Japanese-Americans split over statue of ‘comfort women'

August 27, 2013

By ERIKA TOH/ Correspondent

GLENDALE, Calif.--An ocean away from their ancestral homeland, Japanese-Americans are still divided over statues memorializing “comfort women” of World War II that are being installed in California and other parts of the United States.

Some Japanese-Americans are waging fierce protests against the monuments, insisting that South Korea cooked the contentious historical issue.

Others, saying comfort women are also victims of war, just like those of Japanese descent who were herded off to internment camps by the U.S. government after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

On July 30, Glendale, located on the outskirts of Los Angeles, became the first municipality in California to erect a comfort women statue, which portrays a young girl in traditional Korean dress with an empty seat next to her. It is a replica of the one that was installed across from the Japanese Embassy in Seoul in December 2011.

Plans are under way for similar statues or monuments in other municipalities near Los Angeles, home to the largest Korea town in the world. Comfort women is an euphemism for tens of thousands of foreign women and girls--most of them Koreans--who were forced to become sex workers for Japanese troops before and during World War II.

Approval of the statue in Glendale came after dozens of Japanese nationals and Japanese-Americans assembled in the gallery section of the city council on July 9 to argue against the proposed installation.

The Los Angeles Times described their protests: “It began as a trickle, but transformed into a tsunami.”

The opponents were organized in response to a call, carried in a Japanese language newspaper, by a former news reporter who lives in the city. Some contended that South Korea “cooked up” the comfort women issue, while others insisted that there is no evidence that the women and girls were coerced. Still others argued that other nations' militaries also had similar arrangements to the Japanese military brothels.

The council voted 4-1 for the monument to be erected in Central Park.

“I don’t see this as designed to be a monument to shame Japan,” Councilwoman Laura Friedman said. The monument, she said, is meant to remind people of the tragedy that 13- or 14-year-old girls were forced to become comfort women and the horrors of the war.

Only a handful of Japanese and Japanese-Americans showed up for the ceremony on July 30 to unveil the monument.

While they eyed the statue from a distance, a crowd of residents of Korean ancestry had their pictures taken with the monument.

Masayuki Onoda, a 68-year-old former engineer and a third-generation Japanese descendent who was opposed to the monument, said it was meaningless to protest when the issue went before the city council.

At the ceremony, two Japanese-Americans took the podium to show their support for the installation.

Mike Kodama, whose grandparents died in a relocation camp during World War II, called for unity among Americans of Asian descent, saying Japanese and Korean descendants are all Americans.

Kathy Masaoka, 65, said she attended the ceremony to set herself apart from those who deny the history.

Masaoka, a third-generation Japanese-American, said she identifies with comfort women because she has long demanded that the U.S. government apologize to Americans of Japanese descent for relocating them to internment camps and offer them compensation. She said offering an apology and redress helps victims heal.

Similar local battles are spreading around Los Angeles through grass-roots efforts to erect comfort women monuments.

The movements were galvanized after the U.S. Congress passed in 2007 a resolution calling on Japan to “formally apologize and accept historical responsibility.” U.S. Rep. Mike Honda, a Democrat and Japanese-American, sponsored the resolution.

The efforts are gathering momentum on the back of the growing population of Korean-Americans.

According to the 2010 statistics by the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of Americans of Japanese ancestry stood at about 1.3 million. With 270,000, California is home to the largest community of Japanese-Americans.

In comparison, the Korean-American population numbers 1.7 million nationally. California has the largest such population, with 450,000.

In Irvine, the mayor met with a Korean-affiliated group over a similar proposal several months previously. The city government is mulling whether the city council should discuss it.

In Buena Park, Councilman Art Brown is weighing whether a proposal for constructing a monument should be submitted to the city council in September or at a later date.

The city council tentatively delayed consideration on July 23, apparently taking into account the sentiment of Japanese-Americans.

Council members, however, cannot afford to completely ignore the intensifying lobbying efforts by Korean-Americans.

If debate over the monument proceeds in these municipalities, it could rekindle protest rallies by Japanese nationals and Japanese-Americans and, in response, lead to similar projects elsewhere.

Masaoka said the more opponents of the monuments wage protests, the more supporters are determined to erect them.

Most Japanese-Americans are remaining silent about the controversy, perhaps out of concern over dividing their population.

The Japanese American Citizens League, the nation’s largest Japanese-American and Asian-American civil rights organization, said it will not take a position on the issue.

By ERIKA TOH/ Correspondent
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Taking the podium, Kathy Masaoka, a Japanese-American, speaks in support of the installation of the statue of a “comfort woman” at a ceremony to unveil the monument in Glendale, California, on July 30. (Erika Toh)

Taking the podium, Kathy Masaoka, a Japanese-American, speaks in support of the installation of the statue of a “comfort woman” at a ceremony to unveil the monument in Glendale, California, on July 30. (Erika Toh)

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  • Taking the podium, Kathy Masaoka, a Japanese-American, speaks in support of the installation of the statue of a “comfort woman” at a ceremony to unveil the monument in Glendale, California, on July 30. (Erika Toh)

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