This story has been corrected. See details below.
An 1,100-pound statue honoring hundreds of thousands of women taken as sex slaves by the Japanese Imperial Army decades ago is traveling by boat from South Korea and is just days away from arriving in Glendale, where it may become the first statue honoring the so-called “comfort women” on public property on the West Coast.
The memorial, like others on the East Coast and in Korea, has sparked controversy as opponents from Japan have emailed dozens of letters to City Council members in an attempt to block the statue from being placed in Central Park near the Adult Recreation Center.
A group of Japanese nationalists deny that soldiers took about 200,000 Korean, Chinese and other women as sex slaves during World War II, but supporters of the memorials say the atrocities are well-documented.
Chang Lee, a member of the Korean Sister City Assn., which paid for the monument, said the memorial is not about pitting one country against another. Rather, it’s meant to raise awareness of a dark time in history and learn from it, Lee said.
“It’s not about one ethnicity against one ethnicity. It’s about human rights. It’s here so this atrocity will not be repeated,” Lee said. “I’m glad that Glendale has taken a bold step to do that.”
The association paid $30,000 for the statue, which features a young woman in a traditional Korean dress sitting next to an empty chair.
While former comfort women have shared their stories of human rights abuse, the Japanese government continues to deny that the military forced Korean women into prostitution decades ago. In 2007, the House of Representatives passed a resolution asking the Japanese government to formally apologize but it has not done so, Lee said.
Several council members said this week they would not be deterred by the emails they have received that are critical of the memorial.
“This is a historical fact,” said Councilman Frank Quintero, who visited with surviving comfort women in South Korea a few months ago.
The bronze, granite and obsidian statue is a replica of a memorial that sits in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, where surviving comfort women often protest, demanding reparations. It’s the first replica in the United States, Lee said.
While the statue features a young woman, her shadow symbolizes an older version of herself. A bird on the woman’s shoulder represents freedom and peace. A butterfly seen in the shadow represents rebirth.
The Glendale memorial is set to be the largest in the United States, Lee said. The others in New Jersey are smaller monuments.
Last year, Japanese officials asked Palisades Park — a small New Jersey borough outside New York — to remove its comfort women memorial but officials there refused. After that was installed in 2010, another plaque was placed in Bergen County, New Jersey. A third memorial is in the works in another New Jersey borough.
In California, a plaque honoring comfort women is embedded in a small monument in a Garden Grove shopping center, but Glendale’s memorial will be the first on public property on the West Coast.
Although the Korean Sister City Assn. has already designed and paid for the statue, it still must be approved by the City Council on July 9 before it can be placed in Central Park. However, the council supported the idea of the memorial in March when members first set aside a portion of the park for sister city monuments. The item is expected to sail through the voting process.
Lee said the Korean Sister City Assn. plans to unveil the monument on July 30 at a public event in Central Park.
Eventually, Glendale officials plan to install more monuments donated by other sister cities in the park.
[For the Record, June 27, 2013: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the statue features a young woman in a traditional Japanese dress sitting next to an empty chair. That is incorrrect. The correct dress is Korean.]