‘Comfort Women’ Controversy Comes to New York

NEW YORK — Every Wednesday since January 1992, protestors have held a demonstration outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul demanding an official apology and compensation from the Japanese government for women held in soldier brothels during World War II.
Now, a New York lawmaker’s proposal to memorialize the plight of the women, often called sex slaves, through a monument and a street in a largely Asian neighborhood of New York City, has brought the passions here.
The legislator, Peter A. Koo, a Hong Kong immigrant, and 50 other lawmakers on the New York City Council have been flooded with letters from angry Japanese from around the world.
Renaming a street is one of the ultimate municipal honors in New York and while largely a symbolic gesture, it has been known to cause tumult, anger and anguish from time to time.
Historians have said the “comfort women” were largely Korean and Chinese women and while Japan has apologized for any mistreatment the women suffered, it has denied that women were forced to act as prostitutes or sex slaves.
One Japanese opponent of the proposed New York monument wrote in a letter dated April 29, 2012, “the term ‘comfort women’ refers simply to prostitutes in wartime. But Koreans have been promoting a false version of history that Japan abducted hundreds of thousands of Korean women ….This is for practical and logical reasons, a fictitious version of history.”
The letter writers contend that Mr. Koo is smearing the Japanese in order to appeal to Korean New Yorkers, whose votes he needs to return him to another term in City Hall.
Mr. Koo, a wealthy businessman who owns several pharmacies, remains undeterred. He is asking constituents to present him with options for which street in Flushing to rename and where exactly the monument should be placed.
He told Rendezvous through his chief of staff, James McClelland, that he will “continue to meet with community leaders and discuss this issue further. Together we are committed to finding a fitting and respectful way to remember these women.”
New York City would not be the only place in the United States to install a monument honoring the women. The first city to do so was a small New Jersey town with a majority-Korean population. That monument was erected in Palisades Park, New Jersey, a suburb of New York City, in 2010.
In December, two Korean women who said they were forced into prostitution by Japan visited the monument. The Record, a local newspaper, quoted Yongsoo Lee, then-83, as saying, “The Japanese government is waiting for us to die, one by one, because all the victims are so old and there aren’t many victims in Korea.”
“They call us ‘comfort women,’ but the term ‘comfort women’ is such a bad word. I’m not a ‘comfort woman.’ I am Yongsoo Lee. ‘Comfort women’ is a term that the Japanese government gave us, and they say that we voluntarily became comfort women to make money … and that’s not true.”
This week, The Record reported, “four officials from Japan’s Liberal Democratic Par­ty claimed that there is no proof sex slaves existed and asked for the mon­ument’s removal, saying it portrayed historical inaccuracies, Palisades Park Mayor James Rotundo said.”
Japanese officials offered to fund youth programs, donate books on Japanese culture to the Palisades Park library, and plant cherry trees in the town, if the monument were removed, the paper reported. It also reported that Japanese officials denied making any such offer — a denial that Fumio Iwai, the Japanese deputy consul general in New York, repeated in a letter to the International Herald Tribune dated June 29, 2012.
According to The Record’s story, the Korean women’s trip last year to Palisades Park was sponsored by the Korean American Voters’ Council, “a non-profit with offices in Hackensack and Flushing, N.Y.”
The Flushing neighborhood where the latest monument is proposed has been welcoming the world to New York since the World Fair was held there in 1965. The America grand slam tennis event, the U.S. Open is also held in Flushing Meadow.

A letter sent to New York City Councilman Vincent Ignizio.

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