On June 30, Brookhaven will unveil a statue to honor and remember the many women and girls who were sexually enslaved during World War II by the Imperial Japanese Army. Google “comfort women” and you’ll read, see and hear heartbreaking stories of lives destroyed by these atrocities.
Beyond the individual suffering, it represents one of the largest cases of sex trafficking in modern history. It reminds us of the potential of humanity to reach such depths of depravity. It’s important for us as a society to remember how bad it can get, whether it be slavery in America, Nazi Germany’s concentration camps or the “comfort stations” established during WWII, so that it will never be repeated.
One commonality in the history of all these events is that it was institutional and supported by the government in power at the time. They weren’t criminal enterprises in the shadows, but rather state-sponsored and overt violations of human rights. Remembering and bringing about awareness of the history isn’t just for us and our children, but also for generations to come.
In February, I was invited to attend a meeting of the Atlanta Comfort Women Memorial Task Force along with several other elected officials. Congressman Mike Honda, a Japanese American, who introduced legislation in Congress to demand the Japanese recognize and apologize for the comfort women, attended and spoke. We viewed documentaries that reminded us of the plight of the comfort women and it was announced that the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta would be the home of the Young Girl’s Statue for Peace. Similar statues have been erected in countries throughout the world.
Several weeks later, the Center for Civil and Human Rights reneged on their agreement to house the statue. Even though a memorandum of understanding was signed, they gave a dubious reason for their reversal: “permanent exterior fixtures were not part of the original design or any new strategic plan for the future of the Center for Civil and Human Rights.” It was clear that lobbying by the Japanese consul was the reason, since the Center’s letter to the Task Force reiterated all of the Japanese consul’s objections. The Japanese consul denied that economic repercussions were threatened. It was clear to the Task Force that actions were taken in the shadows and behind closed doors to affect this change.
I believed that the Center made a mistake in reneging on their promise, as it was a unique opportunity to fulfill their mission of educating the public about historical violations of human rights. The mayor and my fellow council members of Brookhaven agreed.
We also agreed that to welcome the statue in Brookhaven is in line with our stated policy and leadership in battling sex trafficking by raising awareness of past and present sex trafficking. The FBI reported that in 2014, metro Atlanta ranked as the top city in the nation for these crimes. As reported here, Brookhaven was first in Georgia to join the “Not Buying It” campaign, a national initiative to create a forum for all 50 states to collaborate and develop strategies to end sex trafficking. In 2014, the city of Brookhaven became the first city in Georgia to train its top managers and all city employees on how to recognize signs of child sex trafficking.
A PTA meeting I attended with our chief of police reminded me that we must not let our discomfort prevent us from discussing such an important subject. After covering issues concerning public safety around the school, the chief encouraged the parents to attend a screening of “8 Days,” a film about underage sex trafficking. Some parents became visibly upset. They questioned the relevance, as “things like that don’t happen in Brookhaven.”
It was explained that unfortunately this does happen, and it’s a lot closer than we think.
The WWII comfort women did not speak out for decades about what happened to them due to their discomfort. Even if it’s uncomfortable, it’s important for us to overcome our discomfort in order to truly fight against it. It is a small price to pay to honor the memory of the comfort women, educate the world on what has happened, and make sure it never happens again.
John Park represents District 2 as a member of the Brookhaven City Council.