A view of the 'Column of Strength' statue on October 3, 2018, in San Francisco. The Japanese city of Osaka ended a six-decade 'sister city' relationship with San Francisco to protest the statue by artist Steven Whyte that depicts Japanese World War II-era sex slaves. Photo: AFP / Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

The government of Japan has again been raising an international controversy by digging deep into denialism and obstructionism against the truth of the “comfort women” atrocities. This time the stage is Berlin in Germany, Japan’s Axis partner during World War II.  

After initially kowtowing to Japan’s bullying and ordering the removal of the Comfort Women Memorial in Mitte district, Berlin, the only public “comfort women” memorial in Germany, the Mitte government has had second thoughts and allowed the statue to remain in place for now, Kyodo reports.

District authorities had given the nod to a local civic group for the statue to stand for a year. And the authorities’ original position that the memorial would educate the public regarding wartime sexual crimes against women was a sound one.

During World War II, hundreds of thousands of women and girls, euphemistically called “comfort women,” were sexually enslaved by the Japanese Imperial Army in 13 Asia-Pacific countries from 1931-1945. Most of these women died during their wartime captivity.  

This dark history was hidden for decades until the 1990s when survivors courageously broke their silence. They helped moved the world to declare that sexual violence as a strategy of war is a crime against humanity for which governments must be held accountable.  

And yet to this day, Japan has refused to take responsibility and accountability for its war crimes or apologize to the survivors of the “comfort women” system. Instead, the Japanese government continues to engage in historical denialism.    

By contrast, Germany’s remembrance of the Holocaust has been a noble state effort since the defeat of the Nazi regime in World War II. The country has even declared it a crime to deny the Holocaust. That policy has survived despite criticism by many that it violates the fundamental right of freedom of speech.  

In many people’s minds, punishment for a denial of the Holocaust is justified because of the monumental horror suffered by 6 million Jews in defiance of humanity and justice. But while the Jewish Holocaust is being rightfully regarded as a national atrocity, the saga of the “comfort women” is treated with abandonment, disrespect and outright contempt. 

The Mitte government “said it hopes to explore a plan for Japan and South Korea to reach a compromise on the display,” Kyodo reported on Wednesday. But if it does remove the memorial, it will amount to shamelessly aiding and abetting Japan in its historical denialism.

Such political cowardice for the sake of preserving the diplomatic relationship between Japan and Germany would do disservice to the victims of wartime sexual slavery and to the world community.     

We in the United States face the same strong-arm tactics and pressure from Japan in the installation of “comfort women” memorials. But we have fought back and won.  

In Glendale, California, Japan tried to get a “comfort women” memorial removed by way of a lawsuit. In an amicus brief filed by the Japanese government to the US Supreme Court, it claimed the memorial threatened Japan’s national security and affected Japan’s core national interests.  

The Supreme Court promptly denied its request and declined to offer even one word of comment.    

In San Francisco, we faced intense opposition from the Japanese government when we installed a memorial there. The former mayor of Osaka, Hirofumi Yoshimura, now the governor of Osaka prefecture, demanded that San Francisco remove the memorial or risk losing Osaka as a sister city, a 60-year relationship.  

San Francisco stood its ground and refused to be bullied, and is no longer a sister city to Osaka. But San Francisco’s “comfort women” memorial, also known as the “Column of Strength,” stands tall and proud. Thousands of visitors pay homage there every year.  

The memorial symbolizes our international resolve never to let the atrocity of a “comfort women” system be repeated. And the memorial remains a reverent testament to all those who have been victims of sexual violence and sex trafficking.  

We urge the Mitte district of Berlin to stand by its original decision and allow the “comfort women” memorial to remain. And we urge all good citizens of the world, especially those in Germany, to call upon the government in Berlin’s Mitte district to support “comfort women” memorials and not remove this one, the first public statue in Germany to honor the victims of this wartime atrocity.  

It is important to educate the German people and visitors to Mitte district of the horrific events of World War II whether it was the Holocaust under Nazi Germany or the “comfort women” rape system under the Empire of Japan. Asian women’s lives matter too.

Mike Honda

Mike Honda is a former US congressman from California.

Lillian Sing

Lillian Sing was the first Asian-American female judge in northern California. Now retired from the bench, she is a civil-rights activist who helped start Chinese for Affirmative Action and helped build the San Francisco Comfort Women Memorial. She serves as the co-chairwoman of the Comfort Women Justice Coalition.

Julie Tang

Julie Tang is a retired judge from San Francisco. She is a co-chairwoman of the Comfort Women Justice Coalition, which built the San Francisco Comfort Women Memorial in 2017. In 2020, she co-founded Pivot to Peace, a national organization devoted to finding peaceful solutions to the US-China conflicts.