Crowds celebrate unveiling of "comfort women" memorial in California

Hundreds of people gathered at Glendale Central Park near Los Angeles on Tuesday to witness the unveiling of the first "comfort women" memorial on public property on the U.S. West Coast.

Supporters, Glendale city officials and other community members attended the event on the sixth anniversary of the passage of Resolution 121 by the U.S. House of Representatives, which urged the Japanese government to formally acknowledge, apologize and accept responsibility for the forced sexual slavery of hundreds of thousands of women by the Imperial Japanese military.

Japan has expressed displeasure at the monument, saying that the issue should not be brought into the political or diplomatic arena.

Tokyo has repeatedly claimed the matter was settled by a Japan-South Korea treaty in 1965 that normalized diplomatic ties and has provided compensation through a private fund. In a statement by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono in 1993, Japan acknowledged and apologized for the forced recruitment of women into sexual servitude.

Glendale City Council member Frank Quintero said he is proud of what the city has accomplished in helping to shine more light on the issue of sexual slavery and violence.

"The city approved the monument because it was the right thing to do," he said.

"To me, (the memorial) represents a sordid chapter in history. There were many atrocities in the Second World War and this was one of them. And this atrocity, unfortunately, has been barely recognized, so I think it's a major step for the individual women that are still alive, for their families, and then I think it's a major step for women in general, that this is recognized."

Last year, the city also designated July 30, 2012, as "Korean Comfort Women Day."

The memorial, a bronze statue of a woman in traditional Korean clothing sitting next to an empty chair, is a replica of a memorial in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.

Kim Bok Dong, 87, who said she spent eight years providing sexual services to Japanese troops after she was forcibly drafted when just 14 years old, was in Glendale for the unveiling and at one point sat next to the bronze woman, holding her hand.

"My only hope is that Japan makes a formal and sincere apology as soon as possible," she said after the ceremony through a translator. "And I ask the people of other countries who were victimized by the war to put pressure along with me on Japan so Japan can come clean over its past wrongdoings and make a formal apology."

Throughout the months of debate over the memorial, some Japanese expressed strong opposition, often arguing that the women were not forced into sexual slavery but instead were prostitutes. Others also said the comfort women issue had already been settled by the Japanese government through an apology and reparation fund.

At a July 9 city council meeting to approve placement of the memorial proposed by the city's Korean sister cities program, nearly 20 Japanese individuals testified in opposition and city council members said they had received hundreds of letters and e-mails protesting the idea.

Nonetheless, the council approved the proposal in a 4-1 decision.

Kathy Masaoka, a Japanese-American and co-chair of Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress, said after the unveiling that she understands there are some people who may oppose the memorial, but believes most of the Japanese-American community support it.

"Unfortunately, the people who support often don't voice their support enough," she said.

On Wednesday in Tokyo, the government's top spokesman expressed displeasure after Japan failed to gain support for its position on the issue from authorities in Glendale.

Setting up the monument "conflicts with the government's view that the issue of the comfort women should not be part of any political or diplomatic agenda. It is extremely regrettable," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a press conference.

Efforts to erect comfort women memorials in other cities around the U.S., including several cities in Southern California, are currently under way.