Osaka’s longtime sister-city relationship with San Francisco is coming undone over a Bay Area statue that depicts the so-called “comfort women” the Japanese military once forced into sexual slavery in World War II.
The mayor of Osaka, Hirofumi Yoshimura, has now asked the current and former San Francisco mayor to take down the “Column of Strength” statue in the city’s St. Mary’s Square, located in Chinatown. Yoshimura says the statue is unfair because it singles out Japan among the many nations that forced women into sexual slavery during wartime. This week, he sent a 10-page letter to Mayor London Breed saying the relationship between the two cities was totally severed after the “bitter process leading up to the much regrettable conclusion” to keep the statue.
Officials in Osaka have opposed the statue since it was proposed in 2015. The statue itself wasn’t erected until 2017, under the late San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee.
“We’re very saddened by his actions,” Lillian Sing, a former San Francisco Superior Court judge who helped spearhead the statue, told the San Francisco Chronicle when asked about Yoshimura. “It provides no leadership and no vision for the future except for his continued denial of history.”
The statue, made by the sculptor Steven Whyte, depicts three young women raised and standing in a circle, holding hands and resilient. Below them, there’s a fourth woman — Kim Hak-sun, the late Korean human rights activist and sex trafficking survivor — who looks at the girls with support. There are more memorials to recognize survivors in Taiwan and Seoul, South Korea.
A 1994 report from an International Commission of Jurists found that the Japanese military set up a vast network of Korean, Chinese, Indonesian, Malaysian, Taiwanese, Dutch and Filipino women to staff “comfort stations” — essentially brothels where they’d be forced to be sexually subservient to military men.
“They were beaten and tortured in addition to being repeatedly raped day after day by officers and soldiers,” the report said. “Living conditions were cramped and shabby, food was usually of a poor quality and in short supply.”
To be sure, Yoshimura doesn’t deny this happened, calling it an “unforgivable act that violated the dignity and human rights of women” in his letter this week. But he thinks Japan is being unfairly singled out, and that the statute’s claim that hundreds of thousands of women being enslaved is inaccurate. (The 1994 report said it was hundreds of thousands of women.) Yoshimura thinks this number is exaggerated, and he has no plans to reconsider his stance, according to the Japan Times.
And, as NPR reported, some Japanese officials now question whether the government was ever actually involved in the “comfort stations,” and whether the women were forced to be there against their will.
“In the future, should the City and County of San Francisco retract the Comfort Women Memorial and plaque from public property, and when an exchange environment is properly intact again to support friendly, citizen-oriented exchanges between our cities, please inform us,” Yoshimura wrote in his letter.
Sister City relationships are mostly ceremonial and a sign of good will. The relationship between Osaka and San Francisco dates back to Oct. 7, 1957. A spokesman for Breed told the San Francisco Chronicle: “We’re committed to our sister city relationship that will continue between our San Francisco and Osaka sister city committees.”
Cover: Photo taken in November 2017 shows a statue in San Francisco symbolizing Asian "comfort women" forced to work at wartime Japanese military brothels. (Kyodo via AP Images) ==Kyodo