By Joe Anuta
A group of Korean-American civic organizations and city lawmakers gathered Monday night to remember the Asian women who they contend were forced into sex slavery during World War II, a topic that has also heated up tensions between the group and Japan.
“We are asking everyone here to support constructing more monuments for comfort women,” said Chang Han, president of The Korean American Association of Greater New York.
Han spoke to a crowd of about 100 people in the auditorium of JHS 189, at 144-80 Barclay Ave. in Flushing, where he and other speakers referred to a New Jersey plaque that was erected in 2009 as the first monument in the country to commemorate comfort women, who they said came primarily from Korea, China and the Philippines and were used as sex slaves by the Japanese military.
City Councilman Peter Koo (D-Flushing) also spoke, recalling the fact that he met comfort women at an event held at the Kupferberg Holocaust Center at Queensborough Community College in Bayside.
“We cannot go back in time and stop the barbaric acts against innocent women perpetrated by Japanese soldiers. We cannot change history,” Koo said, adding that the best he can do is to try to honor the women’s memory with a memorial and street renaming in Flushing through the Council, although no time frame has been set.
But vocal Japanese opponents of the proposal denied that the comfort women even existed, instead portraying them as willing prostitutes seeking cash.
On the White House website, more than 25,000 people have signed a petition asking “President Obama to remove the [New Jersey] monument and not to support any international harassment related to this issue against the people of Japan.”
The petition drew more than 25,000 signatures in 30 days, which means according to its policy, the White House is required to respond to the request.
Government officials from the island nation also flew to New Jersey to request in person that the plaque be taken down, and Japanese citizens bombarded the mailboxes of Koo’s colleagues in the Council with letters suggesting that the Shanghai native is pandering to his Korean base in an election year, a charge Koo denies.
Other speakers at the event explicitly said plans for comfort women memorials were not designed simply as barbs at Japan.
“Some people believe we are doing this because we have anti-Japanese sentiments,” said Chae No of the Flushing-based nonprofit Korean American Civic Empowerment.
But No argued that the reason for the memorials is to preserve history and make sure it does not happen again.
Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 718-260-4566.