Needless to say, the construction of this monument has engendered a series of debates. Many Shin Issei Japanese (i.e., post-1965 immigrants) have defended the Japanese government and suggested that the comfort women were already prostitutes (and wealthy ones at that). Others argue that Korean families "willingly" sold their daughters into sexual slavery to pay off debts. Yet these arguments miss the larger contexts of Japanese colonialism that wrought a regime of political and economic exploitation in Korea that ensured social instability and intractable poverty. These arguments often reflect the contentious "history of history" found in post-war Japanese textbooks that elide the atrocities of Japanese imperialism. As rumors continue to swirl about plans to amend Japan's pacifist constitution, this monument, and the inconvenient past it represents, speaks to much larger geo-political issues.
But, what does this all mean for Japanese Americans? As the comments sections of various online outlets show, some JAs see the monument as an affront to anyone with Japanese ancestry. As other locales such as Buena Park consider erecting similar statues, others think that these debates should be staged at the nation-state level (Korea and Japan) and local governments should stay out of the fracas.
But, as we approach the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Liberties Act, many Japanese Americans remain steadfast in their critique of injustice, regardless of the ancestry of the oppressor. Kathy Masaoka, an organizer with Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress, spoke at the unveiling to express solidarity between progressive Japanese Americans and the Korean/Korean American community. Ms. Masaoka, quoted in the Rafu Shimpo, told the audience that NCRR,
"will continue to support the Korean comfort women’s demand for an apology and individual reparations from the Japanese government and understands how important both the apology and reparations are. Japan has said that they settled all claims when they paid reparations as part of the peace treaties after the war, but these did not go to the comfort women. The United States also stated that they settled all of its issues with the Japanese American community with the Evacuation Claims Act of 1948, which paid individuals 10 cents on the dollar for loss of property, but only if they had receipts — and most did not"
Two of our board members, Nancy Takayama and Harold Kameya, also attended the unveiling ceremony. (Thanks to Ms. Takayama who took the photo above and to Mr Kameya who provided photos for the slideshow below!). Mr. Kameya reiterated how the experience of World War II has shaped Japanese American politics: "I feel that we have a moral obligation to speak out on behalf of others." He was later quoted in the Rafu Shimpo and the Korea Times and shares his full statement below:
I was born in Hawaii, and I am a member of the San Fernando Valley Japanese American Citizens League, or JACL. George Bernard Shaw said that “Patriotism is the belief that your country is the best in the world, simply because of the fact that you were born in it.” That statement reflects a natural tribal instinct in all of us.
I feel proud and fortunate to be born on U.S. soil. But because my grandparents emigrated from Japan, I also feel a desire to likewise feel proud of the country of my ancestors.
However, I feel deeply ashamed by the WWII actions of the Japanese Imperial Army in China, the Philippines, Korea and other countries, and especially the actions of the current government to erase that history.
My Chinese friend told me (regarding Japan’s WWII atrocities): "We may forgive, but we never forget!”
In May of this year, the Mayor of the Japanese city Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, created a controversy when he stated that the use of comfort women was justified. I do not know if he believes in the Golden Rule, but if he does, I would like to know if he would be pleased if HIS mother, or HIS wife,
or HIS daughter were used in such a fashion?
The Korean American Forum of California lauded Mr. Kameya and shared their "deepest respect for [his] bravery and righteous actions."
Our chapter has not taken an official stance on this controversial set of overlapping issues, ranging from the memorial itself to larger debates over how the past is remembered and redressed. Furthermore, this post only reflects the author's interests as a historian of Asian Americans.
But, it is my hope that these dialogues will invite others in our communities to discuss and reflect upon issues of war, memory, and responsibility. As many scholars such as Alice Yang in Historical Memories of the Japanese American Internment and the Struggle for Redress, Jodi Kim in Ends of Empire, Grace Cho in Haunting the Korean Diaspora, and the contributors to Vestiges of War have shown, Asian Americans constantly live under the weight of multiple pasts entangled with the legacies war and imperialism. Do these pasts compel us, as Kameya suggets, to stand with the oppressed? Or do these trials by fire demonstrate our resolve and that (some) Asian Americans have made it? Historical events such as the comfort women memorial give occasion for us to discern our own answers to these questions.
- By Jean-Paul de Guzman, JACL Board Member