An ad by the Atlanta Comfort Women Memorial Task Force shows the agreed-upon location of a monument honoring the Japanese military's 200,000 victims of sexual enslavement from 1932-45 at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights (middle terrace next to an outdoor staircase looping around the center). The center later said it hadn't thought through the implications of installing permanent fixtures on its grounds.
The full memorial ad.

The Japanese consulate general in Atlanta is denying claims that it used economic threats to strong-arm the National Center for Civil and Human Rights into quashing a monument to the so-called “comfort women” forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II. 

The statue of a young Asian girl seated next to an empty chair was intended to honor the legacy of more than 200,000 women from including Korea, China and more than 10 other Asian nations who were shipped off to “comfort stations,” military brothels systematically established by Japanese forces occupying swathes of Asia in the years leading up to the war. 

The issue has been a perennial irritant in Japan-Korea relations, especially as similar memorials have popped up in recent years in some 50 cities around the world — including one outside the Japanese consulate in Busan, South Korea

The conflict shows how diplomatic rifts can manifest themselves in diaspora communities, and how the National Center for Civil and Human Rights must show sensitivity even as it tackles contentious and uncomfortable topics where interpretations might be shaped by nationality or culture.

The Atlanta monument’s purpose was to pay tribute to the victims, but also to foster discussion on the ongoing issues of sexual slavery and violence against women and girls, according to its backers, the 25  mostly Asian Americans on the Atlanta Comfort Women Memorial Task Force

The center, which has made fighting human- and sex-trafficking one of its major focus areas, welcomed the idea in months of consultations leading up to a press announcement Feb. 9, but had a change of heart after its intentions were made public, the task force said. 

The tipping point, the task force believes, was a campaign by the Japanese government’s local representatives targeting the center, the Metro Atlanta Chamber, state legislators and other organizations after the Feb. 9 announcement.

This was paired with an “email trolling campaign” targeting the center’s corporate backers by a purported Japanese human rights advocate, Ken Kato, who disputed that the comfort women were enslaved, instead describing them as prostitutes who were “very well paid and well treated.”

That campaign is just one reason the task force believes the center was bowing to Japanese pressure.  

“The Task Force was never contacted or notified of this anti-Memorial campaign effort, and found out third-hand a week and a half after it began, so it’s hard to believe their decision is policy-based,” said Helen Ho, a civil rights attorney, Asian activist and a paid consultant to the task force.

Ms. Ho denied that the memorial is anti-Japanese or pro-Korean, pointing to the collection of nations whose women were victimized and the universality of the problem.

But she did say that the reversal by the center smacks of acquiescence to Japanese protests, which she believes have been on the rise as the more “nationalistic” government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe aims to recast historical issues in a more pro-Japanese light. Japan has opposed statues in other U.S. cities as well. 

“Part of the tragedy of the comfort woman story is that there has never been full governmental acknowledgement, apology and reparations that United Nations rapporteurs, human rights tribunals, our U.S. House of Representatives and other political bodies have universally demanded for decades. With continued efforts to silence and dismiss this history, it’s another trauma.”

The Metro Atlanta Chamber wouldn’t say whether its leaders had meetings with the consul general specifically on the topic, only that it urged all parties to come to a resolution that is inclusive and helps position the metro area for further development. 

The City of Atlanta took a similar hands-off stance when approached separately by the consulate and the task force. 

“We communicated with both parties that we will remain neutral on this issue,” Jenna Garland, press secretary to Mayor Kasim Reed, said in an emailed statement. 

For its part, the center says the reversal came from a more prosaic reason.

“The reversal is based on an internal discussion by the board as to whether the institution can accomodate monuments. The board realized that moving forward sets a precedent that cannot be sustained,” center spokeswoman Kristie Raymer told Global Atlanta.

She said the center is continuing discussions with the task force to find a way to honor the memory of these women. 

But Ms. Ho doesn’t buy it. She says it was always the plan to have an outdoor memorial and that the partnership was predicated entirely on this idea. She also noted that center CEO Derreck Kayongo indicated the full board’s support for the partnership in December, then on Feb. 3 signed an agreement outlining the plans for the monument.

Indeed, Mr. Kayongo earlier this week seemed to frame the issue in terms of the Japanese-Korean conflict in an interview with the Saporta Report. 

“What they are debating now is whether there’s another way to do this that does not inflame two communities in our city, and if this symbol of a resting monument is going to create a rift between two communities,” Mr. Kayongo was quoted as saying in reference to a board decision Feb. 16. “At the very least, we can have a conversation between these two communities. We can add one more brick on the bridge of reconciliation.”

While Ms. Ho insists that she heard directly from the center that talks with the Japanese played a role, Ms. Raymer denied that, saying it was more an issue with internal procedure. 

Going forward a process will be set forth to determine what prerequisites should be considered before agreeing to long-term projects. These are the growing pains of a young organization that is still trying to articulate its systems and limitations,” she said. 

Ms. Raymer confirmed that the center’s board initially talked about the topic at its December retreat, which is what encouraged Mr. Kayongo to sign the agreement. But she said the logistics of the statue weren’t fully discussed until the February meeting.

Still, Ms. Ho pointed to a shift in tone in the letter sent by Mr. Kayongo and former Atlanta Mayor and Board Chair Shirley Franklin explaining that the center was “not in a position” to honor its agreement.

The letter framed the issue as related to Korea only, even referring to Ms. Ho as Helen Ho Kim, flipping her Chinese married name and her Korean maiden name.

“They never forgot our names before. It’s like everything in that letter was a Freudian slip,” she told Global Atlanta. “It’s honestly offensive that the center shifted in referring to us as ‘South Korean Task Force’ and to the comfort women themselves as only ‘South Korean comfort women,’ when girls and women from China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Myanmar (Burma), Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and Holland among others were trafficked and enslaved.”

Reached by Global Atlanta, the Japanese consulate disputed Ms. Ho’s characterization of its efforts, instead contesting that Consul General Takashi Shinozuka has simply pressed the Japanese government’s position in its frequent interactions with community leaders.

Please be assured we have never threatened anybody,” deputy consul Yasukata Fukahori told Global Atlanta in an emailed statement. “We just explained that the Japanese community in Georgia was concerned about the issue, residents or businessmen alike.”

The consulate also said it expressed concern that the memorial could be cause for backlash against the local Japanese community.

If any country has economic influence in Georgia, it’s Japan. At least 300 Japanese-owned companies (a low estimate by the consulate’s count of more than 500) operate in Georgia alone, and the state has had an office in the country for more than 40 years. A few days before the task force’s most recent news release, Honda’s transmission subsidiary announced that it had just poured $100 million into upgrades in a Georgia factory. Japanese investors like Toyo Tire and Kubota are key employers in places like Rome and Gainesville, respectively.

Mr. Fukahori, the deputy consul general, said these facts weren’t used as leverage in discussions over the memorial, and he refuted a rumor circulated by the task force that the Japanese consulate had hired a lobbyist to advocate its case to state legislators. 

As you know, the issue of comfort women is one of diplomatic issues between Japan and Korea. Therefore, as a part of our efforts to explain about our positions in general, we also took opportunities to explain our position on the issue if and when we had chance with our American friends and counterparts, regardless before or after Feb. 9. What I want to emphasize was that it was a part of our daily work here in the Southeast, i.e., explaining our government positions.”

The Diplomatic Back Story

The Japanese government believes the issue should have been put to rest long ago, but historical sins committed during occupations of China, Korea and other nations have dogged the country’s relations with its neighbors for decades.

Despite advocates’ assertions that Japan has never paid reparations, Japan says that legal claims, at least those related to South Korean women, were handled when the two countries normalized relations in 1965. Since then, Japanese administrations have acknowledged the issue to varying degrees.

The issue rose to the fore again in 1990s, when the death of Emperor Hirohito allowed more historical context to emerge and comfort women began to come forward, said Kim Reimann, former director of the Asian studies center at Georgia State University. In the early part of that decade, Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa took a more contrite stance, but subsequent governments backtracked. Over the past two decades, wartime history has become a sensitive topic in Japan. 

A deal reached between the foreign ministries of Japan and South Korea in December 2015 aiming to come to a final resolution on the issue of comfort women had the effect of shining the spotlight on it once again. 

Japan apologized again and acknowledged its military’s involvement in a crime that it admitted caused untold “psychological and physical trauma” for the women, but critics said the country still didn’t go far enough in owning its war crimes and outlining its systematized approach to sex slavery. 

Now, both sides have politicized the issue so much that it becomes a nationalistic proxy for all kinds of disputes with Japan — not just in Korea, but in also in China, where the first comfort stations were established, Dr. Reimann said.

It’s taken on a life on its own, and it’s part of a larger problem of history that just has not been resolved,” she said.

For some members of the task force, it’s an issue that must be addressed honestly before it disappears from the historical map. Only a few dozen survivors are left, one of whom came to Atlanta in April 2015 as part of an international campaign to pressure the Japanese ahead of Mr. Abe’s speech to a joint session of Congress.  

Seventy-three-year-old Baik-kyu “Roger” Kim, chair of the Atlanta Comfort Women Memorial Task Force, said he had known families who had been impacted before, but the issue took on new urgency when he met 87-year-old Il-chul Kang at a packed-out banquet in Norcross.

“Our first generation is going away, the second generation won’t know anything about it,” he told Global Atlanta. 

The issue has spurred grassroots movements around the world in part because Korea’s 2015 deal with Japan was completed without legislative consultations and without the input of surviving comfort women. 

For that reason and more, the government of Park Geun-hye, Korea’s president, is deeply unpopular. Impeached over a political corruption scandal last month, a court will decide this week whether to officially remove her from office.

Some Koreans, at home and in the diaspora, see the government as glossing over the comfort-women issue to maintain good ties with Japan. In some cases, hush money has even been offered to victims, said Sun-Chul Kim, an assistant professor of Korean studies at Emory University

“For the people who are in favor of this memorial, this statue, they see a lot of wrongs being done not only in the past but still to this day. They want justice. They are unhappy with how the South Korean government is dealing with this,” Dr. Kim said. 

The Japanese consulate general in Atlanta provided the below statement to clarify its government’s position: 

The Government of Japan recognizes that this is an issue in which the honor and dignity of many women were at stake. Japan has taken various measures from a moral standpoint, notwithstanding the fact that the issues of claims by individuals, including those of former comfort women, were legally settled in an agreement between Japan and the Republic of Korea when they normalized their relationship in 1965. The Asian Women’s Fund, established in 1995 by the people and the Government of Japan, was one of those measures. Most recently, the Government of Japan reached with the Government of the Republic of Korea an agreement over the issue in December 2015, which confirmed the comfort women issue is resolved finally and irreversibly ( 

The Government of Japan honors the agreement and has implemented it in a very faithful manner, regardless of whatever happens in the Republic of Korea. The contribution of 1 billion yen to the foundation established based on the agreement clearly shows Japan’s commitment to implementing the agreement. It should also be noted that the majority of the survivors of former comfort women at the time of the agreement endorsed and appreciated the agreement and received support provided by the foundation.

The problem of the statue does not end there. The Government of Japan is seriously concerned that the statue in Atlanta may cause discrimination, humiliation or bullying against members of the Japanese community in Atlanta who wish to live in peace. The Government of Japan must not allow the situation where Japanese residents overseas are discriminated or their safe and secure lives are threatened. The Consulate-General of Japan does not understand why, under such circumstances, a project of erection of a comfort woman statue in Atlanta, which will lead to divisiveness among communities, came to be considered, and sincerely hopes that this will not take place in the great city of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a city of peace, tolerance and inclusiveness.

Correction: A previous version of this article said there was a comfort woman statue outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul. It’s actually outside the Japanese consulate in Busan. 

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...