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Is Osaka’s Mayor Alone in Fighting Against the Comfort Women Statue in San Francisco?

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Mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura has vowed to “dissolve” Osaka’s sister city relationship with San Francisco in the United States “before the year’s out.” The reason has been much publicized—at least in Japan—regarding a possible decision by the Californian city to permit a statue falsely depicting young Koreans as “sex slaves” to be installed on public property.

 

To Yoshimura, it’s a battle against the continued rewriting of history, which often casts Japan in a negative light. Yet, at home, the Osaka council has twice refused to approve a motion urging the San Francisco city government to reject the monument. Some also question whether Osaka could go it alone when foreign affairs are supposedly a domain of the central government and not of the local government. The office of San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee has yet to respond to his request for a meeting.

 

San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee on the left and Osaka Mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura. The picture taken in August 2016 at San Francisco.

 

Yoshimura spoke to Sankei Shimbun newspaper on November 13th about the weakening relationship of trust between Osaka and San Francisco, further detailing the next steps if their sister-city ties are indeed severed.  

 

‘Osaka-bashing’

 

In September of this year, Chinese-American community groups erected a statue-cum-monument denoting comfort women as “sex slaves” on a private property in San Francisco, with the intention of donating it to the city itself. Mayor Yoshimura has vowed that “if San Francisco, as a municipality, accepts the donated statue, then we will dissolve the sister-city relationship.”

 

 

 

Yoshimura attempted to arrange a November meeting with Mayor Lee, as he “wanted to decide on a response after a one-on-one discussion.” The San Francisco local government rejected the suggestion, saying a meeting would be “inconvenient.” A second request for a December meeting was sent, but Osaka has yet to receive a reply as of November 13th.

 

In the interview, Yoshimura emphasized that sister-city relations are “built on a strong relationship of trust.” By accepting the statue, as a city, San Francisco would be engaging in “Japan- and, by default, Osaka-bashing.” In that kind of environment, “the premise for sister-city relations, the trust relationship, cannot grow.”

 

He said: “The lack of a reply to our request for a meeting can only be interpreted as meaning that they do not want to meet. If we are unable to meet, then the decision will be made in December.” Council consent is not required for the dissolution of sister-city relations; it can be decided at the mayor’s discretion.

 

 

Inaccurate Claims on Inscription

 

Yoshimura takes issue with the phrase “sexual slavery,” the figure of “hundreds of thousands [of victims],” and “died as slaves during the war” inscribed on the monument. These three points, he contends, “treat inaccurate, one-sided claims as though they are the truth, these claims [that] depart from the views of the Japanese government and are disputed even among historians.” The mayor added further, “They also differ to my own understanding of history.”

 

Moreover, Yoshimura referenced the 2015 Japan-Korea Agreement on the Comfort Women Issue that stipulates an agreement among the parties to refrain from criticizing one another in the international community. Pointing out that former US Secretary of State John Kerry and other government officials agreed to “endeavor to uphold the agreement in the international community,” Yoshimura said that America should also respect the content of the agreement. “The Mayor of San Francisco would be going against federal government policy direction by installing the statue and monument,” he said.

 

With regard to the view that local governments should not be personally involved in foreign affairs, as diplomacy is the national government’s specialty, Yoshimura argued: “If it were a state or federal-level issue, I would not say anything. However, as long as the City of San Francisco is our counterpart, as a sister-city, it is an issue that I should naturally comment on.” Yoshimura noted that in San Francisco, “the city council is proactively pressuring Mayor Lee to accept the comfort women statue.”

 

Regarding the Osaka city council twice voting down motions to urge the City of San Francisco to reconsider the decision to install the statue, Yoshimura said: “It is terribly disappointing. As far as the international community is concerned, it looks as though we agree with the erection of the statue and monument. Our silence will be interpreted as agreement.”

 

 

What’s Next?

 

There have been calls to just temporarily halt exchanges with San Francisco, rather than dissolving Osaka’s sister-city agreement. To this, the Mayor said, “It is pointless, since even if we halt relations, during that time the statue will be installed and become known worldwide.”

 

He said that concerns regarding the erection of the comfort women statue have been conveyed since the time former Mayor Toru Hashimoto held office: “If this proceeds, it will mean that they have prioritized the statue over sister-city relations. The trust between us will evaporate.”

 

If the sister-city relationship is dissolved, municipal celebrations to mark 60 years of municipal and mayoral exchange will be canceled. On the topic of grass-roots exchanges, such as the high school student exchanges run by the San Francisco Sister City Association, Yoshimura said: “Even if [the sister-city relationship] should be dissolved, if there were interest, I would like to continue to support that. I would like to support individual exchange as much as possible.”

 

 

(Click here and here to read the original articles in Japanese.)