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Supervisors’ support of a ‘comfort women’ memorial in San Francisco sparks debate

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A bronze statue of a young Korean girl in Central Park in Glendale, Calif. to honor so-called “comfort women” from World War II on Monday, March 31, 2014. (Nick Ut/AP)

San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors often stirs up local controversy, but in the case of a pending resolution supporting the installation of a “comfort women” memorial in The City, the controversy has gone international.

Supervisor Eric Mar has proposed a resolution supporting the installation of a memorial in San Francisco to honor the women who were coerced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II.

“The term ‘comfort women’ euphemistically refers to an estimated 200,000 women and young girls, many from South Korea, China and Southeast Asia, who were kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army,” says the resolution, which is being voted on Thursday by the board’s Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee.

Such memorials — there are other cities already with similar installations such as Glendale and Rohnert Park, Long Island, N.Y.; Palisades Park and Union City, N.J. — have sparked controversy in the past. But no memorial has yet to be installed in a major U.S. destination like San Francisco. Nationalist and conservative Japanese officials have called into question aspects of “comfort women” history and oppose memorials specifically addressing it.

The resolution is facing criticism by “a handful of Japantown leaders,” Mar said. Toru Hashimoto, mayor of the city of Osaka in Japan, wrote a nine­-page letter to the board also opposing it.

Locations explored for such a memorial include Richmond’s Lincoln Park, where there exists a Holocaust memorial, and Portsmouth Square in Chinatown.

“It’s a deep issue for many of the Asian, Pacific Islander communities in San Francisco and the Bay Area. That’s why memorials have been sprouting up,” Mar said.

Hashimoto’s letter says “the special attention currently being given to Japan’s ‘comfort women’ issue should be broadened to memorialize all the women who have been sexually assaulted and abused by soldiers of countries in the world, and should represent a pledge to the world that we will never allow the same offense and tragedy to happen again.”

Mar said little attention should be paid to the letter, noting the 2013 controversial remarks by the Osaka mayor calling comfort women a wartime “necessity” to give Japanese soldiers a chance “to rest.” He was called then “the shame of Osaka” by some critics and the board denounced his remarks in a resolution at the time.

But Judy Hamaguchi, president of the San Francisco chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, wrote a Sept. 2 letter to the board saying the memorial “projects hate towards a specific nationality.”

However, Mar said, “It’s not about Japanese people or the Japanese­-American community at all.

“This is a way for San Francisco to say never again, to engage young people to understand what happened but also to be vigilant about stopping human trafficking for the future as well,” he said.

The effort, Mar said, is the culmination of years of discussions with an ever­growing coalition, which includes the Chinese American Association of Commerce, the San Francisco chapter of Veterans For Peace and Asian Americans for Peace and Justice.

A “comfort women” survivor, Yong Soo Lee, is being flown into San Francisco to testify before the committee Thursday, according to Phyllis Kim, spokeswoman for the Korean American Forum of California. In December 1928 she was born near Daegu, Korea and was lured out of her home in the middle of the night at age 15 and taken to a “comfort station” for a Kamikaze unit in Taiwan. Beginning in the early 1990s, she has spoken out on the issue.

“The Board of Supervisors of the City and County of San Francisco during the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II expresses its strong support of creating a memorial in memory of those girls and women who suffered immeasurable pain and humiliation as sex slaves and as a sacred place for remembrance, reflection, remorsefulness, and atonement for generations to come,” the resolution says.

It has the support of seven other supervisors, along with Mar. It takes six votes at the board to approve.

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