On June 30, a comfort woman statue was erected in a public park in Brookhaven, Georgia, a city in the American South. It is the second statue on public land in the United States, following the statue which was erected in Glendale, California, in 2013. The Brookhaven unveiling ceremony was packed with Korean-American residents. The mood was festive: Korean singers performed on stage, and comfort woman statue commemorative T-shirts were on sale. But just five days after the ceremony, the city announced a plan to move the statue to another large park. The confusion caused by this statue is not over yet. What do the comfort woman statues do for the local community? Sankei Shimbun New York bureau chief Mayu Uetsuka reports from Brookhaven.
GEORGIA, United States—“Three, two, one!” At the end of the unveiling ceremony on June 30, Mayor John Ernst of Brookhaven, flanked by South Korean-American groups, pulled down a yellow cloth. With a loud cry, they unveiled the comfort woman.
Some Korean-American residents became overly emotional and could not hold back their tears. A heavy rain was falling, but there was still no end to people waiting to have a commemorative picture taken with the statue.
At the unveiling ceremony, the leader of a Korean-American group based in Atlanta, Georgia, which presented the comfort woman statue as a gift to the city of Brookhaven, emphasized that his group was not acting for political advantage. He made sure to touch on his group’s propaganda line: this is not just a Korean problem because sexual slavery at the hands of the Japanese affects people from at least 13 countries, including China, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Indonesia.
The Japanese consulate in Georgia’s capital city, Atlanta, repeatedly conveyed the Japanese government’s position on the comfort woman issue to those involved in the Brookhaven city offices, but Japan’s appeals fell on deaf ears.
Japanese consul Tomoko Oyama speaks at Brookhaven City council on June 29, 2017
The unveiling ceremony, marked by the enthusiasm of the Korean residents, seemed to indicate that Brookhaven as a city was completely behind the statue’s erection in the park.
Mayor Ernst was himself the master of ceremonies on that day, and three out of the four city council members attended the event. The local chief of police even took the stage to offer his congratulations. Comfort woman statue memorial T-shirts were on sale at the ceremony grounds, and spokesmen of the local government for the city of Brookhaven were even seen “advertising” for these wares, shouting, “T-shirts for sale! Everybody, please buy one!”
Koreans in Georgia
Brookhaven is about a 20-minute drive northeast of downtown Atlanta. It has a population of approximately 50,000, and was officially incorporated as a city just five years ago, in 2012.
There seem to be around 100,000 Korean and Korean-American residents in the state of Georgia. However, there is not a large Korean community in Brookhaven itself. According to statistics provided by the city, Hispanics make up the largest minority group, at 24.8%, with Asians at just 5.6% or so.
Why, then, was the comfort woman statue built here in Brookhaven?
The Atlanta-based Korean group has been preparing this statue for three years. On February 9, 2017, the Korean group announced plans to erect a comfort woman statue on the grounds of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in central Atlanta. However, on March 2, the Center decided not to permit the statue to be placed on its grounds.
In response, the Korean group issued a fiery rebuttal, accusing the Japanese government of blocking the statue’s erection at the Center for Civil and Human Rights. The group then increased its efforts to find another location for the statue, sounding out cities and towns in an attempt to find a new site.
Tom Taylor, a Republican member of the Georgia House of Representatives, contacted Brookhaven City Council members to express his concerns and to oppose the erection of the comfort woman statue. According to the legislator, the Korean group requested many cities and towns in the state of Georgia to allow them to set up their statue, but the group was refused every time. Representative Taylor pointed out that the biggest factor in the Korean group’s “success” in Brookhaven was in having found city council members there willing to provide them with their full support.
One member of the four-person city council is Korean-American. The statue erection proposal came up at the Brookhaven city council meeting on May 23, and was approved on the same day.
At the unveiling ceremony, the Brookhaven mayor introduced the Korean city council member as his longtime friend. The Korean city council member said he was very disappointed when the plans to erect the comfort woman statue in Atlanta were cancelled, and got particularly loud applause for saying that the statue’s supporters had been able to find a home for the comfort woman statue after much difficulty, and to shine light on the tragedies of the past.
The support for the comfort woman statue by the Korean city council member of Brookhaven comes amid the worsening social problem of the sex industry in Atlanta and its suburbs. In 2014, the FBI designated Atlanta and its environs (including the City of Brookhaven) as being home to more human trafficking crimes than any other place in the United States.
Mayor Ernst links the comfort woman issue to the human trafficking going on in his own area. He has repeatedly said that the statue is to raise awareness of the ongoing problem of human trafficking.
In response, Representative Taylor said that human trafficking is a worldwide problem, and that concern should not be limited to one country and to one period in history, as the Korean group would have everyone do.
Inside Brookhaven itself, meanwhile, there is a strip club, which has been in town for many years and turned into a hotbed of prostitution. In 2014, the Brookhaven city council voted to grant full operating permission to this club.
Taylor said it is “unbelievable” that Brookhaven should approve the operation of a strip club, and then turn around and act concerned about comfort women as victims of human trafficking. The city is openly contradicting itself, he pointed out.
‘Don’t bring politics into my park’
The comfort woman statue issue has brought to the surface the confusion inside the City of Brookhaven. On July 5, just five days after the unveiling ceremony, the city announced that it would be moving the statue to another large park.
The city government says that the reason for the statue’s removal is the traffic congestion around the statue’s current location. The statue is being moved, the city explains, in order to provide statue visitors with better parking and a more convenient experience.
However, many strongly suspect that American residents living in Brookhaven exerted a great deal of influence by opposing the statue’s erection.
The park where the statue was initially located is maintained using funds from an upkeep cooperative comprising 95 households in the park’s vicinity. Some residents were strenuously opposed to the statue, saying that they had been given absolutely no explanation of what was going on before it was suddenly decided to place the statue in the park.
Before the unveiling ceremony, a female resident in her 50s angrily told the Sankei Shimbun: “This is truly a burden on all of us. I use this park like it was my own backyard, and I don’t want anyone bringing their political problems in here—I don’t care what country they’re from. I cannot believe the response of the city. I’m consulting with a lawyer to see what legal means are available to us. I’m also working to have the mayor and the city council voted out of office in the next election.”
According to locals familiar with the situation, the City of Brookhaven did not anticipate the voices of opposition raised, not only by local Japanese, but also by American residents living nearby.
One Japanese resident says that Brookhaven has few Asians, and that the Japanese and Koreans had thus far helped one another out. The comfort woman statue plans, which were pushed through at breakneck speed, have cause untold discord and strife.
The City of Brookhaven is a suburb on the northern outskirts of Atlanta, the capital of Georgia, a state in the American South. Residents voted to form their own city in 2012, creating the biggest self-governed entity in DeKalb County. Brookhaven has a population of approximately 50,000. Mayor John Ernst took office in January 2016.
(Click here to read the original article in Japanese.)