Julie Tang and Lillian Sing stood before 11 blown-up, black and white portraits of elderly women on display inside the California State Building on Wednesday, intent on winning a race against time.
Both are retired San Francisco judges, on a mission in the #MeToo era to vindicate the so-called “comfort women” — a euphemism for an estimated 400,000 women from 13 countries who were subjected to sex trafficking by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II.
The photographs memorialize some of the last remaining survivors in a tragic chapter of history for which the Japanese government continues to deny responsibility. For Tang and Sing, advocating for a public apology from Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, while the women are still alive is the first step toward justice being served.
“The comfort women are dying. They are in their 90s, we have very few left,” said Sing, adding that she gave up her career to bring their stories to light. “They are getting older and older, and I think Japan is trying to wait it out until the women are all gone, and we won’t have any live victims to talk about it. But we will never let this history be forgotten.”
With the support of state Assembly members Phil Ting and David Chiu, the exhibit that opened Wednesday in the state building at 350 McAllister St. became the first tribute to the victims of a once massive sex slave system to rise in a state building across the country.
“Those who forget history often repeat it,” said Chiu on Wednesday.“This is how we remember, how we ensure with not only the current generation but future generations that this never happens again.”
Advocacy from local leaders has moved the issue into public consciousness in California. Former Congressman Michael Honda has, among other things, spearheaded efforts that resulted in the incorporation of the plight of the comfort women into the 10th grade curriculum in San Francisco schools.
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Such efforts have been a source of ongoing tensions between San Francisco and its Japanese sister city, Osaka. Since The City’s installation of a statue protesting the comfort women system in Chinatown last September, Osaka’s mayor as recently as last month threatened to sever ties with San Francisco lest the statue be taken down — a demand that both former San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and current Mayor London Breed have refused.
“It’s a 60 year old relationship with Osaka — not with the government, but with the people,” said Tang, who while calling this relationship “significant,” said it does not trump the importance of remembering the facts of history.
“I was a judge for 26 years in San Francisco, this is about justice and it’s about women’s rights,” said Tang. “We have the women here who suffered, who testified, who told the world what happened to them. These are [living] witnesses, you can’t get better than that in a court of law.”
But in the last six months, the sculpture has been vandalized on four separate occasions.
“They were violated 50 years ago during world war two, they have been constantly violated by Japan, who has denied this chapter of history and now in SF before our very eyes our memorial was violated again,” said Sing. “We will continue to stand tall and talk about this until justice is finally achieved.”