Diaspora And Diplomatic Communities Memorialize Conflict

A memorial plaque was dedicated in a park in Palisades Park, New Jersey in 2010 which reads

In Memory
of the more than 200,000
women and girls who were
abducted by the armed forces of
the government of Imperial Japan
known as “comfort women,”
they endured human rights
violations that no peoples should
leave unrecognized.
Let us never forget the horrors
of crimes against humanity.

Two things struck me about this article from the NY Times. The first is in the headline: “New Jersey Town’s Korean Monument Irritates Japanese Officials.” There have apparently been two official attempts to convince Palisades Park to remove the monument, presenting two very different approaches. The first emphasized Japan’s past apologies and attempts to stage reparations as justification for de-emphasizing the sexual servitude issue:

The first meeting, on May 1, began pleasantly enough… The consul general pulled out two documents and read them aloud.

One was a copy of a 1993 statement from Yohei Kono, then the chief cabinet secretary, in which the Japanese government acknowledged the involvement of military authorities in the coercion and suffering of comfort women.

The other was a 2001 letter to surviving comfort women from Junichiro Koizumi, then the prime minister, apologizing for their treatment.

Mr. Hiroki then said the Japanese authorities “wanted our memorial removed,” Mr. Rotundo recalled.

The consul general also said the Japanese government was willing to plant cherry trees in the borough, donate books to the public library “and do some things to show that we’re united in this world and not divided,” Mr. Rotundo said. But the offer was contingent on the memorial’s removal.

The second approach was a cavalcade of denialist arguments:

The second delegation…. members of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, not only asked that the monument be removed but also sought to convince the Palisades Park authorities that comfort women had never been forcibly conscripted as sex slaves.

“They said the comfort women were a lie, that they were set up by an outside agency, that they were women who were paid to come and take care of the troops,” the mayor related. “I said, ‘We’re not going to take it down, but thanks for coming.’ ”

Either way, the goal is to defuse the issue, either by “getting past it” or by historical erasure. Nothing new there — both strains of argument on this topic have a long, undistinguished history — but I can’t help but point out that, logically and historically, they should be attempted in the other order.1 It is interesting to see the LDP still flexing its muscles, albeit ineffectually, and maintaining a strong nationalist line and revisionist narrative. I’d love to know whether the legislators went with the knowledge and permission of the consulate, or if this is a fully independent foreign policy they’re pursuing.

The other interesting component to this is the engagement of the Korean diaspora community. The Deputy Mayor of Palisades Park is a Korean American named Jason Kim, and “more than half of the population of about 20,000 is of Korean descent, according to the Census Bureau.” Not only did Palisades Park take up this historic offense, but there is now a full-bore movement afoot to memorialize the comfort women across the US, aided not only by Korean American organizations, but also by diaspora Chinese like NY City Councilman Peter Koo. Public Japanese opposition to these moves is, predictably, deepening the resolve of the Korean American community, which appears to maintain a fairly strong nationalist perspective of its own.

It’s relatively unusual, I think, to memorialize atrocities committed elsewhere by others to others — though the US Holocaust Museum is a noteworthy exception — but migration makes interesting connections.

(Crossposted to Frog In A Well: Japan)

  1. “My client doesn’t know these people, and was nowhere near the scene that day when he was provoked….”  


  1. There are 4 monuments commemorating the Armenian Genocide in the US. Furthermore, The Armenian Genocide Museum of America is to be opened some time in the future. The Katyn Memorial in New Jersey is another example. And I am sure there are many more. Compared to some of these, the two comfort women memorials seem to be rather miniscule in size and in less prominent locations.

  2. I don’t expect that Korean-Americans will view the Japanese any differently than many Irish-Americans view the English. That should not make it anymore difficult for American students of history to ferret out the truth, particularly as regards the comfort women. Yet, I expect that it will do just that.

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