Yong-soo Lee, now almost 90, is one of the last surviving "comfort women"—a term used to describe tens of thousands of girls and women from Korea, China, the Philippines, and other Asian countries who were kidnapped and held as sex slaves by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. She was 14 years old when she was taken from her family's farmhouse in South Korea to a comfort station, where she was forced to service kamikaze pilots.
"Even after she came back to her hometown, she never talked about it except to her mom," says Phyllis Kim, executive director of the Korean American Forum of California. Kim served as Lee's translator when she came to the US in 2007 to advocate for the passing of House Resolution 121, which called for the Japanese government to acknowledge and apologize for its role in enslaving young women during the war. "Her mom wanted her to get married—find a nice man and get married. But she acknowledged that because her body and mind was broken, she couldn't get married. She hid it from everyone, including her own family, for decades."
It wasn't until 1991 that the story of the comfort women even came to public light, when a woman named Kim Hak-Sun shared her story of being forced into sexual slavery. According to documents reviewed by The Telegraph, comfort stations were initially made up of volunteer sex workers and "formed to stop soldiers raping Chinese civilian women and preventing the spreading of venereal diseases. But in 1937, more sprung up and the regulations were gradually ignored."
To preserve that history, advocates in the US and internationally are working to erect memorials that honor the plight of those women. But many organizers say their efforts to do so have been opposed by a staunch adversary: the Japanese government.
In Glendale, California, for example, the Japanese government filed an amicus brief— a rare move by a foreign government—in February in support of a lawsuit against the city, calling for the removal of its Comfort Woman statue, which was put up in 2013. According to the brief, the suit (which had been dismissed twice already before being appealed to the US Supreme Court) had bearing on "its core national interests." (The high court denied taking up the case on March 24.)
Kim, who worked to bring the statue to Glendale, says even the process leading up to its installation was plagued with contention. (The statue in Glendale is actually a replica of the statue in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, which has seen its own share of political controversy this year.)
Not only did the Japanese Consul General get involved with the Glendale statue process—he met with city leaders and wrote an op-ed for the LA Times, calling for the statue not to be put up—but council members were flooded with emails from Japan, she says.
The concern, say critics, is that drawing attention to these horrific crimes may engender racism against Japanese Americans, who already have a complicated history in the US, thanks to their internment during the war. Others continue to argue that these women weren't enslaved at all and were actually sex workers.
Judith Mirkinson, chair of the Comfort Women Justice Coalition, says a memorial to the comfort women is important because it helps people understand what's happening today and plan for the future. "It makes us think about how women have been treated historically, what's happening now in wars and what we can do about it," she says.
The Comfort Women Justice Coalition is currently in the process of building a memorial in San Francisco—which would be the first in a major US city. Like organizers in Glendale, those involved in the San Francisco project have also seen backlash. For instance, Mirkinson says, the artist tasked with creating the sculpture has received more than 200 emails "denouncing him."
The statue is slated to be done in the fall. In the meantime, Mirkinson says they're readying themselves for a fight. "Given what [the Japanese government has] done in Glendale, which is a tiny little city, we know they're going to do something in San Francisco, so we're preparing."
On the other side of the country, Japanese officials found themselves on the winning side of another comfort women statue debate. At the beginning of March, the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta canceled its plans to install a memorial outside its entrance—despite already signing an agreement with the group spearheading the effort. The museum said that "permanent exterior fixtures were not part of the original design or any new strategic plan for the future of the Center for Civil and Human Rights," and therefore they had to back out.
Coincidentally, just days after the plans of the project became public, the Japanese Consulate General began pressuring the museum not to go forward with the memorial. "The Government of Japan is seriously concerned that the statue in Atlanta may cause discrimination, humiliation or bullying against members of the Japanese community in Atlanta who wish to live in peace," Deputy Consul General Yasukata Fukahori said in an emailed statement.
It's about honoring the victims and saying we as a global community don't want to see this happen again.
Additionally, WABE reported, a Tokyo-based man launched a letter campaign, sending emails to the business donors of the museum, among other influential people in Atlanta, suggesting that the effort to commemorate comfort women was Korean propaganda. His statements reflect the revisionist history many believe Japan's Prime Minister Shinzō Abe has toted in an effort to paint the country's actions during war in a less harsh light.
Kristie Reymer, director of marketing and communications at the museum, told NBC News that the memorial was canceled strictly due to logistical reasons.
Helen Ho is a member of the Atlanta Comfort Women Memorial Task Force, the group working to erect a memorial in the area. She says despite being disappointed about what happened with the Center for Civil and Human Rights, they're reassessing their options. "There's such a profound level of ignorance about what is one of the largest known sex trafficking rings in modern history," she says. "It was government sanctioned and institutionalized sex trafficking during World War II."
"When people don't know about history and learn from history, people tend to repeat the same things over again," she continues. "That is why understanding history and never forgetting even the dark moments of our collective past is important. It's a time to learn and a time to say never again. That's what Holocaust memorials are about. It's about honoring the victims and saying we as a global community don't want to see this happen again."