Anchored by butterfly-shaped benches, the new Comfort Women Memorial Peace Garden in Fairfax County honors women forced into sexual slavery by Japan during World War II — a chapter of the global conflict that has long fueled tensions between South Korea and Japan.
The memorial, which was dedicated Friday evening behind the Fairfax County Government Center, showcases the emerging voice and influence of Korean Americans in Northern Virginia, who want the story told.
But the memorial is sparking protests from the Japanese Embassy and activists in Japan, a reaction reminiscent of the embassy’s response to legislation requiring that the Sea of Japan also be identified as the East Sea in Virginia public school textbooks.
Koreans say the memorial is a reminder of one of the worst cases of human trafficking, a part of history they say is important to remember in a county with more than 42,000 Korean American residents.
“It was a war crime that happened a long time ago that not many people know about, yet it happened, much like the Holocaust happened,” said Herndon Town Council member Grace Han Wolf, who helped organize the privately funded effort to create the memorial.
But after decades of wrangling over how much Japan should atone for the forced sexual enslavement of women from Korea and other Asian countries, Japanese activists are pushing back against such memorials — buoyed by statements from Japan’s prime minister that question whether the women were coerced into becoming sex slaves.
In the days leading up to Friday’s dedication ceremony, a group based in Japan and some local Japanese residents peppered Fairfax supervisors with e-mails, arguing that many comfort women were willing prostitutes and that memorials honoring them are an insult to Japan.
“We wish you will stop revealing such a stupid memorial on 30 May,” read an e-mail that suggested that Fairfax commemorate the devastation caused by the atomic bombs dropped by the United States on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Japanese government does not deny that forced sexual slavery occurred. But it believes that memorials like the one in Fairfax can spark unnecessary friction between Japanese and Korean immigrants in the United States, said Masato Otaka, minister of affairs for the Japanese.
Embassy officials shared their concerns over the memorial with Sharon Bulova, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors — just as they made their opposition well known before Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) signed the bill on Virginia textbooks, legislation that was eagerly sought by Koreans.
“It may be that you hear stories of children being bullied at school because of some campaign like this, children who had nothing to do with this incident,” Otaka said in an interview. He said the embassy would consider a formal declaration of protest if the Fairfax memorial generates enough negative reaction.
“I think we should be more future-oriented,” Otaka said. “I would assume a lot of ethnic Japanese people would feel uncomfortable.”
Bulova said she supports the memorial because of its historical importance and because its stands as a statement against human trafficking underway now in Northern Virginia — a sentiment shared by the memorial’s organizers.
“I thought it would be a very appropriate thing for us to do in Fairfax County,” Bulova (D) said, adding that the county is also sensitive to the Japanese community’s concerns.
The story of the comfort women is a grisly tale of young women in Korea, China, the Philippines and other countries being abducted from their homes and sent to “comfort stations” for Japan’s Imperial Army during the war.
In some cases, girls and women, as young as 14, were lured away from their families with promises of work in factories or restaurants and were then raped dozens of times a day, according to historical reports.
Korea, then a colony of Japan, was a primary source of comfort women, leading to decades of intense resentment that have become a geopolitical concern.
“It doesn’t matter when and where, what countries, certain things should not happen again. Never again,” said William Hong, president of the Korean-American Association of Virginia.
Japan has made various declarations of remorse over the mistreatment of the comfort women. Most recently, in 1993, the country’s chief cabinet secretary, Yohei Kono, expressed “sincere apologies and remorse” on behalf of his government.
The Japanese government has also contributed the equivalent of $47 million to an Asian Women’s Fund created to assist former comfort women, a process that ended in 2007 when the group behind the fund disbanded, according to the Japanese Embassy.
But the government of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in late February said it wants to revisit evidence that prompted the 1993 statement. South Koreans and the U.S. Congress responded by asking Japan to issue a formal apology for the treatment of comfort women, which the Japanese government says isn’t necessary.
The memorial in Fairfax includes some of the language found in a congressional appropriations bill approved this year that calls for an “unequivocal” public apology from Japan. The language was championed by Rep. Michael M. Honda (D-Calif.), who spent part of World War II in an internment camp for Japanese Americans in California.
“For the women still alive, and for the countless who have passed, official recognition and acknowledgment is the only way to bring proper closure to this terrible chapter of World War II history,” Honda said in a statement.
On Friday, one of those women appeared at the memorial behind the Fairfax government center, after flying in from South Korea to attend an unveiling ceremony.
Kang Il Chul, who had been taken from her family at 16, alternately smiled and cried as she watched Korean folk dancers and singers perform in her honor.
Moments before, organizers had released a flight of butterflies, an international symbol for comfort women that signifies hope.
“I’m so grateful and excited to see you all, but somehow feel a little grief,” Kang said, through an interpreter, thanking even the mostly Korean and Japanese TV crews recording the event as some butterflies perched in a nearby tree.