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Introducing ‘Park Statue Politics’

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This is an excerpt from Park Statue Politics: World War II Comfort Women Memorials in the United States. Get your free copy here.

In March 2017, Europe’s first comfort women memorial was dedicated in Wiesent, Germany, a small town in Bavaria with a population of approximately 2,500. The monument was described in the Korea Times as the “first ‘comfort women’ statue in Europe,” suggesting that there could be more in the future. The Korea Times reported that, on the one hand, this statue along with the 60 some other statues that have already been set up in Korea, China, Canada, the United States and Australia served “as a means to promote global awareness of comfort women,” that is, the tens of thousands of women and girls forced into sexual slavery by Japan’s military during WWII. The Korea Times added that the comfort women statues also stand “in protest of the deal reached between Seoul and Tokyo on the issue in December 2015,” [1] the date when the agreement was signed by Japan and Korea which in theory ended the comfort women impasse between the two countries. This agreement fell apart with the March 2017 impeachment of Korean President Park Geun-hye. Park was the key Korean proponent of the deal whereby Japan recognized that the Japanese military leadership was directly responsible for the creation of the comfort women system and it agreed to provide some $8.3 million for the creation of a foundation to provide support for surviving comfort women.

The events surrounding the installation of the Wiesent statue provide insight into our motivation for writing this book. In fact, on September 8, 2016, the sister cities of Suwon, Korea and Freiburg, Germany announced plans for the installation of the first comfort woman statue in Europe. The statue’s dedication was set for December 10, 2016, to coincide with the commemoration of International Human Rights Day.[2] Freiburg is a city 100 times larger than Wiesent. Wiesent was approached only after Freiburg rescinded its decision to install the statue just two weeks after having announced the plan to go forward. Freiburg leaders reversed themselves because of the stiff resistance they faced from their Japanese sister city of Matsuyama.[3]

Korean civil society groups almost certainly do not plan to limit their comfort women statue installations to just one country in Europe or to just one city in Germany. They hope to see a proliferation of comfort women statues there as a platform for their narrative of the comfort women’s story. In the United States, in less than a decade, comfort women statues have spread from New Jersey to California and from Michigan to Texas. And, as with Freiburg and Wiesent, city officials have found themselves caught up in a war of memory between opposing camps.

Like Europe, America had nothing to do with the creation of the comfort women system. Most Americans know virtually nothing about this chapter of history. The decision by Freiburg to rescind its plan for a comfort women memorial suggests that, like their American counterparts, European political leaders may be caught off guard and not know enough to take an educated position on the comfort women. Other parts of the world invited to join this debate may also find that they have a limited understanding of this period in East Asian history.

In May 2017, Japan’s financial maneuvers with the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) blocked inclusion of damning comfort women records in that organization’s official “Memory of the World” historical archives. As it had done in 2016, the Japanese government postponed release of a monetary contribution of $30.84 million to the organization pending UNESCO’s review of an application from Chinese, South Korean, and Japanese civic groups for adding a “Voices of the Comfort Women” archival collection in UNESCO’s Memory of the World program. The “Voices” collection recounts what........

© E-International