Sisters no more: Japanese city drops San Francisco over ‘comfort women’ statue

The city of Osaka in Japan has said it will end its 60-year relationship with San Francisco after the California city approved a statue commemorating the “comfort women.” The sex slaves were used in Japanese military brothels during World War II.

“This is highly regrettable,” said Osaka Mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura, according to Reuters, describing Wednesday’s endorsement by San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee of a city council decision. “The relationship of trust has completely been destroyed.”

Yoshimura said he will scrap Osaka’s sister-city relationship with San Francisco by the end of the year.

The statue, called Column of Strength, features three girls standing on a pedestal, holding hands. They represent the hundreds of thousands of young women from China, Korea, the Philippines, and other countries that were forced into sex slavery by the Japanese military in the 1930’s and 1940’s. A fourth, much older woman stands before the column looking up at the girls, exemplifying the age of which the surviving ‘comfort women’ finally began talking publicly about the horrors they experienced.

Many conservatives in Japan dispute the story of ‘comfort women’ and many others feel the continuing campaign to recognize the atrocities is divisive. In January, Japan temporarily recalled its ambassador to South Korea over a ‘comfort women’ statue put up near its consulate in the southern city of Busan, according to Reuters.

Lillian Sing and Julie Tang of the Comfort Women Justice Coalition spent over two years raising money and pushing for the erection of the Column of Strength in San Francisco’s St. Mary’s Square. They argue the statute represents a truth that won’t be denied.

“The more Japan wants to tear down memorials, the more I want to put them up,” Sing told KQED. The statue was erected in San Francisco on September 22.

Documents shows that in 1932, Japanese General Okamura Yasuji ordered the army to establish “comfort stations” to alleviate the growing incidents of rape and sexually transmitted diseases among units fighting in China. The initial prostitutes were Japanese, and local women were tricked into the ‘work’ with promises of factory jobs.

As the invasion of China gained momentum, women were abducted and taken to the brothels by force. Many of the sex workers were girls as young as 15. Those that would not submit were beaten and tortured. Many others committed suicide. The exact number of ‘comfort women’ is not known, but a commonly accepted estimate is around 300,000.

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For decades, Japan denied forcing women into sexual slavery. In the ‘90s, Lee and other remaining ‘comfort women’ demanded recognition and an apology from the Japanese government. In 1993, following a government study that confirmed reports of coercion, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono acknowledged the findings and issued an official apology.

There has been a conservative backlash in recent years against the “Kono Statement,” culminating in 2007 when Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe backpedaled on the apology. However, Abe did reach an agreement with South Korea to provide financial support to the 46 ‘comfort women’ still living there.

Eight ‘comfort women’ memorials have been erected in the United States in cities like Southfield, Michigan; Union City, New Jersey; and Fairfax, Virginia. San Francisco is the first major US city to host a memorial.

“I look forward to the day when there’s a memorial to the comfort women in Tokyo, Japan,” said Sing, according to KQED.

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