However you feel about the dedication of a monument to Korean “comfort women” in Glendale, it is sad to see the bonds of friendship forged over the decades strain and threaten to break in its aftermath.

Kyodo News reported on Aug. 2 that the mayor of Higashiosaka, Japan, a Glendale sister city, has sent a letter to city officials protesting a maintenance fund set up for sister city monuments, claiming the city has not given “any consent to share the expenses for the establishment of the fund” and adding that the people of Higashiosaka are “hurt” by the decision to install the memorial. The article noted that a city official hinted that the dispute may lead to the end of the sister city relationship.

If this recent controversy were to result in the termination of a decades-long sister city relationship, it would be tragic. The Shoseian, a Japanese tea house, was built in Glendale in 1974 as part of a joint effort between the two cities, as a symbol of the friendship between the United States and Japan. Like all sister city relationships, these cultural exchanges are meant to widen our understanding of the world and promote peace.

More troubling is the possibility that the current conflict between Japan and Korea will spill over here to our local communities, where we are often one another’s neighbors, friends and even family. When Koreatown rose last year to protest the redistricting that split the Korean American population into two districts, Japanese Americans from Little Tokyo were there in support, understanding how important it is that Asian Americans are given full representation in city politics.

One of the greatest heroes of both our communities was Col. Young Oak Kim, who earned two Silver Stars in World War II as a member of the 100th/442nd Regimental Combat Team. The Go For Broke Monument in Little Tokyo is a lasting testament to both his fortitude and leadership of that organization. Col. Kim refused to transfer out of the 442nd, despite the possibility of ethnic tension saying, “There is no Japanese nor Korean here. We’re all Americans and we’re fighting for the same cause.”

While most of the emails (and I have received hundreds of them) have been from Japan, it is also true that there is opposition here in the Japanese and Japanese American community, as evidenced by the July 9 Glendale council meeting. Following the publication of our story on the meeting, I have heard from a number of Japanese who attended the meeting, who were concerned that their words would be taken poorly by Korean associates.

Maybe that’s the thing. Unlike Seoul or Tokyo, we can’t shout at one another and return to our own ethnic bubbles. We all have to live together in a multicultural Los Angeles where you can eat Mexican ice cream, Korean tacos or Japanese spaghetti. Right wing nationalists in Japan or soccer players from Korea can replay and incite these ongoing conflicts, and while it is important for Japan to fully acknowledge its history, allowing tension to increase here will only be to the detriment of both communities.

“We can’t fight forever,” said Jean Chung of the Action for One Korea at last Tuesday’s dedication.

True words that I hope will help all of us rise above the turmoil, and maybe even come to an understanding of our differing points of view. We can disagree, but we mustn’t break our bonds of friendship.

*  *  *

On a lighter note, this weekend will be the conclusion of Obon festivals here in Southern California with Gardena Obon. We’ve highlighted so many of the dancers, who put so much effort and joy into each dance. But I thought that John Matsuda had an interesting take on that most hearty of folks, the ones who come to watch and enjoy the spectacle.

John writes: “I line up my chairs at 6 a.m. on the westside of Halldale Avenue for the Isami Taiko Band and Bon Odori in the evenings; invite my friends to come and sit with me; eat udon and sushi; and just have the time of my life watching my friends from Gardena, Torrance, West L.A., Monterey Park, Orange County  and other places, dancing to the tune of ‘Tanko Bushi,’ ‘Tokyo Ondo,’ ‘Yosakoi Bushi,’ ‘Mottainai’ and other familiar ondo music under the guidance of Brian Imada, son of Tad and Toshi Imada, who calls the shots from the ‘yagura’ or tower in the middle of street.  Brian is ably assisted by his wife Imogene and daughter Claire (veteran taiko player of the Isami Taiko Band of Gardena Buddhist Church).  I just love to sit there on Saturday and Sunday nights to watch the Bon Odori!”

Thanks John, I always wondered what time the folks in Gardena bring out their chairs for Obon. With cooler temperatures, it should be another wonderful weekend of dance and celebration.

Gwen Muranaka is the English Editor of The Rafu Shimpo and can be reached at Ochazuke is a staff-written column. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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  1. Dear Gwen,

    As I recall there were both Japanese at the Glendale meeting that were in favor, as well as against, the memorial in question. It wasn’t unanimous. However, with Japanese people in Japan it was very much tilted against.

    Any ways, it is regrettable that some of the controversy between Korean and Japan is spilling into the interactions between the two communities in America and in southern California specifically. However, your article does not give any context into why Koreans would seek to put up these kinds of memorials in America.

    Many Japanese, especially those in government, think that all disagreements between the two countries on what transpired during the Imperial Japanese occupation of Korea were settled in the 1965 Normalization Treaty. This is where the Japanese government (under a lot of pressure by the Johnson Administration, one must add) gave low interest loans, grants and technology transfers to South Korea in exchange for normalized relations and for the South Korean government to forgo any monetary claims, on behalf of its citizens, against the Japanese government for the abuses they suffered during the occupation period.

    Regarding the occupation period, let’s be honest here. It was brutal. It was brutal to Japan’s colonies, those it tried to conquer and to the general population of Japan itself. However, unlike Japan, Korea was dragged into supporting Japan’s territorial ambitions without any say so itself. Yes, Japan did set up a “rump” (i.e. fake) Korean body of representatives to sign the protectorate treaty in 1905, but the actual annexation in 1910 was done with no Korean representation whatsoever. Japan just annexed Korea. Actually, Korea’s attempts to non-violently request independence from Japanese rule were brutally suppressed in March 1st, 1919. The loss of life was between 5,000 (Japanese estimates) and 50,000 (Korean estimates) largely unarmed civilians. 10’s of thousands of Koreans were brutally imprisoned and tortured afterwards. There was also intense racism towards Koreans who went to work in Japan. They were only give the dangerous and dirty jobs and an air of unearned suspicion hung around them. During the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 an estimated 25,000 Koreans were rounded up and killed by Japanese mobs on completely unfounded rumors they were setting fires and poisoning wells. Some Japanese police did try to stop the mobs, but most did nothing. Some even helped the mobs.

    When Imperial Japan tried to invade and conquer China in 1937 is when millions of Koreans were forcibly conscripted (i.e. drafted without their consent) to provide cheap labor to the Japanese war effort. Young Korean men were sent to coal mines, farms and military labor gangs in order to feed Japan’s war effort first in China, then against the European colonies in Asia. Korean conscripted labor at its height was 4 million souls, 20% of Korea’s total population and over half of Korean’s young adult/older adolescent population.

    Korean women were drafted into light manufacturing and also, infamously, into comfort women stations. With comfort women it appears that the Japanese tried to fill this need with legitimate prostitution in Japan first, then with legitimate Korean prostitutes. However, at its height, the Japanese Imperial Army was 6 million men under arms. There was no way that the sexual needs of an army this big could be filled by just legitimate prostitutes alone. Forcing ordinary Japanese girls to fill this need alone was not an option the Japanese were willing to consider, but girls from their imperial holdings was something they would. Japan had the most amount of control in Korea, thus there they could do the most aggressive recruiting. But like many things during Imperial Japan what was called “recruiting” would be called by most other societies coercive, misleading or forced.

    The issue of forced labor recruiting was generally discussed and taken care of by the 1965 treaty, but the issue of comfort women were not. Neither side brought it up, but given the sensitive nature of the issue, I suppose one can see why. As these women got older, they wanted their grievances heard and addressed so in Korea, the Philippines, China, Taiwan and the Netherlands they made their voices heard. Japan’s Chief Cabinet Minister, Yōhei Kōno, in 1993 did issue a non-binding, carefully worded and unratified apology and admittance of guilt that was not followed up by meaningful action or fact finding by the Japanese government. Additionally, Japanese government elected officials have either denied the significance of the Kōno statement or ask that it be withdrawn entirely.

    Many people in Korea see the 1965 treaty as insufficient recourse for the abuses they suffered during the colonial rule. They point out that the agreement was signed during their dictatorship period and does not really represent the will of the people. Additionally, they believe that the loans, grants and technical support do not represent a real apology or a desire by the Japanese to self reflect upon themselves. They see it more as “shut-up” money to keep Koreans from making official protests. Due to the way this was handled, the Korean people have not received closure for what happened between the two countries from 1910 to 1945. This lack of closure manifests itself most aggressively in two ways with Koreans: the comfort woman issue and next is the dispute on the Liancourt Rocks (Dokdo/Takashima). These issues continue to fester because the Japanese government allows them to fester. The Japanese government is not cooperative in helping uncover data and research and junior members of said government (with tacit approval from senior LDP party members) deny the existence of forced conscription of sexual slavery all together. Thus, it is members of the Korean diaspora community that have taken it upon themselves to make sure the memory of these abuses are not forgotten and draw attention to it so as to keep pressure on Japan to honestly seek the truth with the international community on this matter.

    I believe the Korean community, for the most part, has nothing against the Japanese American or Japanese expatriate community or the Japanese people. Their qualms are with the Japanese government. If Japanese Americans or Japanese citizens find this issue embarrassing somehow perhaps too many of them are focusing their energies in the wrong place. The fact that these monuments are being built is because of the reluctance of the Japanese government to sufficiently research this with the international community in total transparency and cooperation and to offer sufficient apology and redress. It is not because Koreans are out to smear Japan. In my humble opinion Japanese people should devote their energies into persuading their government to do the right thing, not in harassing the government of a small municipality like Glendale.