Intersections: Comfort woman statue debate continues

Over the past two weeks, I've been on the receiving end of endless emails opposing the planned Central Park monument honoring "comfort women."

Along with more than 140 recipients — including the Glendale City Council and dozens and dozens of reporters for Los Angeles-area papers — my inbox was mercilessly bombarded with emails from some local, but mostly overseas declarations about why the monument shouldn't be built.

They said it would not only damage relations between Japan and Korea, but also Japan and the United States and that council members were being conned by Korean propaganda, which had, they said, convinced other cities in the United States to erect the same kind of memorials.

"Why does the U.S. have so many monuments?" they questioned before answering themselves, "To humiliate and discriminate against the Japanese."

Numerous countries, including the United States, had a similar comfort women system — why is Japan being singled out, they asked. There were hundreds of thousands of Korean soldiers fighting alongside Japanese soldiers — why did they remain silent about what was happening to their women?

"We do not try to rewrite history," the most duplicated email stated. "As the fabricated history is spreading, it's damaging our ancestors' honor. We want you to know the fact of what the real history is."

Comfort women were women and girls forced into prostitution and sexual slavery during World War II by Japanese forces. There are no clear-cut numbers, but various sources say anywhere from 20,000 to hundreds of thousands women were involved – another hotly contested part of the overall issue.

The women not only came from Korea, but also China, Burma and Thailand as well as Japan. Many Japanese politicians and historians argue that the women were not slaves, but ordinary, paid prostitutes who were not forced into committing sexual acts.

The debated issue is a deep wound between the two countries and one that has grown considerably larger because of the monuments as well as comments made by a prominent Japanese figure that have caused international outrage.

Earlier this year, Toru Hashimoto, mayor of Osaka, suggested that the forcing of women into sexual slavery was "necessary" at the time.

"When soldiers are risking their lives by running through storms of bullets and you want to give these emotionally charged soldiers a rest somewhere, it's clear that you need a comfort-women system," he said.

Watching the discouraging emails come in and reading reports about Korean efforts to get the monument up reminded me of another type of discourse I'm used to — Turkish-Armenian relations, a deep black hole of debate and disagreement which will cause unflinching migraines the deeper down you tread.

It's also a place of unrelenting pain — one that will not go away until the cause of pain is honestly discussed and acknowledged.

The debate reminded me of a quote by murdered Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink: "We are two sick nations: Armenians and Turks. Towards one another. The Armenians are suffering an enormous trauma towards the Turks, and the Turks an enormous paranoia. We are both clinical."

The larger issue here is deeper than a single country, however — it is the tragic fact that sexual violence against women during times of upheaval have been used as a tool of war for eons.

You can point to the fate of Armenian women in the early 20th century who were raped and tattooed to mark them as captives.

The stories of comfort women physically tortured during World War II, according to a U.N. report, remained buried for nearly 50 years and there are even still reports of rampant sexual violence in Egypt, where more than 100 women alone were attacked this month.

Among the flood of emails I received, one of them included this assessment: "This statue will only remind people (of) the pain and make our relationship worse than ever."

But Councilwoman Laura Friedman's poignant comment cut through all the emails, complaints and debate:

"Rather than using this as a wedge to drive us apart," she said as reported in the News-Press, "look at this monument not as a blame or shame to any nation, but to remind us that war has consequences."

Consequences that, all too often, women bear the brunt of, indeed.

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LIANA AGHAJANIAN is a Los Angeles-based journalist whose work has appeared in L.A. Weekly, Eurasianet and The Atlantic. She may be reached at liana.agh@gmail.com.

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