Glazed in bronze patina, the three girls face outward and hold hands. They look solemn and defiant as they gaze straight ahead, staring over the crowds that form around them. From head to toe, the girls—ages 12 to 18: one Chinese, one Korean, and one Filipina—are no more than 5”2’. But atop the column, they stand twice as tall.
“The raised height of the survivor declares that they will no longer have their story hidden in shame. Instead, their bravery and perseverance demand acknowledgment,” Steven Whyte, sculptor of this statue, called “The Women’s Column of Strength,” told The Politic.
The statue, constructed on November 1, 2017, in San Francisco, is one of dozens of public memorials around the world demanding acknowledgment of the horrific abuse that comfort women suffered in World War II. Several similar statues have been constructed this year in cities ranging from Atlanta to Manila. The euphemism “comfort women” refers to the estimated 80,000 to 200,000 girls and women that the Japanese Imperial Army kept as sex slaves between 1932 and 1945. The majority of comfort women were between 14 and 18 years old and came from Korea, China, the Philippines, and other countries occupied by Japan.
Japanese soldiers abducted the girls from their homes to meet the increasing demand for sex slaves in military camps. During the war, comfort women were detained in state-run camps known as “comfort stations,” which consisted of small wooden shacks or tents. The comfort women were sometimes abused by 70 men in one day, according to a 1996 UN report.
Though these atrocities were widespread until the war ended in 1945, the comfort women’s plight went largely unacknowledged on an international scale before the 1990s.
That is now beginning to change.
Mary McCarthy, associate professor of political philosophy at Drake University said in an interview with The Politic that today, women are “taking agency for themselves and seeking historical justice.”
“The women themselves remained silent for decades because of the shame,” Judith Mirkinson, president of the the Comfort Women Justice Coalition, echoed in an interview with The Politic.
“The irony to me is that if a woman gets raped, it is our fault, it is our shame. But what women are trying to say now, is that this has nothing to do with us,” she said. “This is your problem, not our problem.”
Advocacy groups like The Comfort Women Justice Coalition (CWJC) hope to end the long period of silence by honoring the women’s plight. The group funded the San Francisco sculpture and, in the summer of 2015, invited Mirkinson to help pass a resolution to put up the statue.
“I thought it was going to be very easy, like a no-brainer. Like who could be against a memorial for women who have been sexually enslaved,” Mirkinson told The Politic. “It turns out to be far different.”
The project took two years to complete, and Mirkinson was surprised by how much opposition she met in the process. “It was really a mixed bag because so much of the Japanese-American community supported us, and then there was a faction against us—and they organized,” she said.
In addition to opposition from some members of the Japanese-American community in San Francisco, many people in Japan were critical of the statue. Japanese lobbyists and employees of the local Japanese Consulate protested to block the statue’s installation. The mayor of Osaka, Hirofumi Yoshimura, even threatened to cut official sisterhood ties with San Francisco because of it, a threat that made national headlines. A spokesperson for Japan’s Foreign Ministry called the decision to put up the statue “regrettable and incompatible with the position and efforts of the government of Japan.”
“They want to harken back to a time that never existed,” Mirkinson said of Japanese opposition to the statue. In her view, there are several reasons for the resistance. “First, they were afraid this would engender and bring up anti-Japanese feelings left over from the war,” she said. The second reason, Mirkinson believes, is “a loyalty to the Japanese government, and a feeling that this issue had already been adjudicated.”
In an interview with The Politic, Kelly Ahn, spokesperson for the Atlanta Comfort Women Memorial Task Force, said opponents misunderstand the purpose of the statue.
“The issue is not about the perpetrating country. To me, the name of the country that perpetrated the sex slavery is almost irrelevant. If the country was named Korea, or the United States, I would still be fighting for a memorial. It just happens to be, in history, the Japanese army.”
Ahn continued, “They try to make it Japan vs. Korea, if they want to get technical with names, then it should be Japan vs. the thirteen nations [reported to house comfort stations]. Ultimately, it is Japan vs. the truth,” he said. “And they can’t run away from the truth.”
Japan has taken many decades to acknowledge the atrocities its soldiers committed against the comfort women. Following decades of outright denials, the Japanese government acknowledged in 1993 that its imperial army had forced women to work in brothels. In 1995, then-Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama offered a broader apology for the “tremendous damage and suffering” caused by Japan during World War II. Still, in 2007, Abe insisted, “The fact is, there is no evidence to prove there was coercion.”
Eight years later, Abe pledged to pay 8.3 million dollars in reparations to the dwindling number of comfort women survivors—at last count, fewer than 50 are alive. The effort amounted to a compromise, but not a public apology.
In July 2017, the Atlanta Comfort Women Task Force constructed its own comfort women memorial, which stood 2,530 miles away from the one in San Francisco. Both private citizens and Japanese government-funded news groups opposed the construction. In addition, “dozens and dozens of paid trolls” inundated the comments sections of articles about the statue, and sent emails to every major donor, said Helen Ho, the special adviser to the task force, in an interview with The Politic.
The fight over the statue in San Francisco was similarly tenacious.
“Ultimately, what they wanted to do was to stop the statue from going up,” Julie Tang, retired California Superior Court judge and co-chairwoman of the CWJC, told The Politic. “When they couldn’t do that, they worked to destroy its credibility.”
Even in the face of resistance, the San Francisco statue resolution won approval, with a vote of 11-0.
Following the go-ahead, the design process moved forward. The coalition opened a memorial proposal design competition to artists, judged by a panel of five San Francisco experts in the fields of activism and public art. They selected the winning design in December 2016: local sculptor Steven Whyte’s “Women’s Column of Strength,” which depicts three young women holding hands.
While the new sculpture is anchored to the comfort women’s struggle, Whyte intends for it to honor the lived realities of all victims of sexual violence.
“In approaching the design, I wanted to focus on the following sentiments: vulnerability, resolve, solidarity, resilience, and finally, demand for recognition,” Whyte told The Politic.
The September 2017 unveiling of the San Francisco comfort women statue coincided with the growth of the #MeToo movement, as part of which women have similarly demanded recognition. Increasingly, victims of Japanese World War II sexual slavery have come forward to speak of the atrocities they survived, to tell their stories, and to seek redress, sometimes decades after crimes were committed against them.
“These [comfort women survivors] whose average age is now 95 years old are the Mothers of the “#MeToo” movement,” Tang said. “Their courage to speak up 50 years after the war is a precursor and inspiration to the modern day women who years after their personal sexual trauma start to talk about their own suffering of rapes and sexual assaults.
“Every wave that happens builds on the next one. And then engenders the next one. And the next one,” Mirkinson said.
Ahn believes that the comfort women memorial serves a purpose on three levels. First, the memorial honors the victims of World War II sexual slavery. On a deeper level, the statues increase awareness of sexual trafficking, abuse, and violence. But ultimately, Ahn said that he sees the figures as a symbol for the need to safeguard the human rights of all women.
The San Francisco comfort women statue is particularly notable considering the shortage of monuments celebrating women in the city’s landscape. Before the memorial’s unveiling, only three of San Francisco’s 87 public statues depicted women.
“It’s really amazing to have a statue to Asian women and girls that talks about their experiences, talks about them as victims and also as survivors, showing women’s resilience,” said Mirkinson. “Even after all these horrible experiences, there were women willing to speak out, to not be intimidated, and to say: ‘We deserve this.’”
From the ground, a “grandma” figure, in her bronze patina, looks up at the girls on the pedestal. Whyte says her expression is not as “haunted” as those of the young girls. Rather, she looks “at peace, as she looks upon the more recent survivors with resilient power.”
“Staring down at visitors to the park, each of the women wears a resolute blank expression and an unyielding gaze,” Whyte described. “The viewer sees, in their post-traumatic stare, a look that says, ‘Only you can stop this happening again.'”