"난 지금도 일본제국주의 깃발을 보면 소름이 끼칩니다. 그동안 말하고 싶은게 너무나 많았지만 차마 말 할 용기가 없었어요"
“Even today, whenever I see the Japanese Imperial flag I get the chills. Until now, I did not have the courage to speak, even though there are so many things I want to say.”
—Kim Hak Soon, 1991
In the middle of St. Mary’s Square, a small, public gathering space in San Francisco’s Chinatown, three girls atop a single column drum tower over me. The girls exude power in their solidarity with each other, as they stand together hand-in-hand and in a circle. I remember walking around the column drum on a particularly chilly day, feeling as though they loomed over me. Each of the girls wears early 20th century clothing from their respective homelands—Korea, China, and the Philippines. I make my way around to notice an old woman in traditional Korean dress a few feet off to the side of the column. She stands at ground-level and looks up at the three girls with hope in her eyes. Someone who visited the monument before me placed a bouquet of yellow roses in the old woman’s clasped hands.
The bronze sculptural group, Column of Strength, commemorates the young women and girls who were kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Empire during World War II.1 The monument was commissioned by the Comfort Women Justice Coalition and sculpted by artist Steven Whyte in 2017. The older woman off to the side is a portrait of Korean activist Kim Hak Soon, who was enslaved during the war. Kim Hak Soon was one of the first women to come forward in August 1991 to speak publicly about Japan’s war crimes and sexual violence, stating: “Until now, I did not have the courage to speak, even though there are so many things I want to say.”
What did Kim tell the world in 1991? We learned that from 1932-1945, the Japanese Imperial Army kidnapped around 200,000 young women and girls—many of whom were from poor, peasant families—and forced them into sexual slavery (Askin 1997; Park 2000, 573-5, 579). These crimes were thus intersectionally wrought, in which the most under-protected and under-valued bodies in the Japanese Imperial sphere were enslaved. The women would disappear from their homelands and were displaced to different stations or brothels throughout Japan’s Pacific Empire. While 80% of these victims were from Korea, many others came from China, the Philippines, Indonesia, the Netherlands, and Australia (Shibusawa 2006). In addition to sexual labor, the women were subjected to domestic, manual, and factory work by force and threat of genital mutilation, psychological abuse, murder, and drugging (Schellstede 2000; Park 2000; Hicks 1994). Yet in Column of Strength, all four bodies refuse victimhood and instead are cast as over-life-size heroes.
Since her first public testimony about 30 years ago, Kim’s voice continues to resound through public monuments dedicated to the survivors in public spaces worldwide—from parks in Glendale, California spaces in front of Japanese embassies, and even in public buses throughout Seoul. Such monuments invite viewers to engage with and directly honor the statues and the memory of the survivors—flowers, gifts, and warm clothes are often offered to the bronze bodies. These engagements create a pregnant moment of care in which the women’s trauma, pain, and experiences are validated.
On October 2, 2018, Hirofumi Yoshimura, the mayor of Osaka, wrote a letter to London Breed, the mayor of San Francisco, in response to the monument: “I am afraid to announce that the City of Osaka must hereby terminate its sister city relationship with the City and County of San Francisco…I must sternly emphasize that the Japanese Government holds a distinctive standpoint on perceiving history, and there is also a disagreement among historians when regarding the historical facts, such as the number of “comfort women.”” Yoshimura also argues that Japan, although apologetic, cannot shoulder the blame for the global, timeless crisis of wartime sexual assault.
This is not the first time that Japan’s governing bodies have intervened in the display of monuments in public spaces throughout the United States. In February 2017, the Japanese government filed an amicus curiae brief (no. 16-917) to the Supreme Court of the United States, asking that the city of Glendale in Los Angeles, California be forced to take down another statue that honors the memory of survivors. The statue in Glendale was commissioned by the Korean Sister City Association in 2013 as a response to Toshio Hashimoto, the then-mayor of Osaka, who claimed that sex slaves were necessary to discipline the Japanese military. Similarly, in 2011, the Korean photographer Ahn Se Hong’s solo-exhibition in Tokyo of women that were stationed and enslaved in China was cancelled without any explanation.
Monuments are thus a matter of punishment, as much as they are tools of public commemoration (Kim, forthcoming). In the ancient Mediterranean world, leaders sometimes built victory trophies to thank their gods and also to perpetually punish the losing side. In 2001, the Taliban set up explosives to destroy the colossal Buddhas of Bamiyan. The absence of monuments to women in public spaces constitutes a silent but palpable form of gendered (and oftentimes racialized) punishment. But in October 2018, a different kind of punishment around monuments unfolded: the city of Osaka punished the city of San Francisco for its display and maintenance of Column of Strength.
Mayor Hoshimura’s letter invokes a sense of victimhood in its claims that the monument unfairly punishes Japan for its past war crimes. While Column of Strength acknowledges a painful history and its cast of actors, it does not seek to punish any one person or nation. Rather, it praises the public speech and resilience of women like Kim Hak Soon and draws out the dangerous effects of gender and other kinds of civil inequalities.
Kim Hak Soon was one of the first women to say, “me too.”
When Kim first told her story, a wave of other survivors came forth to tell their experiences as well. The work of documenting these stories has been taken up by a number of historians, photographers, journalists, and film-makers since 1991. Likewise, Column of Strength, and the other monuments to survivors worldwide, ensure that future generations do not forget these histories.
Like hashtags and Senate confirmation hearings, monuments are a form of public speech. Thus, we shouldn’t forget the monument’s present-day context. Column of Strength not only commemorates survivors of Japanese Imperial sexual assault and violence, but also Anita Hill, Christine Blasey Ford, and the millions of individuals who have publicly participated in the #MeToo movement across the globe.
Column of Strength stands as a lesson in transnational women’s history that praises women for their bravery by “speaking truth to power,” as Anita Hill famously wrote. Sexual violence is an abuse of power, and a matter of deeply entrenched social, cultural, and oftentimes economic inequality. Column of Strength encourages us to look closely at the gendered power dynamics of our own local communities, and also inspires women like me to come forth and say, me too.