We offer a new perspective on the recent controversies surrounding the memorialization of comfort women in several American cities by shifting the focus from bilateral historical grievances and tensions between the national governments of Japan and South Korea, to the grassroots and transnational politics involved in the siting of these monuments. We find that the construction of a transnational Korean identity among the Korean diaspora in the USA, and their creation of a collective public memory of the comfort women are evidence of their growing political consciousness and engagement in American civic life, and it is notable that most of the leadership and membership of the main organizations involved are women. These women are part of the global feminist and human rights movements which advocate for the inclusion and recognition of the experiences of women during wartime and colonization. Therefore, the memorials are not only symbols of historic reconciliation and remembrance, but of the skillful and strategic organizing, activism, and leadership of Asian Americans. This article also shows how the movement is evolving through the development of educational and curricular initiatives in honor of the comfort women in the USA.
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“Comfort woman” is a euphemism, used in Japanese historical documents, that has become the most common term in the international system to refer to these women. These women came from all over Asia and Japan’s empire and occupied lands, which included China, Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia. Some literature uses the term “sex slaves” while the term “halmonie” (or “grandma”) is frequently used in South Korea and among the Korean diaspora.
Although Chinese and other Asian women were also held in sexual servitude to the Japanese Imperial Army, Korean Americans have taken the lead on this movement in the USA. We argue that it would not have progressed so far without that leadership.
Mike Honda was the main sponsor of US House of Representatives Resolution 121, which called on Japan to acknowledge and apologize for the use of comfort women during World War II.
Korean Americans had to reflect on their place in American civic life after the Los Angeles Riots in 1992. In Los Angeles, tensions arose between the Korean immigrant community that came after 1965, and the mostly African American communities in which they established their small businesses. Tensions came to a head in 1992 with two events: the killing of fifteen-year old Latasha Harlins by female Korean convenience store owner, Soon Ja Du, over an alleged stolen bottle of juice and the acquittal of four white Los Angeles Police Department officers who used excessive force while arresting an unarmed black man, Rodney King. These events ignited years of racial resentment by the Black community against the Korean immigrant merchants in their neighborhoods, leading to several days of rioting and looting, and imposed curfews. It is estimated that about 50% of the damage to private property was to Korean-owned businesses. The lack of police protection for Korean owned businesses during the Los Angeles Riots, forced the Korean community in Los Angeles to think more about their place in American politics and racial dynamics, social justice, and the need for greater civic participation to protect their interests and rights (Park 1995; Kim 2012).
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The comfort women monument in Fort Lee, New Jersey is especially interesting because it was initiated by a group of Korean high school students (two young women led the effort). The monument is at Constitution Park and is placed directly across from a US War Veteran’s memorial (Hasunuma’s visit to the monument July 10, 2018).
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Hasunuma follow-up interview via email on February 8, 2018.
Hasunuma interview with Phyllis Kim on August 31, 2017.
Linda Hasunuma interviews with Phyllis Kim, August 31, 2017 in Burbank, CA; and skype interview with Julie Jungsil Lee, September 28, 2017.
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Hasunuma e-mail follow-up interview with Phyllis Kim on February 8, 2018.
Hasununa e-mail follow-up interview with Julie Jungsil Lee February 8–11, 2018.
Hasunuma interview with Phyllis Kim on August 31, 2017 in Burbank, California.
Hasunuma skype interview with Julie Jungil Lee on September 28, 2017.
McCarthy phone interview with Dan Leshem on May 7, 2015.
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McCarthy phone interview with Phyllis Kim on August 8, 2017.
McCarthy phone interview with Lillian Sing and Julie Tang on August 18, 2017.
McCarthy skype interview with Judy Cho on August 22, 2017.
Both authors attended the “Tenth Anniversary of the Passage of the House Resolution 121” gathering on July 27, 2017 (video of the event: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bwIwdK9e0qI) and the “International Conference on the Redress Movement for the Victims of the Japanese Military Sex Slaves” at Queens College, New York, October 13–14, 2017.
Hasunuma visited the 6th Annual Commemoration of Comfort Woman Day exhibition at the Glendale Public Library on August 31, 2017; the War and Women’s Human Rights Museum in Seoul on June 25, 2017; a walking tour and teach-in on the comfort women memorial in San Francisco hosted by the Association for Asian Am Stud and a Zainichi Korean activist group, Eclipse Rising, on March 29, 2018; and the comfort women memorial in Fort Lee, New Jersey on July 10, 2018.
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Hasunuma, L., McCarthy, M. Creating a Collective Memory of the Comfort Women in the USA. Int J Polit Cult Soc 32, 145–162 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10767-018-9302-1
- Comfort women
- Asian Americans
- Women’s activism