Following hours of testimony at San Francisco’s City Hall, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to pass a resolution urging the creation of a memorial in San Francisco for the so-called “comfort women” of World War II Sept. 22.
The resolution pertains to the women the Japanese Imperial Army enslaved for sex during World War II and euphemistically called “comfort women.” While no official record of how many women were part of the “comfort women” system, it is widely reported that an estimated 200,000 women from the Korean Peninsula, China, what is today the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam and other Asian and Pacific Islander countries were enslaved.
San Francisco’s memorial would follow Glendale, Calif.’s memorial that was erected in 2013, and would be the first major U.S. city to have such a memorial.
The language of the resolution, which drew support from a wide coalition of people, but opposition from some Japanese American community members and outright denial from Japanese right-wing nationalists, now aims to help begin a “healing process,” said District 1 Supervisor Eric Mar, who introduced the resolution.
Diverse Coalition of Supporters
Mar said the memorial would honor the “comfort women” and also address the 20.9 million people who are victims of human trafficking today. The resolution, which passed with amendments, was spearheaded by the “Comfort Women” Justice Coalition, which originated from the Rape of Nanking Redress Coalition. The supporters reflect a wide range of race and creed including 87-year-old Yong Soo Lee, a “comfort woman” survivor who came from Seoul and called herself “living evidence to history” at the Sept. 17 Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee meeting at San Francisco City Hall.
Speaking through an interpreter, she told Mar and his subcommittee, that she hates the crimes Japan committed, but not the people. “For the sake of our next generation … we need to teach accurate history. I want to tell you, the truth will come out no matter what,” she said in Korean.
She went on to urge Japanese leaders to change course and apologize, and for San Francisco to build a memorial, citing only 47 survivors remain in Korea.
“To me, power is emanating from many of you that are here but especially from Grandma Lee, Halmoni (Korean for “grandmother”) Lee, who has come to us from Seoul with a tremendous gift of peace and love and healing and justice,” Mar said Sept. 22 at the full Board of Supervisors meeting.
Following the resolution’s passage, Mar said he and the coalition is working with the Mayor and city departments to discuss the memorial’s design and location. He said the “Comfort Women” Justice Coalition has raised some $140,000 in private funds for a memorial to be built on public land, similar to San Francisco’s Holocaust and Armenian genocide memorials.
Mar said he is talking with the San Francisco Unified School District to confirm its current curriculum and develop materials on the “comfort women.”
“The memorial alone does almost nothing unless there is a community keeping the memory alive,” he said. Mar said he envisions education and programs, similar to the Day of Remembrance ceremonies to remember the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans, could help future generations remember and carry on the message for justice.
Proponents for the memorial said it serves to send a message to Japan, calling for an apology and restitution to “comfort women” directly from the Japanese government as well.
Mar, who said he hoped the memorial would be the starting point for education and healing, told the Nichi Bei Weekly that it aims to “keep the issue alive when some in Japan are trying to silence the issue.”
A pan-ethnic coalition of supporters came together to support the memorial’s creation. Starting with the Rape of Nanking Redress Coalition, the memorial gained support from San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who serves as honorary co-chair for the “Comfort Women” Justice Coalition, said Julie Tang, a retired Superior Court judge and coalition leader. Among others, the resolution received support from the San Francisco Interfaith Council, the Filipina Women’s Network, Veterans For Peace, the Korean American Forum of California, and other groups and individuals.
Judith Mirkinson, activist and National Lawyers Guild member, said the “comfort women” deserve to be recognized. “Why do we want a memorial to the so-called ‘comfort women’? Is it because we don’t want to talk about other atrocities? No. It’s because we want to remember what happened to them. We want to remember the courage of these women and the sacrifices that they made,” she said. Mirkinson said the “comfort women” speaking out on their experience led to the United Nations declaring “rape during war as a crime against humanity.”
JAs React to Resolution
While the memorial enjoyed broad support from many people in and around San Francisco, several Japanese American community members felt that they had not been consulted.
At the Sept. 17 meeting, Caryl Ito said she wanted Mar to support an amended version of the resolution forwarded by District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener, “to reduce the hatred, division and racism the current tone could create in our city of peace and love.” She said that social justice should not come at the expense of another ethnic group.
Mar countered that the amendments “undercut the spirit of what the ‘comfort women’ coalition came up,” and asked Ito, “where is the hatred in the language of the resolution?”
The amendments in question, while not deleting any language, added other instances of sexual slavery and misogyny throughout history and emphasized the San Francisco Japanese American community’s incarceration during World War II in concentration camps.
Ito did not give specific examples to Mar at the hearing and did not respond to inquiries from the Nichi Bei Weekly at press time.
Community member Steve Nakajo, also spoke at the Sept. 17 subcommittee hearing, and asked Mar to consider the amendments. Nakajo told the Nichi Bei Weekly in an interview that Mar had been dismissive of him and Ito despite meeting with them. Nakajo, said he felt the Japanese American community lacked sufficient opportunity to discuss the resolution with Mar. While Nakajo acknowledged Mar’s intentions were to make it about “peace and love,” he said the resolution “without our input, … doesn’t work within that spirit.”
The Japantown Task Force’s board unanimously voted Sept. 16 to ask the Board of Supervisors to delay the vote on the resolution to allow the Japantown community to seek outreach and education about the resolution.
However, some in the Japantown community cited that the “comfort women” issue has nothing to do with the Japanese American experience. Paul Osaki, executive director of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California, criticized amendments that mention the Japanese American wartime incarceration. “Personally, I think that it has no business being in the resolution, because it has nothing to do with the crimes against women in Asia during WWII,” he wrote in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly. “It’s not our memorial, it’s theirs.”
Lillian Sing, a retired judge and co-founder of the Rape of Nanking Redress Coalition, who spoke at the Sept. 15 Board of Supervisors meeting, also stressed that the resolution is not meant to be “Japan-bashing” and pledged the “Comfort Women” Justice Coalition would aid the Japanese American community should it face any backlash. “The argument that this resolution will hurt Japanese Americans is simply all wrong,” she said. “Japanese Americans have done nothing to deserve such an association … and we will fight against any hate crimes against Japanese Americans because of this resolution.”
Ultimately, the Board approved two sets of minor amendments. One, submitted by Wiener cited that while “it does not in any way excuse the actions of the Japanese Imperial Army,” there are other women who have been victimized by other countries. Mar also submitted his own set of amendments focusing on the victims of human trafficking today and the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans. He also added language to “explore opportunities to educate the community” on the “comfort women.”
With the passage of the resolution, the discussion now focuses on the memorial’s design and placement. Mar said he hopes to involve more Japanese Americans in creating it. In retrospect, he said he wished he had done more outreach to the Japanese American community. While he had been in conversation with Adachi and Emily Murase, the executive director of San Francisco’s Department on the Status of Women, he said the coalition could have done more to reach out to the broader Japanese American community. “The goal is to erect the memorial in a year. … Some (of the other memorials) took a shorter time, but I wanted to develop trust with the Japanese American community.”
Tang said the coalition will develop a forum to discuss the resolution to share concerns with the Japanese American community. “The object is to engage individuals who come in good faith to explore concerns with us,” she wrote in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly. “On the other hand, if there were people whose minds had been made up and the purpose is to detract, delay and destroy the building of such a memorial, we will flush them out and not waste our time with them.”
Throughout the hearings, members of the Japanese right-wing spoke in opposition to the resolution, stating “comfort women” such as Lee were a fabrication. During the Sept. 17 meeting, Koichi Mera, plaintiff in a lawsuit against Glendale’s “comfort women” memorial, which was ruled frivolous by federal court, contested Lee’s testimony to which Lee stood up to yell, “You are a liar!” in Korean.
Supervisor David Campos, following public comment on Sept. 17 addressed the Japanese American community, acknowledging that their opinions were divided on the effects the resolution would have on Japanese Americans. Having said that, he turned his attention to the nationalists and said, “Shame on you,” for the denial of what happened and the personal attacks on Lee. “I think the denial of what happened is a disservice to the Japanese American community, I think it’s a disservice to the people of Japan, I think it’s a disservice to all of us, actually, as human beings,” he said. Campos said peoples denial of historical fact shows that “we do need a monument, because if people are denying it after all these years, we need a testament to what happened.”
By TOMO HIRAI, Nichi Bei Weekly