When I was in the 5th grade, I remember having to memorize Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address without really understanding what it was all about. Years later, when I came to learn more about the tragedy of the Civil War, I came to appreciate the impact of Lincoln’s words.
In the same sense, in looking back at our history, I have come to appreciate the power of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which he made in 1963. It signaled the start of a new American Revolution. Being in the school system, I have seen the speech played many times in classrooms via film, and it always stirs strong feelings within me.
As a result of this speech, as well as engaging indirect action, Black Americans took on an African American identity and turned a corner. They became empowered to resist the racism that had oppressed them for so many years. Other overlooked and oppressed people were empowered as well. Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, women, the physically disabled — all stood up and declared themselves worthy of equality under the law.
Switching gears a bit:
Late last year, a memorial statue was put in place in a Glendale park memorializing the thousands of women, mainly Korean, but from other parts of Asia as well, who were either taken or lured into providing sex for the Japanese Imperial Army between 1922 and 1944. A total of $30,000 was raised for the monument by the local Korean community.
Of those who have had the courage to declare themselves as comfort women, a scant 58 are alive today. For 20 years, each Wednesday, some of these comfort women bravely demonstrated in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, demanding an apology and reparations from the Japanese government.
Amongst those attending the dedication of this monument were many supporting its construction, as well as Japanese opposing the monument. A few from our San Fernando Valley JACL, as well as from NCRR, were in the audience in support of its construction.
News accounts noted that a thousand letters and emails from Japan vigorously opposed the monument. Kathy Masaoka of the NCRR spoke in its defense. Recently elected San Fernando Valley JACL President Harold Kameya has written a letter of support for the monument that was printed in the Jan. 25 Rafu Shimpo. His statement has been endorsed by our chapter, and is being circulated for endorsement from other Asian organizations.
Last month, Harold and I, representing JACL, along with Kathy Masaoka and Wilbur Sato of NCRR, met at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown L.A. with three representatives from the Japanese House of Representatives: Hiromu Nakamaru, Yuzuru Nishida, and Mio Sugita. They were members of the Japan Restoration Party, a conservative group that seeks to have the Glendale monument taken down. Their interpreter was Koichi Mera, a professor at USC.
Each of us gave our reasons for supporting the monument. Kathy talked about the redress hearings that were held throughout the U.S. in 1981 and thought that publicly hearing from the comfort women in Japan would be helpful in resolving the issue.
I said I was impressed by the memorial in Hiroshima commemorating the dropping of the A-bombs and offered that in a similar way, the comfort women monument would be a reminder of their suffering so that such an injustice would not recur.
It was obvious to me that neither side had any change of position on the matter. Our meeting ended when the Japanese delegation abruptly got up and left.
I don’t know if the representatives met with the Glendale City Council, but a recent news article stated that although the mayor said he wished the council had not voted to approve the building of the monument, the four council members remained unwavering in their support.
David Monkawa, an NCRR member who in his early years lived in Japan, provides some interesting insights into the issue. He says the Restoration Party, which the three representatives mentioned above are a part of, is seeking to change Japan’s constitution. This comes from wanting to defend militarily against hostile acts by China involving strategic islands in dispute south of Japan. Then too, North Korea continues be a threat.
In 1993, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono issued an apology to the comfort women on behalf of the government. This apology was hotly disputed, largely because it was critical of the role of the military in procuring women and enforcing the sexual slavery. There are those who want the apology to be rescinded.
Regarding learning from its mistakes: Since the late 1990s, Japanese school textbooks have begun to omit any reference to the comfort women.
Last Thursday, Marion and I, along with Harold Kameya and Nancy Gohata from our San Fernando Valley JACL Chapter, attended a fundraiser for Rep. Mike Honda at a hotel in Koreatown. Also in attendance were Kathy Masaoka and David Monkawa of NCRR. Harold and David were enthusiastically received as they spoke in favor of supporting the Glendale monument.
Rep. Honda — who in 2007 instigated HR 121, calling for an apology and reparations to the comfort women, spoke eloquently of his support, and seemed moved by our presence at this well-attended event.
Surely, the 20-year-long weekly demonstration of courage and determination by the comfort women in Seoul is what has brought the issue to this point. Women were the victims of this crime against humanity. I would hope more women would be inspired by the brave Korean comfort women to speak out.
Phil Shigekuni writes from San Fernando Valley and can be contacted at [email protected] The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.