Korean ‘comfort woman’ survivor appeals to San Francisco for a memorial

Yong Soo Lee, an 87-year-old “comfort woman” survivor, flew into San Francisco from Korea on Tuesday afternoon to call upon the Board of Supervisors to install a memorial for others, like her, who survived coercement into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II.

“I came to this beautiful San Francisco to meet with you and I want to ask you from the bottom of my heart, please, please let me get rid of my sadness in my heart by erecting a memorial in this beautiful city of San Francisco,” Yong Soo Lee, also affectionately called Grandma Lee, told the board through a translator.

Afterwards she met with Mayor Ed Lee for about 20 minutes.

Her visit comes as the board’s Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee is scheduled Thursday to vote on a resolution introduced by Supervisor Eric Mar that acknowledges the atrocity and supports the installation of the memorial. Survivors and women’s rights advocates have long fought to bring awareness to the wartime atrocities and obtain redress from Japan’s government.

The memorial is stirring controversy with opposition from some in San Francisco’s Japantown and is putting a strain on international relations given the nine-page letter Toru Hashimoto, mayor of the city of Osaka in Japan, sent to the board opposing it. Criticism ranges from taking issue with some of the facts presented in the resolution, suggestions it “projects hate towards a specific nationality” and focuses too narrowly on the “comfort woman” issue.

Mayor Ed Lee would not say Tuesday, before his meeting with Grandma Lee, whether he would support a memorial installed in San Francisco. No major U.S. city has installed such memorials but smaller municipalities have, like Glendale, where a similar debate ensued.

The mayor said he was “open” to a memorial but his focus was on the current debate around the resolution. The mayor said he has asked Mar to “reach out to many groups so that it is not misinterpreted” and that “the dialogue is appropriate.”

Mar commended Yong Soo Lee on Tuesday, calling her an “amazing leader.” He said the effort was “for justice and for empathy for hundreds and thousands of girls and women that were kidnapped and coerced into sexual slavery.”

Supporters expressed concerns over possible amendments. “The resolution tells an accurate historical account of what happened to the comfort women and why the resolution is necessary,” said Julie Tang, a retired San Francisco Superior Court judge, who is part of the coalition supporting it. She said the “most emblematic of sexual exploitation of women and girls of the last century should be remembered.”

Mayor Lee said he does “support the recognition that ‘comfort women’ is a bad piece of our world history and that we should do everything that we can to prevent it,” and he linked it to the modern day human trafficking issue, which he said San Francisco must continue to address.

The mayor has established an anti-human trafficking task force. A recent task force report found nearly 300 mostly young females were victims of sex trafficking in San Francisco during the last six months of 2014.

Mar already has seven other supporters for the memorial on the board. It would take six votes to pass at the board. Yong Soo Lee was 15 years old when the Japanese army took her from her home and transported her to a “comfort station” for kamikaze pilots. In an April 22 interview with the Washington Post, Yong Soo Lee recounted being tortured and having a miscarriage. When the war ended two years later she was sent home at age 17. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that she began to speak about the issue.

“I came here as the witness of the history,” an emotional Yong Soo Lee said. “But now I am more than that. I came here as an activist who is trying to resolve the history for the sake of all women’s rights of the world.”

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