Osaka drops San Francisco as sister city over ‘comfort women’ statue
Mayor of Japanese city says sex slave memorial is not historically accurate
The ‘comfort women’ monument unveiled in San Francisco in 2017. Photograph: Eric Risberg/AP
The city of Osaka has ended its 60-year “sister city” relationship with San Francisco to protest against the presence in the US city of a statue symbolising Japan’s wartime use of sex slaves.
Osaka’s mayor, Hirofumi Yoshimura, terminated official ties this week after the US city agreed to recognise the “comfort women” statue, which was erected by a private group last year in San Francisco’s Chinatown district, as public property.
The statue depicts three women – from China, Korea and the Philippines – who symbolise women and teenage girls forced to work in frontline brothels from the early 1930s until Japan’s wartime defeat in 1945.
Campaigners and some historians say as many as 200,000 women – mostly Koreans, but also Chinese, south-east Asians and a small number of Japanese and Europeans – were forced or tricked into working in military brothels between 1932 and Japan’s defeat in 1945.
In his 10-page letter to San Francisco’s mayor, London Breed, Yoshimura noted that historians disagreed about the extent of the Japanese imperial army’s involvement in the running of wartime brothels, and described claims included in the statue’s inscription as lacking historical evidence.
The inscription reads: “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 1931-1945. Most of these women died during their wartime captivity.”
Yoshimura added that the focus on Japan’s wartime conduct ignored the widespread sexual abuse of women by other countries during the second World War and other conflicts.
“I am in favour of activities to protect the dignity and human rights of women,” he said. “However, if the purpose is to protect the human rights of women, I would suggest that some of the special attention currently being given to Japan’s ‘comfort women’ issue should be broadened to memorialise all the women who have been sexually assaulted and abused by soldiers of countries in the world.”
Breed’s predecessor, Edwin Lee, accepted the statue in 2017, prompting Yoshimura to complain the move had destroyed the spirit of mutual trust built up over six decades. However he postponed the formal severing of ties following Lee’s death last December.
In a statement Breed’s office said it was “unfortunate” that Yoshimura had decided to end the port cities’ relationship, which began in October 1957.
The statue in San Francisco is one of dozens erected in South Korea and overseas in recent years but the first to appear in a major US city.
The city of Glendale, which has one of the biggest Korean American populations in California, erected a similar statue in 2013, triggering an unsuccessful legal attempt to have it taken down by local residents Michiko Gingery and Koichi Mera, who were hoping its removal would “defend the honour of Japan”.
Campaigners accused Yoshimura of attempting to rewrite history. “Breaking the relationship over a memorial is outrageous and absurd,” said Lillian Sing, co-chair of the Comfort Women Justice Coalition. “It shows how afraid the Osaka mayor and Japanese prime minister are of truth and are trying to deny history.”
The use of public spaces to memorialise the comfort women has sparked criticism in Japan, which claims that it contravenes the spirit of a 2015 agreement between Tokyo and Seoul that was supposed to settle the controversy “finally and irreversibly”.
The agreement included an apology from Japan for the women’s ordeal, but it refused to accept legal responsibility, maintaining that all compensation claims had been settled by a bilateral peace treaty in 1965.
In addition Japan set up the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation, a 1 billion yen fund to care for the dwindling number of surviving women. South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, last month described the fund as “dysfunctional” since it was not widely supported by South Koreans and warned that the money could be returned to Japan. – Guardian