Remembering “Comfort Women”
D.C. is okay.
My friends and professors all told me I would love it here, but it’s been over a month since I moved in, and it’s still just okay. In D.C., people wear pencil skirts and perfectly ironed dress shirts even on the weekends. It seems like corporate is the way to be, and I feel out of place in my mom jeans.
I’m studying here for the semester. It was a decision I made when I thought maybe I’d be interested in politics. Boy, was I wrong. I’ve quickly realized that D.C. isn’t for me, but that’s not to say I regret coming here. There’s still so much to appreciate about the city. There’s a whole new culture to experience and people to meet. There are free museums to keep me busy for weeks, and the happy hours here are apparently splendid. Being 20-and-a-half years old though, I wouldn’t know.
After managing to somehow get on and off at the right Metro stops, I’m here. I’m not sure why I thought it’d be a good idea to visit the Lincoln Memorial on a Saturday afternoon, a.k.a. prime time for children and tourists. I climb the many, many steps of the memorial and spend most of my time trying not to get trampled by middle schoolers with matching t-shirts. I also witness two separate marriage proposals and get caught in the background of some otherwise lovely engagement photos.
Having been surrounded by more than enough teenage hormones and romance for the day, I pick a direction and just start walking. It isn’t long before I stumble on the Korean War Veterans Memorial. It’s a nice surprise. I’ve been meaning to come here. I don’t know why, but I expected it to be bigger.
I walk along the Mural Wall and take my time examining the collection of photos that line it. The memorial pays tribute to the soldiers who fought to “defend a country they never knew and a people they never met,” as the plate next to the Pool of Remembrance states. It’s a really beautiful memorial, surrounded by lush greenery and bushes of South Korea’s national flower plant, the rose of Sharon hibiscus. Plaques placed throughout the memorial read, “The Korean War/The Forgotten War/잊져진 전쟁.” I mull over the word “forgotten” as I circle the 19 stainless steel statues of soldiers that stand in the center of the memorial.
It wasn’t just the war that had been forgotten.
Over 200,000 Korean, Chinese, Filipino, Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Timorese, and Indonesian women were captured and forced into sexual slavery by the imperial Japanese army during World War II. These women, referred to as “comfort women” at the time, were disregarded from history until not long ago. Though the phrase “comfort women” in itself is demeaning and leaves a sour taste in my mouth, it has since been somewhat reclaimed, especially by the U.S. based Global Alliance for Preserving the History of WWII in Asia. The Global Alliance is a worldwide, nonprofit consortium devoted to unveiling and preserving the historical truths of the Asian-Pacific War (1931-1945). Their mission statement explains, “For only from truth in history, can we secure justice for victims, safeguard humanity from repeating mistakes of the past, bring about genuine reconciliation and lasting peace among all people.”
The U.S. House of Representatives Resolution 121, which urges the Japanese government to admit to and accept historical responsibility for the sexual slavery crimes that occurred during WWII, was introduced by a Japanese-American Congressman named Mike Honda in 2007. This resolution specifically asked the Japanese government to apologize to the affected women and include curriculum regarding them in Japanese schools. While there was some opposition by conservative Japanese politicians and academics, the resolution was passed on July 30, 2007.
Five years later, the city of Glendale, California declared July 30th as “Comfort Women Day.” It was following this that a memorial statue was built in honor of the victims in 2013. The bronze statue portrays a young girl in traditional Korean clothing sitting next to an empty chair. The monument stirred up uneasiness within the Japanese American community. Some felt that the statue was only fueling a tension between the Korean and Japanese communities regarding a topic that was of the past. Some didn’t feel the statue had a place in America and felt that erecting the memorial was an unlawful overstepping of the federal government. In 2016 Michiko Gingery, a Japanese-American citizen, sued the city of Glendale to have the 1,100-pound metal statue removed. However, Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, dismissed the case.
Wardlaw stated, "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 that occurred beyond our borders." The court concluded that the memorial was erected as an advocate effort against violations of human rights and was therefore within the realm of local and state government responsibility. Despite the controversies, a total of nine monuments have been erected around the world, outside of South Korea. The most recent installment was unveiled in early August of this year in Sydney, Australia.
With every new tragedy, new tribulation, and new battle that headlines newspapers, I’m reminded again and again of the gravity of violence. Often times, the soldiers in uniform mark only the beginning, and the ramifications of war extend further past what meets the eye. The thousands of casualties that resulted from the Korean War will not be forgotten, the thousands of women who were victimized in the war will not be forgotten, and their stories will not be forgotten.
Memorials are important, and though I’m sure that’s not new information, it’s vital that we at least attempt to fully grasp the often mournful magnitude of what they represent. They commemorate the trials and horrendous errors of generations past in hopes of ensuring that the same mistakes won’t be made again.
I’m still standing in front of the memorial, watching as all the tourists quickly glance over at the reflecting pool, maybe snap a picture of the Mural, and scuffle to the next monument on their lists. I take a photo myself to send to my dad. He would be happy that I came here. He didn’t live through the war, but his entire life was molded by it—his and so many others.
I’ll probably continue to mope through the next few months of being in D.C. and make a fuss about having to wear flats instead of my white sneakers that aren’t really white anymore, but there’s enough history here to convince me to stay.
Photo credit to Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images.