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Chinatown statue honors World War II human trafficking victims

Work examines shameful legacy of warfare

On Friday the city dedicated a new public art installation honoring World War II’s “comfort women”—the crude term given to civilians, from countries like China and Korea, taken prisoner and forced to work at brothels serving Japanese soldiers.

The finished piece now resides in the new rooftop extension of St. Mary’s Square

Carmel artist Steven Whyte sculpted the bronze statue depicting four female figures standing back to back with hands clasped in solidarity, bearing the title Women’s Column of Strength.

An inscription on the base reads:

This monument bears witness to the suffering of hundreds of thousands of women and girls euphemistically called 'Comfort Women,' who were sexually enslaved by the Japanese Imperial Armed Forces in thirteen Asian-Pacific countries from 1931 to 1945.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the Chinatown installation in 2015 at the behest of then Supervisor Eric Mar.

A 2016 document calling for applications from artists declared:

The building of this Memorial in San Francisco will not be divisive but rather a great act of unity. The making of a new memorial and dedication to the human rights and justice of women and girls in the public realm of the City will like urban acupuncture causing rippling waves of healing in the community, the city, the nation and around the world.

Nevertheless, the work, which examines a shameful legacy of 20th century warfare, stirred up ire in advance of Friday’s unveiling.

The English language Japanese newspaper Japan Times reports that elected officials in Osaka—a sister city to San Francisco—complained that Women’s Column represents “mistaken history”:

[Osaka Governor Ichiro Matsui and Osaka Mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura] strongly opposed the monument, as did former Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, who canceled a trip to San Francisco in 2013 after being internationally condemned for suggesting the comfort women system had been necessary at the time.

“We’re concerned mistaken history based on news reports will mean the (U.S.-Japan) relationship won’t progress very well for the next generation. I want this to be conveyed to the president [of the United States],” Matsui told Hagerty.

“We have to rethink the basis of our sister-city relationship,” added Yoshimura.

China Daily, an English-language paper owned and operated by the Communist Party of China, claims that the city received some 200 letters of complaint addressed from Japan ahead of the installation.

A Glendale resident even sued to remove a similar statue in that Southern California city, attempting to appeal all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court on the grounds that the art piece “infringed on the federal government’s ability to conduct foreign affairs.”

According to the Washington Post there are dozens of similar monuments around the world and at least 10 in the United States; however, the St Mary’s installation is the first for a major U.S. city.

A 2001 paper by San Francisco State University Professor Sarah Soh for the Japan Policy Research Institute estimates that between 50,000 and 200,000 women were the victims of human trafficking during the war.

“The Japanese government has steadfastly maintained that the San Francisco Peace Treaty and various bilateral agreements between Japan and other nations have settled all postwar claims of compensation,” writes Soh.