An Important Statue for “Comfort Women” in San Francisco

At the back of St. Mary’s Square in San Francisco’s Chinatown, the
retired judge Lillian Sing—who, long a trailblazer, was Northern
California’s first Asian-American female judge—unlocked a temporary
plywood gate. Behind the gate, in the corner of a terrace, stood a
week-old memorial. Against the backdrop of city skyscrapers, three
teen-age girls, cast in bronze, stand in a circle, holding hands. Next
to them, looking on, stands the figure of an elderly woman in Korean
dress—Kim Hak-sun, the first so-called comfort woman to speak out, in
1991, about her horrific sexual enslavement, during the Second World
War, by the Imperial Japanese Army.

Sing had come to the park that day with Julie Tang, another retired
judge and her co-chair in the project to create the memorial. “What they
did was so brave,” Tang said, as she gazed up at the three girls.
Chinese, Korean, and Filipino, they represent the estimated two hundred
thousand women from countries across East and Southeast Asia occupied by
Japan who were held in brutal state-run rape camps—a crime that went
largely unacknowledged until the nineties. That was when Kim’s
declaration inspired surviving comfort women in Korea, China, and
elsewhere to come forward with their stories. Tang shook her head. “They
were silent for fifty years, holding this shame inside them,” she said. “Victims
think they are to blame. They think they did it to themselves.” With
this statue—the first to be erected in a major U.S. city, though smaller
memorials to comfort women exist in places like Glendale, California,
and Palisades Park, New Jersey—Tang, Sing, and the local coalition they
assembled want to change that kind of thinking. By bringing attention to
the comfort women’s history, they hope to draw attention to ongoing
problems of human trafficking and sex crimes.

This may not be as self-evident as it sounds. Discussing the statue,
Dara Kay Cohen, a professor of public policy at the John F. Kennedy
School of Government, at Harvard, said, “As a scholar of wartime rape, I
think it is extraordinary.” Cohen has interviewed women captured as sex
slaves in Sierra Leone; she found their stories of being raped dozens of
times a day by fighters, even when the women were sick, “eerily similar”
to those of the comfort women. “Publicly memorializing the rape
of women is rare,” she said. “Women are half of humanity,” Elaine
Kim, a professor of Asian-American and Asian-diaspora studies at U.C.
Berkeley, and a supporter of the statue (whose unveiling brings the
total number of public statues in San Francisco of real women to three), said.
“And women are not represented in history. Nothing will be done about
crimes like these if they remain in the shadows.”

The Japanese Army’s “comfort stations,” initiated in the early
nineteen-thirties, were expanded extensively following the Nanjing
massacre, also known as the Rape of Nanking, in 1937. According to a
paper by the Yale political-science professor Elisabeth Jean Wood, the
stated goal of the comfort stations was to reduce random civilian rapes.
Girls were seized from the local populations. Conditions were brutal, and
death rates were high. “In one day, we had to serve forty to fifty
soldiers,” Lee Ok-seon, a Korean survivor, who was kidnapped at
the age of fifteen, recalled in video testimony. Girls who refused were lined up
against the wall and slashed open with knives. “I don’t call it a
‘comfort station.’ I call it a slaughterhouse,” Lee said. Jan
Ruff-O’Herne, a Dutch girl, was taken from the Indonesian
prisoner-of-war camp where she was living with her family. In a
television interview, she recalled arriving at the comfort station: “We
started protesting right away. We said we were forced into this, they
had no right to do this, it was against the Geneva Convention. And they
just laughed at us. They said they could do with us what they liked.”

After the war, survivors risked rejection by their families. Ill and
impoverished, many never married or had families of their own.
Ruff-O’Herne had two daughters, but did not tell them what happened to
her. “You know, how can you tell your daughters?” she said in the same
interview. “All these years, I was too ashamed. You think, What will
they think of me?” But, after seeing Kim Hak-sun and others come forward
and struggle to have their stories heard, Ruff-O’Herne decided that she had
to help by speaking up. (Her daughters hugged her.)

The former congressman Mike Honda told me that, in addition to the
stigma faced by victims of sexual crimes, the Japanese government’s
stance on the issue has been a problem. He said that Prime Minister
Shinzo Abe “flip-flops”: “He says, ‘We’re really sorry,’ then, ‘It
never happened.’ He’s all over the field.” Honda, who spent his own
early years in a Japanese-American internment camp, said that he first
heard of the comfort women in the nineties, after an aide returned from
an exhibition visibly upset. Honda became determined to learn more. “We
know a lot about what happened in the war in Europe, but not a lot about
what happened in Asia,” he said.

After he researched the comfort women, he decided to act. “For me, as a
Japanese-American, there was a parallel,” he said. “We fought to have the U.S.
government apologize to us. Now we have to get the Japanese government
to recognize the historical facts.” In 2007, Honda brought
survivors—including Ruff-O’Herne—to testify before Congress, and
successfully pushed through legislation demanding that the Japanese
government apologize. “Telling the story of the comfort women to the
public is powerful,” Honda said. “The statue is a physical
representation of something that happened in the past that needs to be
learned about, in order to prevent violence against women and end human
trafficking—which is a one-hundred-and-fifty-billion-dollar industry.”

Steven Whyte, the Carmel-based artist who created San Francisco’s
memorial, had a similar learning curve. “I was familiar with the term
‘comfort women,’ but I didn’t realize the extent of the torture,” he
said. Once he saw the call for applications, he researched the topic,
and wanted the job so much that he reduced his regular prices. “You
think of every girl you’ve ever known—your nieces, your daughters, your
girlfriends, everything. It’s desperately upsetting.”

While most of the comfort-women statues around the world have been put
up by South Koreans or members of the Korean diaspora, the push for this
statue was led by San Francisco’s Chinese-American community, with
support from several other groups, including members of the Japanese-,
Filipino-, Korean-, and Jewish-American communities, Eric Mar, who
served as the city supervisor during the planning-and-design process and
championed the project, said. “I thought, to be successful, we had to build a
pan-Asian coalition,” he explained. Mentioning his own teen-age
daughter, Mar began to weep. “It’s very emotional, for a lot of people.”

At the cavernous Cathay House restaurant, just up the street from St.
Mary’s Square, Sing and Tang were joined by Judith Mirkinson, the president
of the board of the Comfort Women Justice Coalition. Over hot toddies
and Chinese chicken salad, the women talked about the challenges they
faced in bringing the statue into being—including local
Japanese-Americans who say they worry that the statue could give rise to
a new wave of discrimination, and a vigorous campaign of condemnation
from the Japanese government. Whyte received some twelve hundred
negative social-media messages and e-mails, including form letters
copied and pasted from a Japanese Web site threatening economic boycotts
of his work. Activists attended hearings about the statue and called an
elderly survivor a prostitute when she testified before the San
Francisco Board of Supervisors. More recently, the mayor of Osaka
threatened to end his city’s long-standing sister-city relationship with
San Francisco if the statue is not removed—and the Japanese
consul-general in San Francisco, Jun Yamada, wrote a letter to the
editor of the San Francisco Chronicle calling the statue a “half-told”
story, and warning that if the city wants to “give equal treatment to
all cases, there will be no free space left anywhere.”

Those spearheading the memorial fear that pressures like these may delay
the bureaucratic procedures that still need to take place before the
plywood gate comes down and the statue is visible to the public. At
lunch, Sing said that she felt that racism in the United States had played a
silencing role when it comes to recognizing what happened to the comfort
women. “Why did this take so long?” she said. Kim Hak-sun “spoke out in
1991. There is the race issue: Asian women’s lives didn’t matter, like
black men’s lives don’t matter.” Still, the three women agreed that it
is no accident that this statue is here. “Even if San Francisco is
changing, progressivism is still woven into the fabric of this city,”
Mirkinson said. “And we are on the Pacific Rim,” Tang said. “We are
closer to Asia, and thirty-three per cent of the city is Asian. People
bring with them family memory that goes back to World War Two.”

For Lee Yong-soo, an eighty-nine-year-old survivor who flew from Korea
for the unveiling, San Francisco seemed dauntingly far away. But when
she arrived she was glad she had made the journey. “When I saw the girls
holding hands, it brought tears in my eyes because she looked just like
the girl I once was,” Lee wrote in an e-mail. “We need more memorials to
remember the truth. I am the living proof of the history. But when I’m
gone, who will tell the story to the next generation?”