Japanese and Korean communities in Sydney are deeply divided over plans to unveil the statue of a young girl symbolizing comfort women used as sex slaves by Japanese soldiers during World War II. The intervention of Uniting Church minister Bill Crews by offering church grounds as a home for the statue has further infuriated the Japanese community which says Uniting Church should work toward uniting people rather than dividing them.

MELBOURNE — A statue to commemorate the “comfort women” forced into prostitution around WWII has opened a bitter rift between the Korean and Japanese communities in Australia’s biggest city, becoming the latest flashpoint for historical acrimony between the Asian neighbors to play out on foreign soil.

Protestors in Seoul sit next to a statue of a South Korean teenage girl in traditional costume called the "peace monument" for women used as sex slaves by Japanese soldiers during World War II
Protestors in Seoul sit next to a statue of a South Korean teenage girl in traditional costume called the “peace monument” for women used as sex slaves by Japanese soldiers during World War II

To members of Sydney’s Korean community, the monument is a worthy tribute to the suffering of the women used as sex slaves by the Japanese Imperial Army before and during the war. Korean and Chinese women made up most of the estimated 200,000 women recruited to the army brothels.

But local Japanese activists see the statue, which is due to be unveiled at a Korean community hall on Saturday before finding a permanent home at a nearby church, as a provocation and even incitement to hatred against their community. The Australia-Japan Community Network has claimed the monument, depicting a young girl seated beside an empty chair, violates racial discrimination legislation and has been pushed by people connected to North Korea and the Chinese Communist Party.

“We are a group of mums and dads determined to protect our children from any racially agitated discrimination,” Australia-Japan Community Network president Tesshu Yamaoka told Asia Times. “We must refrain from importing overseas conflicts and disputes into Australia.”

As well as mirroring similar ructions over comfort women memorials in the United States and Canada, the battle being waged in the western area of Canterbury-Bankstown is a replay of an earlier fight in nearby Strathfield. The council there vetoed a proposal for a monument on its property last August after more than a year of tensions that boiled over into online harassment and tires being slashed. Explaining the decision at the time, a council spokesman told media the proposal had “divided the community.”

This time around, the decision has been taken out of local government’s hands because of the intervention of Uniting Church minister Bill Crews. After hearing of the backlash, he reached out to the Peace Statue Establishing Committee, led by Korean-born Vivan Pak, and offered the church grounds as a home for the statue.

“I was really outraged when the council refused them permission to put it up and it took me a while to find the committee and I said you can do it in my church,” Crews said. “That’s what we should do, that’s the natural thing to do.”

The statue is so explosive in large part because it evokes raw feelings that color the perceptions South Koreans and Japanese have of each other at home. In government and throughout society at large, South Korea holds lingering grudges against its former colonizer, which ruled the pre-division Korean Peninsula from 1910 until 1945. Arguably the sorest point of all has been what many Koreans see as Tokyo’s insufficient efforts to compensate and apologize to the surviving comfort women, who now number just several dozen. Inflaming these feelings are Japanese conservatives who deny the comfort women were forced into anything at all.

While Seoul and Tokyo reached a landmark deal to resolve the dispute last December, survivors, campaigners and liberal politicians in South Korea largely rejected the terms.

Yamaoka believes Crews is helping the local Korean community to undermine recent diplomatic progress between the countries.

“He does not explain why he is then supporting the Korean group trying to jeopardize the governmental agreement between Japan and South Korea to formally settle the matter,” Yamaoka said. “It appears a sheer contradiction to us.  We raised a number of concerns to him but received no reply except ‘I’m only honoring comfort women.’ We believe Uniting Church should work towards uniting people rather than dividing people.”

Like the Korean community members who’ve led the monument effort, Crews denies that the statue stands for hate or division. He insists his only motivation is to recognize the women’s pain.

“That’s what I am really interested about, that a lot women suffered and there needs to be a place they can go to recognize that suffering and acknowledge it,” he said. “And, also, it’s a place women can go to make sure those things don’t happen again. Because there’s the broader of picture of the abuse of women in war and also in violent situations.”

John Power is a journalist who has reported on North and South Korea since 2010. His work has appeared in outlets including The Daily Mail, The Christian Science Monitor, Mashable, NK News, Asian Geographic, The Diplomat, The Korea Herald and Narratively, among others. He is currently based in Melbourne, Australia.

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