Bay Area/ San Francisco/ Politics & Govt
Published on September 21, 2017
Protestors Expected For Friday Unveiling Of 'Comfort Women' StatuePhoto: Steven Whyte/Facebook

This Friday, members of the community, along with state and city public officials, will gather to celebrate the unveiling of the "Comfort Women" Memorial in St. Mary’s Square at 651 California St.

But in a statement issued on Thursday morning, organizers said they expected protesters at the unveiling.

The main opposition comes from the Japanese government, said Judith Mirkinson, president of the Board of the Comfort Women Justice Coalition, which funded the memorial. 

"They have consistently blocked us," said Mirkinson in a phone call with Hoodline.

She explained that Japanese officials had supported the removal of a similar statue in Glendale, California. However, the statue remained in place.

Members of the CWJC honor comfort women survivors outside the Japanese Consulate in San Francisco. | PHOTO COURTESY OF THE COMFORT WOMEN JUSTICE COALITION

"It may be 2017, but Japan is still fighting to deny and erase this egregious war crime," said CWJC co-chairs Julie Tang and Lillian Sing in a statement on Thursday. "[They are] basically waiting for all the 'comfort women' to die, so they don’t need to acknowledge the government’s responsibility."

Following the announcement of the statue's installation earlier this year, the Arts Commission received more than 200 letters in opposition, most of which came from Japan.

Named "Women’s Column of Strength," the monument seeks to raise awareness of human trafficking of women and girls, in particular, the sexual enslavement of over 200,000 women by the Japanese Army in World War II. 

"The term 'comfort women' euphemistically refers to hundreds of thousands of women and young girls who were forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army ... from the 1930s through the duration of World War II," stated a resolution passed by the Board of Supervisors declaring September 22nd "Comfort Women Day." 

"Most of these women died but those who survived courageously broke their silence, therefore aiding the movement against sexual violence during war."

Former supervisor Eric Mar honors comfort woman survivor Yong Soo Lee in 2015. | Photo courtesy of the Comfort Women Justice Coalition

Despite opposition from the Japanese government, Mirkinson told us that the public “has been overwhelmingly supportive” of the memorial and its message.

This includes the vast majority of the Japanese-American community, former Congressman Mike Honda (who will attend the unveiling), and the Fred T. Korematsu Institute.

In a statement shared with Hoodline on Wednesday, Karen Korematsu of the Fred T. Korematsu Institute reiterated the organization's support of the CWJC's mission:

San Francisco is an international sanctuary city that demonstrates to the rest of the world that we are not afraid to continually bring focus to the atrocities committed during WWII.

The Comfort Women Memorial not only honors those women and girls who endured the violation of their human rights, it will also help teach this and future generations the lessons of history so that they are not repeated again.

This upholds the mission of the Fred T. Korematsu Institute, “educating to advance racial equity, social justice and human rights for all.” Fred Korematsu was one of the first members of the Comfort Women Memorial Committee and encouraged others to “stand up for what is right.”

Survivor Yong Soo Lee (center) with supporters outside City Hall, 2015. | PHOTO COURTESY OF THE COMFORT WOMEN JUSTICE COALITION

More than 35 designs for the memorial were submitted by artists around the world. Submissions were evaluated by a jury of arts professionals, community organizers, and citizens.

The final design, by sculptor Steven Whyte, features three young comfort women—one Filipina, one Chinese, one Korean—standing in a circle atop a raised column, holding hands in solidarity. A fourth figure looks on from ground level.

The fourth woman is Kim Hak-Soon, a human rights activist and former comfort woman. Hak-Soon broke decades of silence when she came forward in 1991 to tell her story publicly, sparking a movement to seek reparations for the injustice experienced by comfort women in World War II.

Sculptor Steven Whyte stands with life-sized comfort women statues. | PHOTO COURTESY OF THE COMFORT WOMEN JUSTICE COALITION

"Women’s Column of Strength" joins several other historically significant monuments in St. Mary’s Square, including a sculpture of Sun Yat Sen, the founding father of the Republic of China, and the Chinese-American Veterans of Chinatown Memorial.

“There are not many statues of women in San Francisco,” said Judith Mirkinson. “With all the current discussion about statues and who you choose to memorialize, this is an amazing testament to women’s strength and survival.”