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March 18, 2014

Comfort Women Statue Sparks Debate in California

by Jeff Shu

Last July, the City of Glendale California, unveiled a statute in its central park of a Korean-American who was a so-called “comfort woman” -- one of the women forced to provide sexual services to Japanese soldiers during World War II.  In so doing, the city entered a transnational dispute that is progressively becoming fiercer.

Local officials and hundreds of people from Glendale's Korean community participated in the statue's unveiling.  The focus, though, was not so much on the statue as on its subject -- Bok-Dong Kim -- a local resident and a former "comfort woman."

She wants Japan's prime minister to admit his country's mistake and apologize.

“An apology, that is my request," stated Bok-Dong Kim. "As a Prime Minister [of Japan] you must apologize for past mistakes, even if they were forged by a former emperor.”

It's estimated the Japanese compelled some 200,000 women to provide sexual services to its soldiers during World War II.  Most of these women came from Korea, though many were from China, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Taiwan.

Japan’s conservative faction, though, denies the charge -- saying there were only 20,000 women at the most and that the overwhelming majority were willing participants.  Thus, the comfort women issue has become a recurring historical debate that has soured Japan’s relations with South Korea and China.

The Korea-Glendale Sister City Association was one of the promoters of the statue.  Association Chairman Chang Lee said it was put up with the best of intentions. “The reason behind having this statute here is to promote world peace and also to promote the human rights issue,” Lee said.

Many Japanese and Japanese-Americans, though, do not welcome the statue and have called on the city to tear it down. The city has not accepted any of these demands.

Last week, a group called the Global Alliance for Historical Truth, along with several Japanese Americans, filed a lawsuit in federal court asking for the statue to be removed.

“A city like Glendale within the state of California does not have any authority to interfere in foreign affairs,” said Koichi Mera, the group's president.

The Glendale statue is the first of its kind outside of the Korean peninsula, but similar commemorations are popping up elsewhere in California. The City of Garden Grove has erected a monument and Sonoma University added three tiles to its Asia Holocaust Monument in honor of comfort women.

In the face of the Korean-American push to establish comfort women memorials, Mera says that if his side can win its lawsuit, it will stop all U.S. cities from erecting a such monuments.

But the lawsuit has not yet been resolved, and Glendale has vowed to continue to fight.