Comments from the Japanese consul general in Atlanta about Brookhaven’s “comfort women” memorial – made in a Reporter interview where he denied the women were sexually enslaved — have rekindled an international controversy and drawn criticism from the South Korean government.

The memorial, set to be unveiled June 30 in a Brookhaven park, is intended to honor women sexually trafficked by the Japanese military during World War II, according to the city and organizers. One of the surviving women, Kang il-chul, is scheduled to attend the unveiling.

Takashi “Thomas” Shinozuka, the consul general of Japan in Atlanta, discusses his stance on the “comfort women” memorial at the consulate in Buckhead. (Dyana Bagby)

The Japanese government in 2015 formally apologized for the “comfort women” system in a pact with Korea.

But in a June 16 interview with the Reporter at the Japanese consulate in Buckhead, Consul General Takashi “Thomas” Shinozuka said the women were “not sex slaves and not taken by force. Maybe you know that in Asian culture, in some countries, we have girls who decide to go to take this job to help their family.”

“No evidence has been found about that,” he said of the standard historical description of the women being forced into sex, as well as about a debated figure that about 200,000 women were victims of the system.

Those comments are drawing criticism broadcast everywhere from local press releases to Korean TV news. Much of the criticism highlights the term “paid prostitutes,” which was a Reporter paraphrase of Shinozuka’s comments, not a direct quote. Regardless, the controversy is about his overall denial of the “comfort women” system.

Cho June-hyuck, a spokesperson for South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, condemned Shinozuka’s comments in a press conference translated and broadcast June 27 by the South Korean English-language TV news channel Arirang News.

“If the report is true, it’s unbelievable that such a high-ranking diplomat would make that statement,” the spokesperson said. “It would be a really inappropriate remark that goes against the international community’s consensus that the ‘comfort women’ issue is about wartime sexual violence, and that it was a gross violation of human rights.”

An image from a June 27 report on South Korea’s Arirang News about the Reporter’s interview with Consul General Takashi “Thomas” Shinozuka.

The South Korean consulate in Atlanta could not be reached for comment.

The Atlanta Comfort Women Memorial Task Force, which commissioned the Brookhaven statue, also blasted Shinozuka’s comments. In a press release, the Task Force said his comments “denying the comfort women history by calling the sexually enslaved women ‘paid prostitutes’ marks the first time in recent memory that an official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan has made such an extreme statement. Previously, it was the extreme neo-conservative nationalist right-wing faction of Japan that had uttered such unheralded levels of denialism.”

Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst said the comments are “consistent” with what Shinozuka told him personally in private meetings, including in a meeting before the City Council voted May 23 to accept the memorial.

“The first time we met, he said some of the women were prostitutes,” Ernst said. “His basic message has been that the Japanese government asked for forgiveness and paid reparations, and this is a done deal.”

Brookhaven City Councilmember John Park, who moved with his family to the U.S. from Korea when he was 6, said the consul general’s comments are “offensive.”

“What he said is completely out of line of accepted international norms,” Park said. “They were forcibly enslaved. The Japanese government accepted it and now they are backtracking.”

The local “comfort women” memorial is identical to this one shown the Facebook page of the Atlanta Comfort Women Memorial Task Force. (Special)

Japan and Korea have a long history of disputes about Japan’s World War II war crimes and policies, with the “comfort women” being one of the hotter points. Shinzo Abe, Japan’s current prime minister, drew similar outrage in 2007 with similar comments about the “comfort women.”

“The fact is, there is no evidence to prove there was coercion,” Abe was quoted as saying by an Associated Press report at the time.

Abe and the Japanese government soon apologized and eventually made the agreement with Korea. However, Abe’s positions on the “comfort women” history remain controversial. Earlier this year, Abe called for South Korea to remove an identical “comfort women” memorial in that country, saying it threatened the 2015 pact.

The Brookhaven memorial also has been controversial locally. The dispute between Japanese and Korean viewpoints has filtered to the local level. Dunwoody state Rep. Tom Taylor tried to get the memorial withdrawn, citing potential negative impacts on international trade. And neighbors of the park where the memorial is installed are unhappy with their lack of input.

The Reporter recorded the June 16 interview with Shinozuka and another consulate official, Consul Tomoko Ohyama, which lasted over 45 minutes. To listen to the full interview recording on SoundCloud, click here. The following are transcriptions of key parts of the interview.

Shinozuka’s full comments about the “comfort women” historical record were as follows:


So we can’t say that they had a happy life, but maybe you have a [unintelligible] that there were 200,000 or more women who have been sexually enslaved and taken by force.

But these three elements, the number 200,000 and sexual slaves and also taken by force have not been confirmed in other studies [unintelligible] Japanese government made in 1990s and in 2000s, and even by [unintelligible] the Korean government. No evidence has been found about that.

So first of all, this is fact of history. Not 200,000, not sex slaves and not taken by force. Maybe you know that in Asian culture, in some countries, we have girls who decide to go to take this job to help their family. And there should be [unintelligible]. Having said that the comfort women and in 1965, two governments decided to settle [unintelligible] to normalize their relations. They decided that the demand for reparations by someone in this country would have been settled by disarmament. Am I clear?


Shinozuka also commented on the political context of “comfort women” memorials and why he opposes the Brookhaven version:


Although we have this agreement, some activists in Korea continue to erect statues. This one has been at this place in front of embassy for several years. But last December they decided to put another statue. These people put another statue in front of embassy [unintelligible] in great city of Korea.

The memorial which the city of Brookhaven would like to have is not a simple art object but a political tool which has many controversial implications. As you can see, this has been [a] symbol of hatred and resentment against Japanese.

And Atlanta is the great city of Dr. Martin Luther King, of inclusion, peace, and forgiveness. We do not have this kind of landmark in metro Atlanta.

What we are puzzled about by the city, the memorial, of Brookhaven is they tried to have it in haste without giving the residents, including the Japanese residents, [input] because we have between 300 and 400 Japanese people living in Brookhaven.

— By Dyana Bagby and John Ruch