Three young women/girls, a Chinese, Filipina and Korean, stand atop a column. They face outward, forming a circle, their hands linked together. Their faces are calm but determined. They represent those that didn’t survive and those that lived to tell the truth. Below them stands a life size replica of Hak Soon Kim, the first Korean women to break a silence of over fifty years. A silence of what happened to the hundreds of thousands of women and girls who were sexually enslaved by the Japanese Imperial Army during the Pacific War.
This statue, Comfort Women: Column of Strength, is causing an international incident. Mayor Yoshimura of Osaka is ending the sixty year sister city relationship with San Francisco. Prime Minister Abe is making statements. The consul-general of Japan in San Francisco is extremely upset.
Why are these women so important? What do they represent?
These women represent one memory of the world. A memory of rape and violence against women. A memory which when articulated helped change and is still helping to change what has long been considered “normal behavior” for men during war. It’s still widespread, but today, rape as a strategy of war is considered a crime against humanity and a war crime.
These women/girls are known euphemistically as the “comfort women.” From 1931 to 1945, the Japanese Imperial forces instituted the largest systematic system of sexual slavery in the twentieth century. Young women (the majority, teenagers) were either lured by promises of jobs or kidnapped and were forced into a system of brothels in more than 13 countries conquered by the Japanese army in WWII. It involved 180,000 Koreans (then a colony of Japan), 250,000 Chinese and thousands of young women from every country under Japanese occupation.
The women were supposed to provide “comfort” to soldiers either going off to or coming home from war. “Comfort” in this case meant being repeatedly raped by as many as 40 soldiers a day. Referred to by the soldiers as “latrines,” the women were listed by the Japanese as part of the supplies needed for war. It was believed that if a soldier had sex, especially with a virgin, before going into battle, his chances of survival greatly improved. The opposite, of course was the case for the young women. It’s estimated that that between 87-90% of all the comfort women died in captivity. The survival rate for front line Japanese military? 27%.
The statue, officially unveiled and given to the city of San Francisco in the fall of 2017, was the brain child of two retired judges and their colleagues, among them activists who had fought for an official apology and reparations for those Japanese families interned during WWII. In 2015, a resolution was passed in the SF Board of Supervisors to build a statue in memory of the comfort women and to illuminate the issues of sexual violence during war and sex trafficking. In order to build the statue a multi national, multi generational and multi issue coalition came together. The Comfort Women Justice Coalition represents the international population of the Bay Area. It’s made up of Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Filipino Americans, Japanese nationals, Women’s Activists, Human Rights Advocates, Peace and Veteran Groups and various others. It is the first statue to commemorate the experience of the comfort women in a major city in the United States. It is also unique in that it is one of the only statues to be built in memory of Asian women.
The statue is part of a world wide movement to demand an official apology and reparations from the Japanese government for their WWII wartime activities. It is also to bring attention to the relationship between militarism and sexual violence in the past and today. Long before the #metoo movement, these “grandmas” were showing the power of speaking out about women’s experience. There is also a direct line and continuum between what happened in the “comfort stations” during WWII to the brothels and rapes of the Korean and Vietnam Wars. The rape centers of Yugoslavia and the treatment of Yazidi in Iraq are related as are the treatment of women in every war.
One would think that the building of such a memorial would be a no-brainer. Who, after all could be against a memorial to the memory of young women raped during war? Think again.
There was pushback from the Japanese government and their representatives from the very beginning. Right wing Japanese activists with close ties to the government claimed that it was all made up. Their arguments ranged from “it never happened,” to “all the women were prostitutes, who volunteered and were well paid,” (as though multiple rape is ok in this case), to “the numbers are exaggerated.” Although, many Japanese Americans supported the statue, some were afraid that this added scrutiny would re-engender anti Japanese feelings and build disharmony among the Multi Asian community. (There has been no evidence of this at all.)
But the big sticking point? To this day, the Japanese government has refused to officially, through the Diet (the Japanese Parliament), acknowledge and apologize for their actions. Nor have they provided official government reparations. At various times, officials have said they were sorry, only to take it back later, some stating that sexual violence was actually necessary during war. The Japanese consulate in San Francisco insists that there are “two sides” to the story and that the statue only tells one. Of course this is not true. It happened. It was an example of femicide and those that survived demand and deserve justice.
The Abe administration sees the issue of the comfort women as an impediment to their nationalist narrative of WWII. They have banned the mention of what happened in current textbooks and fired teachers who want to teach about both the comfort women and what happened during the massacre of Nanjing in 1937. The government even tried to influence McGraw Hill here in the US to not talk about either of these historical truths. The rewriting of history comes at a time of right wing resurgence around the world. Political parties in Austria, France and Italy also want to rewrite their twentieth century narrative. This of course is very dangerous.
We invite everyone to come see this one symbol of both women’s vulnerability and women’s resilience. It calls on all us to understand the relationship between war and violence against women. It asks us to examine what is happening to women today in Syria, in Myanmar and in Iraq. The issue of the comfort women opens up the question of the relationship between rape and violence against women historically as well.
The Comfort Women: Column of Strength is in St. Mary’s Square Annex between Kearny and Grant and right off of Pine Street. For more information go to www.remembercomfortwomen.org