Japanese conservatives are taking the offensive in the battle over World War II sex slaves — and it seems likely to do them more harm than good.
Some 300 legislators from around Japan have sent a petition to the city of Glendale, Calif., demanding the removal of a statue honoring women who were forced or coerced into working in brothels serving the Japanese military during World War II.
Supporters of the memorials say as many as 200,000 women from Korea and other Asian countries were forced to work as so-called comfort women. The Glendale memorial was built largely at the request of the area’s large Korean-American community. It is a duplicate of a statue installed outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul — one of many irritants to Japan–South Korea relations.
At a Tokyo press conference Tuesday, opponents said the memorial spread “false propaganda” and has resulted in bullying, harassment and discrimination against Japanese residents in the Glendale area. “Japanese schoolchildren are suffering from bullying by Koreans. Some of them told us they feel anxiety because they must hide being Japanese. Korean people are presenting this as a human-rights issue, but this can only lead to a new conflict of racial discrimination,” said Yoshiko Matsuura, a Tokyo-area assemblywoman and representative of a conservative group called the Japan Coalition of Legislators Against Fabricated History.
The press conference appeared to be part of a concerted campaign to push back against comfort-women charges. Japanese activists in California filed suit in federal court last week demanding the U.S. government order the city of Glendale to remove the statue, situated in a public park. Earlier this week, a spokesman for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the Japanese government would review a landmark 1993 government statement that apologized and admitted responsibility for operating the so-called comfort-women system during the war. Any change to that statement is certain to further damage relations with South Korea and China, already at a low point over territorial claims and historical disputes.
Taking the fight over comfort women to the U.S. is a “huge mistake,” says Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based think tank.
“Clearly the American government is displeased by the notion that the Japanese are taking this argument to our shores and making it an American domestic political battle. It’s something they should settle themselves,” said Glosserman.
The issue already is causing controversy. A school in Higashiosaka, Glendale’s sister city in Japan, canceled a student-exchange program in December in protest over the memorial. An online petition at the White House website in support of removing the Glendale statue has received 127,000 signatures; a petition in support of keeping it has attracted 106,000 signatures.
The memorial was installed in a public park in Glendale, a suburb of Los Angeles, in July 2013. It features a bronze statue of a young Korean woman sitting next to an empty chair. A stone plaque is etched, jarringly, with the title “I Was a Sex Slave of the Japanese Military.” A similar memorial has been built in New Jersey, which Japanese diplomats and legislators also requested to be removed.
According to the lawsuit filed last week, installing the statue “exceeds the power of Glendale, infringes upon the federal government’s power to exclusively conduct the foreign affairs of the United States and violates the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution.”
Matsuura, who traveled to Glendale to deliver a copy of the petition to local officials last month, says the 1993 apology is based on unreliable and unverified testimony. She accused South Korea of exporting the issue to the U.S.
“We were shocked by a statue of a comfort girl in America, a third country, not in Korea. We have a responsibility to protest,” Matsuura said through an interpreter. A member of her husband’s family served in the Japanese Imperial Army during the war and was taken prisoner in Siberia, Matsuura said.
The Obama Administration has become increasingly frustrated with the rightward tilt of Japan’s leadership. The U.S. State Department said it was “disappointed” with Abe’s visit in December to the Yasukuni Shrine, which glorifies Japan’s role in World War II.
Weeks later, it labeled as “preposterous” public statements by an Abe appointee to the board of the national broadcaster, NHK, that the U.S. had fabricated war-crimes charges against Japan’s wartime leaders to cancel out America’s own war crimes, which he said include the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the firebombings of Tokyo.
Glosserman says Japanese efforts to rewrite wartime history are damaging the interests of both countries. “The United States wants Japan to be a more respected and more effective contributor to regional security, and to play a larger role in the region. And all that this historical revisionism does is undermine that,” he says.