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Comfort Statues Worldwide Fuel Local Social Friction

Quarreling over whether or not such statues should be erected in public spaces has created friction among local residents and led to the division of local communities around the world.

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A comfort women statute in Berlin is among those causing local and global friction.

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It has been 10 years since the first comfort woman statue was erected outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul, South Korea, on December 14, 2011. 

Since then, 160 similar statues have been installed in South Korea and other countries worldwide. In fact, placement of comfort women statues has become a favorite arrow in the quiver of anti-Japan protestors. 

A comfort women statue in San Francisco caused the bilateral ties with its sister city Osaka to be broken.

At the same time, quarreling over whether or not such statues should be erected in public spaces has created friction among local residents and led to the division of local communities around the world. 

In South Korea itself, areas around the comfort women statues have become arenas for political standoffs between opposing political groups. 

“We would like to avoid backing one side or the other in historical controversies between countries,” remarked Stephan von Dassel, mayor of the central Berlin district of Mitte. 

The mayor made these remarks in October 2020, when the permit to display the statue was temporarily revoked. Subsequently, as a result of strident protests from local Korean citizen groups and their supporters, the decision was rescinded, as local politicians vacillated on their position. The back-and-forth between opponents and proponents has continued unabated. 

In this way, a local jurisdiction that initially had no connection to the controversy has become unwittingly caught in the crossfire between South Korea and Japan. 

The Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan (“Korean Council”)  installed the original statue in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul. According to the group, over the past decade the number of comfort women statues in South Korea has increased to 144, while another 16 have gone up overseas. 

The first statue to be erected overseas was the Peace Monument of Glendale, California, an exact replica of the first comfort woman statue. It was installed in the Los Angeles suburb in July 2013. After that, more went up in Western and Asian countries. However, in many cases, the result was that local residents got drawn into the controversy, leaving scars on the local community. 

Comfort women or sex slaves?

Within South Korea itself, there had been a fierce backlash in public opinion against the 2015 comfort women agreement between Japan and South Korea, which was supposed to strive to resolve the issue. There were nationwide protests at the time. 

However, as a result of a string of revelations about the Korean Council’s misuse of donations, which started coming out in the spring of 2020, along with the group’s lack of transparency, the climate of opinion regarding the comfort women statues has changed. 

Protests by conservative groups and YouTubers near the Japanese embassy — against the erection of statues and the Moon Jae In regime policies toward Japan — have also taken off. The Korean Council had been staging demonstrations at the same spot in front of the Japanese embassy for close to three decades. However, after restrictions on gatherings in order to prevent COVID-19 were removed in November 2021, other citizens’ groups beat them to the punch in registering for use of the space that Korean Council members used to monopolize. Consequently, the Korean Council has been forced to hold their protests more than 10 meters away from where the iconic statue is located. 

On December 8, amidst heightened police security, leftwing and rightwing groups from around the country gathered in front of the Embassy of Japan for what has become something of a Wednesday ritual. Employing loudspeakers set at a high volume, one side shouted slogans like “the Japanese government must apologize,” while the other side retorted with chants like “anti-Japan tribalism is a disease.” 

Passersby could be seen covering their ears as they hurried to escape the bedlam. 

(Read the Sankei Shimbun column in Japanese at this link.)

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Author: Tatsuya Tokiyoshi (Seoul)