San Francisco is the first major U.S. city to unveil a memorial to the "comfort women" of World War II. Jack Persons/CityLab

San Francisco's new monument to "comfort women" has Osaka, Japan, threatening to end a decades-long relationship.

In an unassuming park overlooking San Francisco’s Chinatown are three bronze women. They’re holding hands in solidarity, backs against one another, and standing defiantly on a pedestal as a halmoni—Korean for grandmother—gazes up at them. The four make up the city’s memorial to an estimated 200,000 “comfort women” in countries like China, Korea, and the Philippines who were forced to work in brothels run by and for the Japanese Imperial Army between the Sino-Japanese War in the 1930s and World War II.

San Francisco’s “Column of Strength,” unveiled in September after years of contentious debate, is the first memorial of its kind in a major U.S. city—and it isn’t sitting well with sister city Osaka, Japan. In fact, Osaka Mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura recently vowed to break the 60-year bond between the two cities. “Our relationship of trust was completely destroyed,” he said, according to the Japanese national newspaper Asahi Shimbun. “I will dissolve the sister-city relationship.”

Yoshimura’s protest of the memorial—like his predecessor Toru Hashimoto—reflects Japan’s desire to put a sensitive and controversial issue behind them. There are dozens of these memorials around the world, from the U.S. to South Korea, and even in Germany and Australia. They’re an especially prickly thorn in the side of the country’s otherwise polished reputation of being modern, efficient, and, well, cool.

But to survivors, they serve as an assurance that their stories won’t be forgotten. That’s especially important in San Francisco, where there is a significant Asian American population—many of whom know people connected to survivors or are themselves related, according Eric Mar, who teaches Asian American studies at San Francisco State University. In 2015, Mar and the San Francisco-based human rights group Comfort Women Justice Coalition began pushing for a memorial. “A physical memorial can’t be wiped away when your memory fades, especially if the Japanese government shifts toward denialism,” said Mar, who then served on the city’s Board of Supervisors and who remains an honorary co-chair for the coalition.

Some fear that the memorial will foster racism toward the Japanese American community in the Bay Area. “[Social justice] should never be at the expense of another ethnic group,” Caryl Ito—a founding member of the Pacific Asian American Women Bay Area Coalition—told the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 2015. Mar, though, has argued that the statue, designed by artist Steven Whyte, isn’t about singling out Japan, much less Japanese Americans. “We tried very hard not to have a memorial that would show brutality or violence,” he said. “Ours is about women’s and human rights, and how solutions come from that sense of empathy, solidarity, and remembrance.”

Outside the Bay Area, the presence of a memorial to comfort women has deep political roots. “There is something about the conspicuousness and galvanizing power of a public statue that affects the Japanese political elites,” said Jordan Sand, a historian who studies Japanese culture at Georgetown University. “They see themselves in an intense battle of cultural diplomacy right now with China and Korea, and they’re more defensive generally in this generation than when Japan was at its economic height” in the 1980s.

The few remaining survivors are still fighting to get the Japanese government to take full responsibility for its crime against them. (Jack Persons/CityLab)

Sand called Osaka’s threat to cut ties a “missed opportunity,” not only for the two cities to collaborate on such an important issue, but also to foster a longstanding city-to-city relationship. The concept of sister cities began in the 1950s as a way to strengthen cultural diplomacy, particularly in trying moments, said Adam Kaplan, vice president of Sister Cities International. The organization built a strong presence in Japan—the country with the most U.S. sister-city relationships—and throughout Europe after World War II “to mend relationships, and to acknowledge that if we were going to have lasting peace, it couldn’t be left solely to national governments,” he said. “We needed private citizens from each country.”

Osaka was San Francisco’s first sister city in 1957, and the two have had an active relationship over the years. The U.S.-based volunteer organization San Francisco-Osaka Sister City Association has been sending two high school students to Osaka each summer since the 1980s, and just last year, Yoshimura established another annual student exchange program that would send Japanese students to San Francisco in the spring. For the last two years, the association also organized the annual Osaka Matsuri festival, intended to celebrate their longstanding relationship by hosting Japanese music and dance performances, as well as traditional Osaka delicacies.

“Generally speaking, most mayors and communities understand that these aren’t political relationships,” Kaplan said, adding that it’s rare for sister-city bonds to be terminated. The formal policy of Sister Cities International warns against such a move, and encourages members to maintain their affiliations, “especially when political issues threaten to disrupt the positive, constructive relationships that have been made.”

In a recent letter to Yoshimura, the association implored him to reconsider:

As private citizens who have worked tirelessly to build our municipal partnership and who believe in the power of citizen-to-citizen dialogue, we are deeply disappointed that this action is being considered… We believe we should always look towards building a brighter future for our children rather than focusing on the past.

Yoshimura, however, has argued that the memorial represents an event that Japan has atoned for already. Indeed, the Japanese government has issued several apologies since survivors began speaking out about their experiences in the 1990s. The latest came in 2015, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe apologized to South Korea as part of a resolution that both governments agreed would be “final and irreversible.” In it, Japan pledged $8.7 million (or a billion yen) in reparations.

That agreement soon began unraveling amid public protest in South Korea. To survivors and their families, the apologies feel inadequate at best—and insincere at worst. The 2015 apology “was motivated less, if at all, by a desire to render justice to comfort women but by a need to ease tensions between Japan and South Korea,” David Tolbert, president of the global human rights group International Center for Transitional Justice, wrote in the Huffington Post.

It doesn’t help that public leaders’ actions have spoken louder than their official statements over the years. Abe’s 2013 visit to the Yasukuni shrine for Japan’s World War II soldiers, which include several leaders executed for war crimes, didn’t sit well with the international community. Neither did the 2012 call from Japanese lobbyists for a small memorial to comfort women to be taken down in Palisades Park, New Jersey. This January, Japan pulled two diplomats out of South Korea after protesters erected a memorial outside the Japanese consulate in Busan. This latest move from Osaka speaks just as loudly, and will only be looked at negatively in history books, Mar said.

There may not be major economic impacts, though both sides could lose out on a variety of arts, cultural, and youth, and business exchanges. “Even if sister-city relationships aren't an economic one, those are kind of low-hanging fruits for cultural diplomacy,” Sand said. “And this is Osaka’s oldest sister-city relationship. It makes it relatively one of the more meaningful ones.”

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