Glendale steps into controversy with memorial to WWII sex slaves

South Korean Vietnam War veterans stand beside a statue honoring "comfort women" during a rally in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. Remarks by the mayor of Osaka on the historic perception of "comfort women," coerced into Japanese military brothels during World War II, have drawn intense criticism from neighboring countries and the United States.
(Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images)

When Glendale officials proposed a memorial to “comfort women” — sex slaves who served the Japanese army in occupied countries during World War II — they saw it as a quiet gesture of goodwill for the city’s Korean community.

The planned statue shows a young girl seated next to an empty chair: a symbolic memorial to the estimated 80,000 to 200,000 women, mostly from Korea, who spent the war in Japanese military brothels serving up to 50 men per day.

But city leaders soon realized that they had stepped into a major international controversy. They’ve been bombarded with hundreds of angry emails, mostly from Japan, accusing them of falling for “anti-Japan propaganda” and calling the Korean women, many of whom say they were abducted from their homes as teenagers, “liars” and willing “prostitutes.”


Proposed memorials in New Jersey, New York and Singapore faced similar organized opposition.

The uproar has left Glendale officials stunned but undeterred. The City Council late Tuesday approved the statue despite the opposition.

“A 14-year-old girl doesn’t voluntarily leave her village in Korea to go serve the Japanese army, give me a break,” said Councilman Frank Quintero, who said he was surprised that such a “low-key” memorial could stoke such fury. “We never intended to kick up a hornet’s nest,” he said.

Takehiko Wajima, spokesman for the Consulate General of Japan in Los Angeles, said the government’s official position is that the comfort women story “should not be politicized or be turned into a diplomatic issue.” Asked who he thought was politicizing it, the city of Glendale or the emailers, Wajima said, “I am not in a position to comment.”

Yumiko Yamamoto, the Tokyo woman leading the email campaign, told The Times that she has waged similar battles against memorials elsewhere. She said she’s one of “many Japanese mothers” trying to fight the spread of “fabricated Japanese history.”

Glendale has a reputation for taking on global issues important to its residents. The city — which has a large Armenian population — holds an annual “week of remembrance” marking the Armenian genocide. Glendale has about 10,000 Korean American residents, about 5% of the city’s population.

The emails protesting the comfort women’s memorial, which have also been addressed to Times editors and reporters, generally don’t deny that the brothels existed. Instead, they argue that soldiers from all nations, including the U.S., patronize prostitutes during wartime. Any coercion used to staff the Japanese “comfort stations,” they say, was committed by unscrupulous Korean pimps — not Japanese officials.

“The girls were sold by their parents to private sex brokers, which is a tragedy,” wrote one Japanese man who said he lives in the U.S. and only identified himself by his pen name, Pakku Rareman. “Or they volunteered to feed their family” during the war, he wrote.

The Japanese government issued a formal apology to the comfort women in 1993. It acknowledged that the Japanese military had established a vast network of brothels and its officers, at times, had a direct role in recruiting women against their will. As a result, the apology said, “a great number of comfort women … suffered immeasurable pain and incurable physical and psychological wounds”

In the last 20 years, however, a growing number of Japanese conservatives have argued that the evidence underlying the government study was thin. In May, Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto said the brothels had been a “necessary” part of Japan’s war effort and questioned the level of coercion involved.

Within a month, the city of San Francisco rescinded an invitation to Hashimoto for an official visit. The U.N. Committee Against Torture urged Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — who has also questioned the level of coercion required — to condemn Hashimoto’s comments. He did, but not strongly enough to appease international critics.

The backlash in Japan against the accepted version of the comfort women story is fueled by a sense among conservatives that “saying anything bad about the nation’s past is some sort of capitulation to conquering foreign powers,” said William Marotti, a Japanese history professor at UCLA. They blame the foreign version of events for undermining patriotism, Marotti said.

The new, combative tone coming from Japan has done nothing to silence 86-year-old Kang Il-chuk and others who live in a home for former comfort women outside Seoul.

“I won’t just disappear quietly,” Kang said in an interview last week with The Times. “Until the day I die, I will raise my voice to fight the Japanese government.”

Kang said when she was 15, Japanese soldiers came to her rural home while her parents were out and ordered her to come with them. She wound up on a train to China, where she said she spent nearly four years in a military brothel.

“I can’t even remember how many hours I worked in a day, and how many men I had to serve. It was just endless,” Kang said.

Others say they had sex with 40 to 50 men per day.

One day, Kang said, she took too long in the bathroom because she was bleeding from her rectum. A Japanese soldier came in and beat her in the back of the head, she said, ordering her to return to work. She still has a scar from the soldier’s blows, Kang said.

Shame kept her from trying to make her way home after the war, she said, and she never saw her parents again. Kang stayed in China, eventually marrying and having two children. She returned to Korea in 2000.

Another survivor, Yi Ok-seon, 87, said two men grabbed her while she was walking to a shop at the age of 15. When she kicked and screamed, she said, one of the men shouted, “Shut up, you brat,” and she realized he was Korean. She too was shipped to China, where she initially worked as a laborer at a Japanese airfield.

“I complained and cried,” Yi said. “I screamed to be sent home.”

Instead, a Japanese soldier took her to a brothel. “When I was forced to work as a sex slave, I wished I was dead,” she said. But she knew better than to resist after seeing a 14-year-old girl killed with a sword right in front of her, she said.

At the end of the war, Yi said, Japanese soldiers took her and some others into the mountains and left them for dead. She made it back to the Chinese city of Yanji, where she eventually married and “carved out a life.” But she never saw her family in Korea again.

Glendale officials have invited several of the survivors from Korea to the United States at the end of July for the unveiling of their monument.

“It’s not about punishing any country,” Councilman Ara Najarian said. “This is about commemorating man’s inhumanity to man.”

Choi, a special correspondent, reported from Seoul. Times staff writer Brittany Levine contributed to this report.