In a high-profile, political-historical spat,  Osaka has terminated its city’s sister-city relationship with San Francisco after the US city erected a Column of Strength memorializing the “comfort women” who labored in Imperial Japanese forces’ brothels during the Pacific War.

The 10-feet tall bronze memorial in San Francisco’s Chinatown depicts three women holding hands in a circle on a pedestal, while an older woman gazes up at them.

The older woman is Kim Hak-sun, the first South Korean to come forward and tell her story as a comfort woman in August of 1991. Kim filed a class-action lawsuit against the Japanese government in December of the same year but passed away while the court case was ongoing.

Her struggle is now immortalized in the center of a major city in America.

San Francisco wades in

The move has upset Japanese authorities. Osaka and San Francisco’s sister city relationship was established on Oct. 7, 1957; they would have celebrated their 61st anniversary this week.

However, Osaka Mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura formally announced that it is now game over, and outlined six areas of concern in a public letter to San Francisco’s Mayor London Breed, explaining why the statue should be taken down, and why they are ending their relationship.

His chief issue was with the inscription on the statue, which reads:

“This monument bears witness to the suffering of hundreds of thousands of women and girls, euphemistically called ‘Comfort Women,’ who were sexually enslaved by the Japanese Imperial Armed Forces in thirteen Asian-Pacific countries from 1931-1945. Most of these women died during their wartime captivity.”

“The problem of the San Francisco Comfort Women Memorial and plaque is embedded within the inscription that presents uncertain and one-sided claims as historical facts,” Yoshimura wrote in the letter.

“The Japanese government holds a distinctive standpoint when perceiving history and there is also disagreement among historians when regarding the historical facts such as the number of “comfort women,” the degree to which the former Japanese Army was involved, and the extent of the wartime harm,” he added.

Furthermore, the Japanese mayor said the memorial would cause disruption in Japanese communities currently residing in America. He suggested that instead of singling out Japan, the “comfort women” issue should be broadened to a “global issue” and take into account the many foreign armies (he lists American, British, French, German and Soviet troops) who took advantage of women during World War II.

Doing so, he believes, would be a more effective pledge that countries never allow the same offense and tragedy to happen again.

Battle over history

Since the early 1990s, activists – predominantly South Korean, but also Korean-American and Chinese-American – have successfully campaigned to bring the ‘comfort women” issue to light.

Their campaigns have included raising statues in Korea, the US and Australia – notably outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul and outside the Japanese consulate in Busan; taking surviving comfort women on international speaking tours; and raising the issue of Japanese perfidy in global fora. Such efforts have been endorsed by South Korean governmental bodies.

Broadly, the activist’s narrative, which has been widely carried by global media, is that approximately 200,000 comfort women, mainly Koreans, including under-aged girls, were, in effect, sex slaves, who were forced by Japanese troops and authorities to labor in brothels where they were subject to mass rape.

Activists have also demanded apologies and compensation from successive Tokyo administrations.

Some researchers take a more nuanced view. The numbers involved, and the nationalities of the victims, are disputed. While there is no question that comfort stations were exclusively for Japanese troops, the army’s role in the recruitment and operations of the brothels are unclear.

Evidence points to Japanese and Korean middlemen who engaged in human trafficking, and to the high pay that at least some comfort women received.

They have also have criticized dis-ingenuity and incorrect or falsified data, while pointing to the large number of apologies Tokyo has made, and the compensation it has paid.

Japan acknowledged and apologized for having “comfort women” in a formal declaration in 1993, but activists are harshly critical of right-wing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe over his attitude on Japan’s wartime guilt.

On March 16, 2007, Abe said that the women were coerced by private brokers and denied formal state or military involvement, but on March 26, offered an apology: “I express my sympathy toward the ‘comfort women’ and apologize for the situation they found themselves in.”

In December 2015, Abe was more forthcoming, expressing “most sincere apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences and suffered incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women.”

Tokyo also paid compensation to Seoul, to be given to surviving victims.

Regardless of Abe’s declarations, which may well be swayed by various political pressures, activists remain unconvinced by his sincerity – as does the South Korean government. The current Seoul administration has been harshly critical of the 2015 agreement and has frozen the funds paid by Japan.

Story of a statue

The statue has become a matter of national and political discourse in Japan. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke out about the statue at the National Diet Assembly in November last year: “Presenting the Comfort Women Memorial as a gift to the City and County of San Francisco is not only deeply regrettable but it also opposes the views of the Japanese Government.”

Chinese-American activists had lobbied for the statue in 2015 and received private funding from the Comfort Women Justice Coalition, totaling $205,000.

According to the organization’s website, the memorial represents hundreds of thousands of girls and women taken from China, Korea, the Philippines, Dutch Indonesia, Burma, East Timor, and other Asian countries by the Imperial Japanese Armed Forces. The organization hoped that erecting the memorial would raise awareness regarding the sex trafficking of women during wartime.

In 2015, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously agreed on the memorial. British-American artist Steven Whyte was selected through an open call to design the sculpture. It was installed in September 2017.

Since then, Yoshimura and his predecessor Toru Hashimoto have denounced it in seven letters to San Francisco City’s mayor over 2015-2017. There was no response from San Francisco’s previous mayor Ed Lee, or from current mayor Breed to engage Osaka in discussions prior to the termination.

The sister-city relationship is a largely ceremonial one that fosters exchanges and friendship events on both sides. Since the announcement, the San Francisco Mayor’s office said the decision was “unfortunate” and that they would continue to maintain “people-to-people” ties.

“Breaking the relationship over a memorial is outrageous and absurd,” said Lillian Sing, a retired judge and co-chair of the Comfort Women Justice Coalition. “It shows how afraid the Osaka mayor and [the] Japanese prime minister are of [the] truth, and are trying to deny history.”

Dara Kay Cohen, a professor of public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, told the New Yorker last year after the memorial was erected that “publicly memorializing the rape of women is rare … as a scholar of wartime rape, I think it is extraordinary.”

There are no plans to remove the statue.