SAN FRANCISCO — The unveiling of a “comfort women” memorial will be held in San Francisco on Sept. 22, the second of anniversary of the Board of Supervisors’ unanimous approval of a resolution to establish the monument.
This is the first such monument to be erected in a major U.S. city. In Southern California, a memorial was put up in Glendale’s Central Park in 2013. There are also memorials in New York, New Jersey, Virginia and Michigan.
The gathering will start at 1 p.m. with ceremony from 2 to 4 pm. at St. Mary’s Square, 651 California St. in Chinatown.
A reception will follow from 4:30 to 7 p.m. at the Hilton San Francisco Financial District, 750 Kearny St. The guest of honor will be Yong Soo Lee, a comfort women survivor and activist who testified before the Board of Supervisors in 2014.
The memorial was established by the Comfort Women Justice Coalition (remembercomfortwomen.org), a community-based nonprofit organization whose goal is “to bring justice to the victims of the WWII Japanese military sexual slavery system, raise awareness about sexual violence against women during military conflict, and end sex trafficking in our community and around the world.”
Advocates for the women, who were mostly from Asian countries, say they were recruited under false pretenses or kidnapped, held against their will, and raped by dozens of soldiers a day; that they had a high mortality rate; and that the survivors were scarred and ostracized for life.
The coalition describes Saint Mary’s Square as “a culturally and historically significant public space in the greater Chinatown community and within the heart of Downtown San Francisco. With mature trees, many benches and a small children’s playground, it serves as a respite from the bustle of the street.”
The design by renowned sculptor Steven Whyte, which was among more than 30 submitted, depicts three girls, representing Korean, Chinese and Filipina victims, holding hands on top of a cylindrical pedestal and a grandma figure on the ground, representing the survivors who are continuing their struggle for justice and dignity. The sculptures will be accompanied by a plaque explaining the history of comfort women and its relevance today.
Whyte, who is based in Carmel, told The San Francisco Chronicle that he received more than 1,000 angry emails and phone calls demanding that he stop work on the project.
The San Francisco monument differs from the one in Glendale, which depicts a young Korean girl seated next to an empty chair.
The winning entry was chosen by a panel consisting of community leader Henry Der, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Curator of Architecture and Design Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher, Heller Manus Architects President Jeffrey Heller, Korean American Forum of California Executive Director Phyllis Kim, and Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts Lowe Curatorial Fellow Kelli Morgan.
Supporters of the monument include retired judges Lillian Sing and Julie Tang, who were also active in efforts to memorialize the Rape of Nanking — another hotly debated topic that has impacted Japan’s relations with its Asian neighbors.
Opponents include the Global Alliance for Historical Truth, which took legal action to have the Glendale memorial taken down, claiming that it made Japanese visitors to the park uncomfortable and fearful of retribution. GHAT, whose mission is to “protect Japan’s honor,” maintains that the women were not sex slaves but were prostitutes who volunteered and were well compensated. The Japanese government filed a brief supporting the lawsuit, stating that all issues pertaining to comfort women were settled by a recent agreement between South Korea and Japan.
Toru Hashimoto, mayor of Osaka, San Francisco’s sister city, wrote a letter to the board objecting to the memorial.
Some leaders in the Bay Area Japanese American community, while not denying what happened, did express reservations. Kathleen Kimura of the San Francisco-Osaka Sister City Association, speaking as an individual, told The Chronicle, “War is a horrible thing, and war brings out the worst in mankind … My objection to all of this is this whole effort has been to single out Japan as the only bad guy.”
Janice Mirikitani of Glide Memorial Church, former poet laureate of San Francisco, said her worries were based on her family’s incarceration during World War II, which was a result hostility toward Japan and the inability or unwillingness to distinguish between Japanese Americans and Japanese nationals:
“The only objection I had was that … it singled out Japan and there would again be ill feelings arising about the Japanese. My concern was to universalize this more. Can’t we say that we elevate the comfort women’s movement as a symbol to speak out against atrocities of war against all women who have been victims of rape and indescribable torture?”
San Francisco Supervisor Eric Mar, who authored the monument legislation, has 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.”