In the years leading up to and including World War II, Japanese soldiers enslaved women from South Korea, Indonesia, China and other parts of Asia and forced them to work as sex slaves for troops across the continent at so-called "comfort stations". Up to 20,000 women were subjected to human trafficking and sexual abuse. They have since become known as the "comfort women."
For decades, the survivors of this horror have been battling to even have their stories acknowledged. As late as 2007, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was still insisting that the women had not been enslaved. (He was soon forced to backtrack.) It was only last year that Japan issued a formal apology to South Korea over the comfort women, and that apology was given on the condition that South Korea agreed not to publicly criticize Japan for this dark chapter of its history ever again. Comfort women were livid with the deal, asking for formal reparations and for Japan to take full legal responsibility for the abuses they were subjected to.
Given all of that, it's no wonder that the issue of comfort women remains charged far beyond Japan itself. Take the city of Glendale, CA, where advocates for comfort women were taken to court for the supposed crime of erecting a memorial to the tens of thousands of women who endured such suffering. On Thursday, a federal appeals court ruled that the memorial should be allowed to remain in place.
The 1,100 pound bronze statue shows a girl in South Korean clothing sitting next to an empty chair, symbolizing the girls and women who were taken from their homes during that time. The statue has been at the center of a court dispute since the city raised the monument in 2013.
"It is really necessary that we remember the rights that were violated, and the monument will be there to remind people not to repeat that history," Won Choi, coordinator for the Korean American Forum of California, told NPR soon after the statue went up.
The plaintiffs who wanted the statue taken down were from a group called the Global Alliance for Historical Truth, which rejects the widely-accepted history of comfort women having been taken against their will and instead claims the women were willingly hired as prostitutes. In the lawsuit, Gingery v. City of Glendale, the group argued that taking a stance on the history of comfort women interferes with U.S.-Japan relations. That's the argument that the federal court of appeals rejected on Thursday.
“Here, by dedicating a local monument to the plight of the comfort women in World War II, Glendale has joined a long list of other American cities that have likewise used public monuments to express their views on events beyond our borders,” wrote 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw in her ruling.
The plaintiffs told The Japan Times they will consider taking a challenge to the Supreme Court.