Even among locals in New Jersey, the monument was not well-known until the protests from Japan started to be heard.
An image of a soldier towering over a cowering woman is engraved on a 60-cm-by-60-cm copper plaque on a granite stone reaching about waist height. The inscription reads: "In memory of the more than 200,000 women and girls who were abducted by the armed forces of the government of Imperial Japan." It commemorates the "comfort women," who were forced to serve as sex slaves for wartime Japanese soldiers.
The monument was erected in autumn 2010 on the side of a library in a residential area in Palisades Park city, a suburb of New York City. More than half of the district's 20,000 people are of Korean descent. When a group of Korean-Americans in New Jersey proposed the establishment of the monument, there was no particular opposition from the local people.
Palisades Park Mayor James Rotundo, who is of Italian descent, said he had not known what comfort women were until the proposal was made. According to him, the monument is aimed at conveying the tragedy of war and was erected in line with other existing monuments such as the Korean War and Vietnam War memorials. "We did not mean to shame or humiliate anyone or any country with this monument," Rotundo said. "We often criticize the Holocaust committed by the Nazis, but do not mean to point a finger at Germany. We know Germany is now a peace-loving country. Similarly, we think contemporary Japan is different from Imperial Japan."
In May this year, however, the Japanese consul general in New York visited Rotundo. While talking about a proposal to donate cherry trees, he also pointed out that the monument on comfort women could serve as an obstacle to friendship between Japan and the United States. Several days later, four lawmakers from Japan's Liberal Democratic Party visited the mayor and asked him to remove the monument, arguing that the inscription was untrue. However, the discussions between the mayor and the four lawmakers made little progress. The mayor rejected the memorial's removal.
Later that month, The New York Times reported the issue under the headline, "Memorial for 'Comfort Women' Deepens Old Animosity." Since the article's publication, a total of 165 opinions have been sent to the newspaper's website by readers. Ninety of those responses support the stance of Palisades Park. Most say that the city government should not yield to pressure from Japan, which posters argue is intent on concealing its war responsibility. Only nine opinions argued for the removal of the monument, including posters who said that the issue of the comfort women was not related to the United States.
Steve Cavallo, 56, program coordinator at Palisades Park's public library, has held study meetings on history in various districts, including sessions on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In a study meeting on the comfort women issue, he also mentioned the women's fury at the conduct of Korean officials who helped the Imperial Japanese army. He said: "With regard to history, it's not clear-cut who was bad and who was good." Cavallo told me: "If any Japanese people get hurt over this, I feel very bad."
On the wider issue of the confrontation between Japan and South Korea over history, a non-governmental organization, International Crisis Group (ICG), which mainly consists of members in the United States and Europe, proposed a recommendation in 2005 that the Japanese government should set up a fund that uses public money for the compensation to comfort women and other war victims in South Korea. It also proposed that the South Korean government should publicly acknowledge and thank Japan for the economic aid provided after the normalization of diplomatic ties. There is no sign of the proposal being realized.
Peter Beck, an American and a key member of the group that made the proposal, sighed deeply when asked about the issue. "Unfortunately, both sides repeatedly overreact (to each other's nationalistic actions or statements). Since there's no strong political leadership on either side, the situation is all the more pessimistic," said Beck, who currently serves as South Korea's representative of the Asia Foundation.
The Japanese government's stance on war-related compensation to South Korea is consistent. It says that all compensation-related issues were solved under the 1965 Japan-South Korea agreement on the rights of claims. It has been argued that that stance complies with a common-sense reading of international law. However, Yasuaki Onuma, a distinguished professor of international law at Meiji University, said: "There is no guarantee of that interpretation's permanence." The trend in interpreting international law in recent years has been towards a broader recognition of human rights protections.
As long as there is a confrontation between a state, which assumes war responsibility, and individuals, it is a matter of course that international public opinion will side with those who appear to be in the weaker position, regardless of what legal arguments or interpretations of historical facts are presented. If Japan claims to be a human rights leader in Asia, it should reconsider its stance on this issue. For the sake of the country's dignity, Japan should look again at its war responsibility.
The author is the American General Bureau Chief of The Asahi Shimbun.
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