Councilman from sister city in Japan opposed to comfort women memorial

A councilman from Glendale's sister city in Japan tried to convince city officials to remove a statue in Central Park honoring women forced into prostitution during World War II by the Japanese Army in a closed-door meeting at City Hall Friday.

His plea came during the first face-to-face meeting between officials from both cities since Glendale installed the controversial statue in July, prompting Higashiosaka officials to consider dissolving the 50-year sister-city relationship.

Proponents say the statue honors an estimated 200,000 women from Korea, China, Vietnam and other countries who were taken as sex slaves by the Japanese military, but Councilman Joji Tarumoto and others believe that the women willingly had sex with soldiers and the monument is propagating a false version of history.

Opponents are angered by the statue even as many former comfort women have publicly shared disturbing stories of their servitude and the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs claims on its website that some women based in war-area brothels were “deprived of their freedom and had to endure misery.” 

Tarumoto said during an interview his top priority was to convince officials to remove the 1,110-pound statue of a girl in traditional Korean dress sitting next to an empty chair as well as repair a fractured relationship.

About a third of the 42-member Higashiosaka council would like to cut ties with Glendale and a basketball game planned for last August in Glendale between Higashiosaka and Glendale children was canceled because of the controversy over the statue, Tarumoto said. 

Higashiosaka exchange students plan to visit Glendale in March, but their trip may be canceled, he added.

Although Tarumoto, who represents a conservative political party, originally wanted to dissolve the sister-city relationship, he's now changed his mind. 

“It's easy to dissolve, but instead of dissolving, it's better to think about the city of Glendale and Higashiosaka's future,” he said through his translator, Terumi Imamura. 

Tom Sumori, a representative of the True Japan Network, a volunteer group with a self-described mission to “fight against comfort women,” scheduled the meeting between the city officials. Sumori said he doesn't see an end to the comfort-women controversy.

“The Korean side and Japanese side will never agree,” he said. 

While women from several countries were comfort women, South Koreans have been the biggest supporters of memorials in their honor. Korean groups say their goal is to spread awareness of sex crimes so they will not be repeated and to convince the Japanese federal government to pen a resolution apologizing for the comfort-women system. 

A former Japanese prime minister sent letters of apology to former comfort women in the 1990s, but Korean groups say that olive branch wasn't enough. 

The majority of the Glendale City Council has said that the statue will not be removed, despite the controversy and opposition from Japanese nationals and Japanese-Americans. At the same time, some Japanese-American groups have publicly stated that they support the statue and attended its unveiling ceremony on July 30. 

Councilman Frank Quintero, who met Tarumoto with City Manager Scott Ochoa, Councilwoman Laura Friedman, and Community Relations Coordinator Dan Bell, said he made it clear to Tarumoto that he wanted to rebuild the relationship, but the statue was staying. 

“We're not taking the monument down,” Quintero said after the meeting. 

When Mayor Dave Weaver wrote in an October letter to his counterpart in Higashiosaka that he regretted that Glendale installed the statue, Korean-Americans protested outside of City Hall. Weaver was the sole council member who opposed the roughly $30,000 statue, which was paid for by Glendale's Korean-American Sister City Assn. and other Korean groups. 

Tarumoto said he did not plan to see the statue during his visit and said repairing relations will be difficult if the comfort-women statue remains, but he plans to encourage other Higashiosaka officials to continue open dialogue with Glendale.

What happens next will be up to the Higashiosaka council to decide, he said. 


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


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