San Francisco expected to grant final approval for ‘comfort women’ memorial

After a number of edits to the inscription of the proposed “comfort women” memorial, a San Francisco commission may give the final approval today necessary for its installation in a Chinatown public park.

The proposal of the privately funded memorial, led by retired San Francisco Superior Court judges Julie Tang and Lillian Sing, has stirred strong emotions, but it appears on target for installation in September — two years after the effort began. Tang and Sing jointly chair Comfort Women Justice Coalition, which would fund the statue that represents the “comfort women” from countries like Korea and China who were forced into sex slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II.

San Francisco’s comfort women memorial would be the first of its kind in a major U.S. city.

But relations remained strained between South Korea and Japan, as survivors argue that Japan has yet to fully repent for the human rights violations. As of Friday, more than 200 emails opposing the memorial have flooded the Arts Commission in advance of today’s vote on the text that will appear on the memorial plaque.

“To me, it’s really misplaced,” said Judith Mirkinson, a member of the Comfort Women Justice Coalition, about the emails.

The emails generally refute all or parts of the comfort women history. Some dispute the claim that as many as “hundreds of thousands” were enslaved — as the proposed inscription states — and call the memorial an act of division or hate toward the Japanese community.

One email signed by Kaoru Taguchi, of New Jersey, reads, “I believe the monument will divide your multi-cultural good communities. And also it will drive a wedge among U.S., South Korea, and Japan alliance, and that will only make Communist China and North Korea happy.”

In response, Mirkinson said, “It’s not divisive to tell the truth.”

The Arts Commission vote is the last city approval required of the project. The Board of Supervisors, which endorsed the project in 2015, would have to vote to officially accept the gift for installation in St. Mary’s Park extension in Chinatown. The memorial is being constructed by sculptor Steven Whyte.

The site selected for the memorial by Mayor Ed Lee prompted world-renowned artist Sarah Sze to withdraw her proposed artwork for the site after she learned she would have to share the space.

Arts Commission spokesperson Kate Patterson said on Friday that she had “counted 220 [emails] in opposition, most of which are from Japan.”

“We have also received extensive public comment in support of the project from local stakeholders, including former Congressman Mike Honda, Karen Korematsu of the Fred T. Korematsu Institute and Judith Mirkinson of the National Lawyers Guild, to name a few,” Patterson said.

Patterson deferred comment on the project itself to the board members. “We are administering this project per the unanimous directive of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors,” she said.

The flood of emails is perhaps not surprising given its recent controversy.

When the Board of Supervisors voted to support the installation two years ago, Toru Hashimoto, the mayor of Osaka in Japan, sent a nine-page letter denouncing it.

And in December, a “comfort woman” statue was installed outside the Japanese Consulate in Busan, South Korea, drawing complaints from Japanese officials, according to The New York Times.

Following minor edits, the San Francisco memorial’s text was approved last month by a subcommittee of the Arts Commission. Before that vote, the Comfort Women Justice Coalition had agreed to some revisions in a spirit of compromise.

Artist Steven Whyte’s piece was selected as the winner for San Francisco’s proposed “comfort women” memorial in San Francisco’s Chinatown neighborhood. (Courtesy San Francisco Arts Commission)

The proposed comfort women memorial inscription reads as follows:

“Our worst fear is that our painful history during World War II will be forgotten”
— former “Comfort Woman”

This monument bears witness to the suffering of hundreds of thousands of women and girls, euphemistically called “Comfort Women,” who were sexually enslaved by the Japanese Imperial Armed Forces in thirteen Asian-Pacific countries from 1931 to 1945. Most of these women died during their wartime captivity. This dark history was hidden for decades until the 1990s, when the survivors courageously broke their silence. They helped move the world to declare that sexual violence as a strategy of war is a crime against humanity for which governments must be held accountable.

This memorial is dedicated to the memory of these women, and to the crusade to eradicate sexual violence and sex trafficking throughout the world.

Gift to the City from the “Comfort Women” Justice Coalition
Collection of the City and County of San Francisco”

During last month’s Arts Commission subcommittee meeting, Supervisor Sandra Fewer, who previously served on school board, testified in support of the memorial.

“During my time on the school board, I also authored resolutions to ensure that the history of ‘comfort women’ be included in our U.S. History curriculum, that we teach all of our students about this atrocity,” Fewer said. “We must never again allow it to happen.”

Fewer added that the memorial “would be a great addition” to San Francisco.

Arts Commission director Tom DeCaigny said at the time that city staff had “worked very diligently to take into the broad consideration all the input we have heard on this very complex issue.” He added, “We want to really yield to the community to finalize what the best text for the project is.”

Tang said there was a “concerted effort to reach out to all communities, in particular the Japanese-American communities” during the drafting of the language.

In 2015, Korean “comfort woman” survivor Yong Soo Lee traveled to San Francisco and called on the Board of Supervisors to support the memorial.

Tang called the memorial a “peace message.”

“It is about ‘comfort women’ history, their resiliency and long search for justice,” Tang said.

Joshua Sabatini
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Joshua Sabatini

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