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: Korea)

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


  1. This is interesting and thanks for posting about it. I think there may be of these memorials to horrific crimes elsewhere than you might think. Holocaust memorials are, as you say, the most common (the one in Boston is another example). If we include more general memorials of suffering of a minority or immigrant group, as opposed to mere crimes, then I can think of many more.

  2. Usually those are memorials to immigrants, which is to say, memorials of things that happened here to people whose descendants live here. Unless you can think of other examples… is there a memorial to the suffering of people under Communism in the US yet?

  3. How interesting. What mystifies me is why the Japanese government chooses to say anything. They seem to be doing it out of a desire to protect the international honor of Japan, but don’t seem to realize that their very response is what shames their government. If they simply said, “Yes, it was a bad time and our government did bad things, and our officials have already made public statements recognizing this.”, then it would not be an issue and it would not “shame” Japan. I like the Irish famine link. That event is what sent my Welsh-Irish paternal ancestors to the States. I wonder if there are memorials around the world to the injustice related to atomic bomb victims, or, say, the slaughter of Pilipinos during the US imperial era, and if the US government has bothered to say or do anything concerning such memorials (if they exist?). I think that in today’s world, a government only can lose by responding in the way the Japanese consulate responded. If instead they said, “Yeah we were bad then and since then we have been getting better,” then who could say what?

  4. Luke — it’s because the memorial is omote space, of course! (I’m really enjoying your book.)

  5. Haha! No one gives omote enough respect anymore. What is the world coming to?!! Thanks for saying your enjoying the book.

  6. more than 200,000
    women and girls who were
    abducted by the armed forces of
    the government of Imperial Japan

    Is this correct?

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