Japanese lawmakers demand removal of California World War II memorial

The call comes after a poll shows 80 percent of Japanese don't want to pay Koreans war reparations

Glendale's bronze 'Comfort Women' memorial, erected in July
Tetsuya Mizuno/The Yomiuri Shimbun/AP Images

A statue of a lone woman in traditional Korean dress that commemorates women sexually exploited during World War II drew the ire of Japanese lawmakers visiting Southern California this week — amid signs that many in Japanese society are weary of making reparations for crimes perpetrated during the war.

The 1,100-pound bronze figure unveiled in Glendale, Calif., in July commemorates “comfort women” from Korea, the Philippines, China and a number of other Asian countries who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army during WWII. Some Japanese sources estimate 20,000 women were forced into systematic sexual exploitation, but Chinese sources say the figure was 20 times that.

Three members of Japan’s House of Representatives – Hiromu Nakamaru, Yuzuru Nishida and Mio Sugita, all from the country’s conservative Restoration party – asked city officials to remove the statue, said Kathy Masaoka, co-chair of Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress, one of the Japanese-American advocacy groups the legislators met.

“They said they were here to investigate different viewpoints on the comfort women," said Masaoka. "I don’t believe they met that many groups.”

Two delegations of Japanese officials made requests last year that a similar memorial in Palisades Park, N.J. be taken down. 

“They asked, ‘Why is a third country involved in this issue,’ when they believe it’s between Japan and I guess South Korea,’” Masaoka said of the recent delegation's visit to the Glendale memorial in Los Angeles County.

The county is home to over 100,000 Korean-Americans, according to the Association of American Geographers. 

Glendale officials did not respond to an interview request at the time of publication, but it appeared from local media that there were no immediate plans to remove the memorial.

Dai Sil Kim-Gibson, a 75-year-old Korean-American filmmaker, told Al Jazeera that she was 7 years old when the Allied Forces defeated Japan.

“They say that the youngest comfort woman ever taken was 12-years-old," said Kim-Gibson. "There’s no way to verify that. If you think about it, had I been five years older, I would have been a candidate. It’s not remote from me.”

When Kim-Gibson came to the U.S. she was hoping to forget about Korea’s dark history with forced labor and sexual slavery under the Japanese occupation. But in 1992, a friend at a local Korean church invited her to translate a live testimony of former comfort women at a function held in the church basement.

“All of a sudden, I felt something squeezing hard on my shoulder. It brought me to my full senses. It was the woman sitting beside me,” said Kim-Gibson, referring to a former comfort woman. “She didn’t look at the audience. She just looked into my eyes and said, ‘You are a Korean woman. Can you imagine what it was like?’

Kim-Gibson, who went on to produce a film and book titled, “Silence Broken: The Korean Comfort Women,” said that the lawmakers’ tour is part of a growing trend in Japanese society.

“Japanese society these days is becoming hopelessly more and more conservative," she said. "They are not only denying the comfort women, but also, if you can believe it, the Nanjing Massacre.”

Kim-Gibson said that because Japan and the U.S. have allied so closely since World War II, Japanese lawmakers “come here to appeal with reasonable confidence that their voices might be heard.”

Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs declined to comment for this story.

A poll conducted in late November by Japanese media outlets Sankei Shimbun and Fuji News Network – just after Japanese courts ordered numerous companies to pay Koreans forced into labor during the war – showed roughly 70 percent of respondents don’t trust Korea. Almost 80 percent said Japan should not pay reparations.

To date, Japan has on numerous occasions made official apologies and monetary reparations for various crimes conducted during the war. But many across the continent remain upset by what they call the light portrayal of Japan’s role in the rest of Asia during WWII, and by Japanese officials’ visits to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, where 14 Class-A war criminals are enshrined.

“I don’t believe they necessarily represent the views of Japan or of the parliament,” Masaoka said, explaining that there are elements of society that have advocated for compensation for war victims.

Masaoka said she had transmitted to the lawmakers her organization’s support for the statue.

“Our suggestion, because there is so much dispute about the numbers or what happened – and because (many of) the comfort women have never had a chance to express themselves, is that Japan should have a hearing or commission where people can testify.”

Masaoka said her parents, who were detained at Japanese-American internment camps during World War II, did not speak about their experiences until the U.S. government started collecting testimony on what had happened and attempting to make reparations.

“It was so important for our community and our parents and grandparents to have the government do that … It totally transformed people.”

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