By Ted AYALA
On Tuesday the Glendale City Council approved 4-1 the inclusion of a monument honoring Korean “comfort women” – women who were coerced or forced into prostitution for the Japanese military during the final years of the Pacific War – as part of the city’s plan to renovate its Central Park.
The monument is a replica of one that stands in front of the Japanese Consulate in Seoul, South Korea: a bronze statue of a young girl in traditional Korean dress with a small bird on her shoulder, seated next to an empty chair.
“[The Korean community] commends you for taking the bold steps to give this issue the due justice it deserves,” said Alex Woo of the Korea Glendale Sister City Association. “I strongly believe this decision will elevate the city … to one that champions human rights.”
The monument’s approval was a virtual certainty given that the council had already portioned aside a section of Central Park expressly for its use.
Costs for the statue were borne by the Korea Glendale Sister Cities Association, totaling an estimated $30,000.
News of the monument’s approval angered some members of Southern California’s Japanese community, as well as eliciting attention from media and individuals in Japan. Nearly 100 individuals came to speak at city council on Tuesday, the majority of them opposing the monument.
The issue of the comfort women has been a particularly sore point between the Koreas and Japan. It is also emblematic of the long history of mutual rivalry and distrust that has left a deep imprint on East Asian relations; rivalries that extend centuries before Japan’s 1868 Meiji Restoration set the island nation on a path of technological advancement and military expansionism.
Surviving comfort women and their supporters contend that Japan has yet to apologize and are demanding a formal resolution from the Japanese government. The Japanese government has countered that it has apologized on several occasions, beginning with a formal apology issued by then-government spokesperson Koichi Kato in January 1992 shortly after a Japanese researcher discovered how the Imperial Japanese Army had recruited and abducted women for use as prostitutes in Korea and in other outposts of its former colonial empire. That was followed up a few days later by Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa when he directly addressed South Korea’s National Assembly.
“We Japanese should first and foremost recall the truth of that tragic period when Japanese actions inflicted suffering and sorrow upon your people,” he said. “As Prime Minister of Japan, I would like to declare anew my remorse at these deeds and tender my apology to the people of [South Korea].”
The Japanese government subsequently set up the Asian Women’s Fund in order to distribute compensation to surviving comfort women, though operating as a quasi-public entity, some critics and survivors felt that it fell short of formal state redress. Japan has also maintained that compensation for survivors was part of the reparations paid to South Korea in 1965, which totaled $365 million (approximately $2.5 billion in 2013).
Still the issue has proved to be a divisive one which has played to the core of chauvinistic nationalist elements in both nations.
In Japan, denialists on the fringes of the political sphere have sprung up, most notably Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto, though he later partially backtracked his denial. Current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has floated the idea of rescinding the 1992 Kato apology, though this may have more to do with pique stemming from other bitter disputes between Japan and South Korea concerning their maritime borders and the naming of the Sea of Japan.
It was into this thorny international fracas that the Glendale City Council stepped into, though they seemed unperturbed by some of the critics that spoke at the dais.
“I’m a little bit disappointed in what I’ve heard, more than a little bit,” said Councilmember Frank Quintero as members of the audience booed. “But, unfortunately, the people of Japan did not take recognition of the truth.”
Councilmember Laura Friedman said that the monument would not be “used as a wedge to drive us apart, but to remind us that war has consequences.”
Speaker Yoshi Miyaki disagreed saying that the monument “would not bring peace, happiness, prosperity or honor to the City of Glendale.”
“This [monument] will bring about conflict in the future,” he said. “I’m not criticizing Koreans, but they are pushing [Japanese] too far.”
Tee Ng, a 30-year Glendale resident, was concerned that the monument only serves to flex Korean nationalism and stoke further anti-Japanese sentiment.
“I am not anti-Korean,” she said, “but peace can be demonstrated in a different way. [The monument] only [inspires] prejudice against the Japanese-Americans and Japanese already residing here.”
Councilmember Zareh Sinanyan was among those who approved the monument, stating that the issue of the comfort women needed to be recognized by Glendale.
“What’s wrong is wrong and it has to be condemned,” he said.
Mayor Dave Weaver opposed the monument stating that the city needed a master plan for Central Park before any decision regarding the statue could be made.
The statue is scheduled to be unveiled on July 30, the same date that Glendale declared it to be “Korean Comfort Women Day” in Glendale in 2012.