Backlash against the city of Brookhaven decision to install a “comfort women” memorial to honor the sex-trafficking victims of the Japanese military during World War II has been swift, with dozens of emails from people living in Japan and the U.S. denouncing the city’s decision flooding the inboxes of City Council members.
The memorial, the statue of a girl sitting next to an empty chair, set to be unveiled this month, has put the city in the midst of international controversy between the governments of Japan and South Korea. The city has placed the sculpture in Blackburn Park 2, a small park tucked within a mixed-use development adjacent to the main Blackburn Park.
Mayor John Ernst has met with the Consulate-General of Japan in Atlanta twice to listen to arguments against the memorial the city approved May 23. The monument is scheduled to be unveiled on June 30.
“Obviously, this is very disappointing,” City Councilmember John Park said.
Park, who led the effort to install the memorial in the city, is Korean-American and moved to the U.S. with his family when he was 6.
“We as Americans and Europeans … we’ve come to terms with our sins. We’ve apologized for the Japanese-American internment camps [operated by the U.S. during WW II],” Park said.
“They’re not coming to terms,” he said of the Japanese government. “They have a cognitive dissonance and this history is very uncomfortable to them.”
The complaining emails generally say that there is no proof the Japanese military participated in systemic sex trafficking of women from Korea and many other nations for its soldiers during WWII. The emails also state that such a memorial is “politically and diplomatically controversial,” specifically between Korea and Japan. Many of those emailing also state such a memorial will only lead to bullying and hate against the Japanese.
“I told the consulate that Brookhaven would not stand for discrimination against the Japanese and that the memorial was about bringing awareness of sex trafficking today, which Brookhaven has taken the lead on,” Ernst said.
Requests for comment from the Japanese consulate were not returned.
The Brookhaven statue is one of many identical versions produced by Korean artists Kim Seo-kyong and Kim Eun-sung and installed around the country and world. The local memorial was commissioned by the Atlanta Comfort Women Memorial Task Force. Helen Kim Ho, a consultant for the task force, said the memorial is not intended to make Japan look bad.
“Anything but that. Our focus is on honoring the brave lives of the women and girls … that is not a subject to debate,” she said.
Memorials to the Holocaust and to the Pearl Harbor attack have not led to widespread discrimination, she said, and criticized “paid trolls” and the Japanese government for trying to erase part of history.
“This is not a Japanese-Korea thing,” Ho said.
Rifts between Korea and Japan have lasted decades over the issue of “comfort women.” Many historians have reported the Japanese military abducted and coerced as many as 200,000 women into sex slavery during WW II, but Japan continues to dispute that.
In 2015, however, Japan officially apologized to Korea and to “comfort women” and Tokyo paid $1 billion yen, or about $8.5 million, to a fund to help victims.
As more cities in the U.S. and the world begin installing such memorials, the Japanese government has fought back harder, including filing lawsuits.
In March, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a case demanding the city of Glendale, Calif., remove a “comfort women” memorial.
“It’s kind of disappointing Japan has taken this stance to try to hide the history even though they have acknowledged and apologized for it,” Park said.
Park said after he learned in March the Center for Civil and Human Rights in downtown Atlanta backed out of installing the memorial at its site, he suggested Brookhaven as its new home because of its central location and ethnic diversity.
“I think the proper place for it is at the Center for Civil and Human Rights, but they refused to fulfill their obligation,” Park said. “We are righting a wrong.”
Other “comfort women” memorials are in San Francisco, New Jersey, Michigan and Virginia. They are also in Australia, Canada and China.
The Brookhaven memorial will be unveiled at 10 a.m. on June 30 in the park at 3509 Blair Circle.