In a park in Glendale, CA, a new memorial statue was unveiled this week. The park is in a largely Asian and Asian-American neighborhood and will feature the image of a young Korean girl dressed in traditional clothing. The problem? This girl is a “comfort woman.”
The issue of comfort women (as they are commonly referred to by historians) dates back to pre-WWII times and is still hotly contested today, more vocally than at any other time previously. This matter is primarily fought by opposing camps of Japanese government officials and nationalists, and a front of surviving comfort women, human rights and feminist activists, and Japanese sympathizers. The official Japanese opinion on the matter has ranged from total support, to tacit approval, then denial and eventually awkward contrition, as we’ve seen with the last few prime ministers.
The fact of the matter is, in the period between 1918 and the end of WWII the Japanese army was in the habit of having formally recognized and administratively managed brothels for their soldiers all across Asia. At first, the women who “worked” in these institutions were brought over from Japan, but eventually the army decided to go ahead and use local “volunteers.” The Japanese government continues to insist that all of the women involved in these brothels were there of their own free will as “volunteers” to the Imperial Army and the Emperor, not forcefully brought in to act as sex slaves.
There is a strong stigma associated with speaking out about the experience of being a comfort woman. Korean ethics have been heavily influenced by Confucianism, which puts great weight behind on women to be both self-sacrificial and shameful of sexual impropriety. This statue in question needs to be here: by publicly displaying proof of their experience in a way accessible to most citizens, these victims will know that it’s OK to speak out and share their stories.
Some critics (mostly Japanese) argue that the statue is divisive. They say that it will serve as a reminder of the horrors of war and a violent bygone era. But this is by no means the first war memorial we’ve ever erected, far from it. Take for example the Marine Corps War Memorial, also known as the Iwo Jima Memorial because it features the images of the six men who raised the second American flag at the Battle of Iwo Jima. This was one of the bloodiest and most costly battles of the entire Second World War, with over 6000 American casualties and as many as 25,000 Japanese casualties.
How is the memorial to the Comfort Women any more of a divisive or horrific reminder than our other monuments to war?
Just as the Korean War was “ended” with a ceasefire and a willingness to be distracted by other matters, the ugly issue of recognizing, apologizing to and compensating these women has been shunted aside in favor of other more glamorous history. While those in power in Japan would prefer to wait until there are literally no comfort women left to fight, this issue and their stories won’t die out with them; not as long as there are reminders to all of us about these heinous events.