In September 2020, Germany became the first European state to erect a "Statue of Peace." It was installed in Berlin's Mitte district. The five-foot statue is said to commemorate 200,000 comfort women who were allegedly dragooned and sexually enslaved by the Japanese military during WWII.
Initially unveiled in 2011 in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, it remains one of the most contentious monuments in modern history. Berlin's decision has drawn fierce opposition from Tokyo officials as well as civic groups in Japan and South Korea.
Those who object to the monument's proliferation share a unifying view. First, the sculpture of a juvenile girl and the accompanying epithet misrepresent comfort women. Second, the wording on the epithet falsely accuses the former Japanese military of committing crimes uncorroborated by evidence.
Despite resistance, the Mitte district, backed by its Department of Art, Culture, and History, voted to push ahead. But when the municipality granted the authorization, there was one stipulation: The monument was to stay for a single year on provision.
Nevertheless, when the one-year deadline approached on September 28, 2021, the Mitte district extended the deadline by another year via special permission. This special permit likewise expired on September 28, 2022.
Permission Renewed 'Again'
Although more than a year has passed since the extension period ended, Berlin's Statue of Peace remains firmly in place. Since November 2022, JAPAN Forward has contacted the Mitte district and other relevant institutions to uncover more details.
Based on a series of email correspondence, we discovered that the Mitte district quietly authorized another two-year extension of the special permit. The monument is therefore able to remain in its location until September 28, 2024.
When asked about the reason behind the two-year extension, the press office of Mitte district said: "[The] District Assembly has asked the District Office for an extension…. So you can say it is political will. The District Office is responsible for implementing the political will."
Will the Statue Stay Permanently?
We also learned that discussions are underway on the monument's permanent location and whether the disputed epitaph will be revised. Several experts well-versed in the comfort women issue have criticized the statue's epitaph as historically erroneous and prejudiced against Japan.
Earlier, Mitte district officials were receptive to amending the inscription panel. It would be revised to include more generic language should the monument remain permanently.
The Mitte district press office was also asked about this. They said: "For the further development towards a permanent installation, which generally commemorates all victims of sexualized violence, the district office is still in talks with the Senate Chancellery and the Senate Department for Culture and Europe."
Kassel University's Path
Amid ongoing negotiations between Berlin's municipality and the central government, another statue was unveiled. This time at the University of Kassel.
On July 8, 2022, the University of Kassel installed Germany's second Statue of Peace at its campus. Tobias Schnoor, then-president of the General Student Committee (AStA), initiated the project during Kassel Documenta, an international contemporary art exhibition held from June to September 2022. Schnoor sought to utilize this world-acclaimed event to publicize the monument and eventually call for its permanent installation.
Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung, protagonists of the Statue of Peace, donated the monument to a local pro-comfort women group called Korea Verband. The group then bestowed it on the university for display.
However, the timing of the installation has raised questions about the group's intentions. The initiative occurred immediately after a group of South Korean activists visited Berlin in protest against the Mitte Statue of Peace. Some have therefore speculated that AStA's move was a "tit-for-tat" response.
In fact, in an interview with Hankyoreh News in November 2022, Schnoor said: "We thought that if the statue weren't permanently preserved, the perpetrators might organize for its removal… With the statue installed in such a conspicuous public space, the perpetrators will not be able to ignore the statue's existence nor try to get it removed."
Statue's Removal and Misinformation
In March 2023, Kassel University decided to remove its Statue of Peace. The university senate, the institution's highest decision-making body, concluded that the monument didn't meet the requirements for permanent display.
For permanent exhibition, the article in question must illustrate a continuous parallel with academic research and content-related connection to the location. The Statue of Peace satisfies neither of the two conditions.
Soon after the monument's removal, misleading reports emerged from left-leaning media outlets in South Korea. These outlets unanimously contended that university administrators had caved into pressure from the Japanese government to take down the statue. Further false accusations were made that the university dismantled the monument without informing the student committee beforehand.
When contacted by JAPAN Forward, Kassel University's communications and marketing department refuted these allegations. Sebastian Mense, the university's press spokesman, stated that the statue's exhibition was granted for a limited period and had already been extended by several months.
While the AStA passed a resolution seeking the statue's permanent establishment, the spokesman alluded that the project was largely led by the then-president of AStA who had established personal connections with the Korea Verband.
The spokesman also responded to the allegations of pressure from Tokyo. He clarified that the university's senate rejected the proposal of permanent installment because it didn't meet the institution's general requirements.
What to Expect
Whether Mitte District will follow Kassel University's example remains to be seen. There were no new developments concerning the pending agendas in the latest email exchange with Mitte District in October 2023.
JAPAN Forward will continue to monitor this story and provide updates as they occur.
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Author: Kenji Yoshida
Kenji Yoshida is an associate correspondent for JAPAN Forward currently based in Seoul.