politics. In 2013, Hashimoto insisted that the "Comfort Woman" system was "necessary." His party (The Japan Restoration Party) captured seats in both the prefectural and municipal assemblies in Osaka in the 2011 elections and during his term as Osaka's Mayor, he shut down the formerly progressive Osaka International Peace Center (Peace Osaka) in 2014 for "renewal" and reopened it in 2015 completely transformed.

When it was built, Osaka's International Peace Center (Peace Osaka) was a thoroughly progressive museum which featured hard-hitting and clear-eyed exhibits about Japan's past actions alongside of the sufferings of the local residents as one of the most frequently bombed Japanese cities towards the end of the war. In the 1990s, scholars Laura Hein and Akiko Takanaka hailed the municipally funded museum's exhibits as "the most profoundly self-critical analysis of the Asia-Pacific War."

Hein and Takanaka noted: "The main objective of Peace Osaka was to educate contemporary local residents about the approximately fifty American air-raid attacks that the city suffered during the last years of the war. In order to explain why the city was attacked so many times, the planners agreed on an exhibit that portrayed Japan as not only the victim but also the aggressor: it showed that while the air-raids and the atomic bombs caused tremendous suffering, the war was the result of Japan’s assaults in Asia. The exhibit also explained that Osaka Castle Park, in the heart of the city, was used as a munitions factory during the war. While this information was absolutely accurate, mention of it acknowledged that Osaka had been a military as well as a civilian target, potentially justifying the American bombardment. In other words, the museum was established by local residents, many of whom had contributed to smaller exhibits since the 1970s, in order to institutionalize “collective remembrance,” built around testimony of local suffering due to the policies of both the U.S. and Japanese governments. These Osaka residents also wanted to incorporate remembrance of Asian suffering inflicted by the wartime Japanese into the museum’s narrative. The fundamental message was that war should always be avoided."

Soon after the conversion, Philip Seaton described the changes as a "nationalist assault on the narratives in Japan's local peace museums." Unlike the older exhibits, none of the new ones in the "renewed" Osaka museum acknowledge any atrocities committed by Japan, nor do they lead to an acknowledgement of responsibility. Instead, the exhibits now emphasise the air raids on Osaka. (To get a better sense of how the Osaka museum was transformed, see the museum's lay out and content as reflected in the brochures: original , revised).

Resources for Educators about the "Comfort Women" Issue

Listening and Responding to Women's Stories from War

A Lesson Plan and other resources using the Documentary Film, "The Apology," directed by Tiffany Hsiung as a resource. Download it here

Also see:

The Apology follows three former "comfort women" who were among the 200,000 girls and young women kidnapped and forced into military sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II. Seventy years after their imprisonment and after decades of living in silence and shame, the survivors give their first-hand accounts of the truth for the record, seeking apology and the hope that this horrific chapter of history not be forgotten. The Apology premieres on POV Monday, October 22 at 10 PM (check local listings) on PBS. Stream now

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