Comfort women statue opponents sway Buena Park

A memorial in Glendale to sex slaves who served the Japanese army during World War II has aggravated an overseas opposition group that has now turned its attention to a similar proposal in Buena Park.

Members of the opposition group — which contends the so-called "comfort women" from Korea, China, Indonesia and other occupied countries during the war willingly worked as prostitutes — use form emails to pummel their targets.

It's a strategy that was deployed against Glendale just as it was preparing to receive its comfort-women memorial, an 1,100-pound statue of a woman in Korean dress sitting next to an empty chair. But by then, it was too late. The city had already set aside a plot of land for the monument and the $30,000 statue was already en route from South Korea.

This time, however, the emails hit Buena Park, an Orange County city less than half the size of Glendale, earlier in the review process.

And this time, the strategy appears to be working.

City Councilman Fred Smith said from the dais Tuesday that he was confused by the onslaught of emails denying the sex slavery record and opposing the memorial.

Three out of five Buena Park council members at the meeting said they were against the proposed memorial, expressing concern about bringing in a controversial statue that had no clear connection to the city.

But according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 10% of Buena Park's 82,000 people are of Korean descent, compared to just 5% of Glendale, which has a population of 192,000.

"It's tough to take political heat, but there's no doubt in my mind that Glendale did the right thing," said Glendale Councilman Ara Najarian. "I encourage Buena Park and other cities to be brave."

But Buena Park Councilman Steve Berry said by phone Thursday that he feared the statue could become a target for vandalism.

"We don't want to put up a statue that people would come and shoot at," he said.

When Glendale unveils its statue during a ceremony on Tuesday, it will become the first city on the West Coast to install such a public memorial. It comes in the wake of a Japanese delegation last year requesting that a monument to comfort women in New Jersey be removed. That, in turn, mobilized Korean-American groups to erect more memorials across the country.

Glendale Councilman Zareh Sinanyan said the monument is a symbol of the city's support of local Koreans. But that correlation wasn't enough to convince the majority of Buena Park council members.

For Miller Oh, a Korean-American councilman in Buena Park who introduced the comfort-women memorial for discussion, the symbolism of justice and peace should be enough to get the greenlight, no matter the number of Koreans in the city.

Soon Hyung Hong, a steering committee member of the Korean American Forum of California, which helped raise money for the Glendale statue, said his group is confident it can convince Buena Park officials once they learn more about comfort women.

The group has already pledged to pay $36,125 for a replica.

Many comfort women were taken during World War II when they were teenagers. Some were told they would work as nurses or maids, but instead were raped by soldiers in a system of prostitution condoned by the Japanese military. Others were abducted from their homes or sold into sexual slavery to pay for family debts.

In the 1990s, the Japanese government apologized, although some politicians and citizens still deny that sexual slavery ever occurred.

Many of the emails from Japanese nationalists to Glendale and Buena Park call on the cities to stay out of a beef between Korea and Japan.

But a July 22 letter from Jun Niimi, consul general of Japan in Los Angeles, said the comfort-women issue "should neither be politicized, nor turned into a diplomatic issue."

Still, Buena Park Mayor Beth Swift said by phone this week she didn't want to get in the middle of an "international dispute."

"We're little Buena Park," she said, although she called denials that sex slavery occurred "ridiculous."

For Korean groups trying to spread awareness about comfort women, it's important to get other countries involved. Doing so can overcome the deniers and pressure the Japanese government to issue a more sincere apology, they say.

"Our effort to build monuments will continue," Hong said. "Obviously, Buena Park is not the last one."


Follow Brittany Levine on Google+ and on Twitter: @brittanylevine.


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