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Design Selected for S.F. ‘Comfort Women’ Memorial

The “comfort women” memorial design features three girls representing the victims and an elderly woman representing the survivors.

SAN FRANCISCO — The San Francisco Arts Commission’s Visual Art Committee has selected the final design for the San Francisco “Comfort Women” memorial, it was announced last week.

The design by renowned sculptor Steven Whyte was among more than 30 applications that were submitted for the “Call for Artists.”

The memorial, to be installed in the St. Mary’s Square park annexation (500 Pine St.) at the crossroads of Chinatown and the Financial District, will depict three girls on top of a cylindrical pedestal, representing the victims from different parts of the world, and a grandma figure representing the survivors who are continuing their struggle for justice and dignity.

It will be accompanied by a plaque that explains the history of “comfort women” and its meaning today.

The design differs from that of a similar memorial in Glendale’s Central Park, which depicts a young Korean girl seated next to an empty chair — inspired by a memorial placed near the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. The Glendale monument was erected in 2013 and has received international attention. There are similar memorials in New York, New Jersey, Virginia and Michigan.

In 2015, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution urging the city and county “to establish a memorial for ‘comfort women’ and to educate the community about stopping global human trafficking of women and girls.”

The board resolved that “appropriate city and county agencies will work with the community organizations to design and establish the memorial” and expressed “strong support of creating a public memorial in memory of those girls and women who suffered immeasurable pain and humiliation as sex slaves and as a sacred place for remembrance, reflection, remorsefulness, and atonement for generations to come.”

The memorial is supported by the “Comfort Women” Justice Coalition, which describes itself as “a multi-ethnic, multi-interest human rights coalition [whose]members include dozens of organizations committed to remembering the history and paying tribute to the courage of the ‘comfort women.’”

A former “comfort woman,” Yong Soo Lee, then 87, flew in from South Korea to testify during public hearings on the resolution.

Supervisors heard dissenting opinions from representatives of the Global Alliance for Historical Truth, whose goal is to “protect the honor of Japan,” claimed that the women were not sex slaves for the Japanese military but were prostitutes who volunteered and were well compensated. The group has taken legal action to have the Glendale memorial taken down.

Toru Hashimoto, mayor of Osaka, San Francisco’s sister city, wrote a letter to the board in opposition to the memorial. Hashimoto himself became a source of controversy in 2013 when he stated that the women were a “necessity” to give Japanese soldiers a chance “to rest.”

Some members of the Japanese American community expressed concern that such a monument might heighten anti-Japanese sentiment and lead to hate crimes.

Supervisor Eric Mar, whose district includes many Japanese American residents, has responded by saying, “It’s not about Japanese people or the Japanese American community at all. This is a way for San Francisco to say never again, to engage young people to understand what happened but also to be vigilant about stopping human trafficking for the future as well.”

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