The Fight Over Berlin’s Comfort Woman Statue

The Fight Over Berlin’s Comfort Woman Statue

The Fight Over Berlin’s Comfort Woman Statue

Why the bronze figure of a girl in Germany is infuriating the Japanese government.


On the second Monday of each month, Jim-Bob Heimberg walks across the street from his family’s flower shop café to a park in the quiet Berlin neighborhood of Moabit. There, Heimberg, a tall, 27-year-old German, places a crown of flowers atop a statue of a small Korean girl.

Crafted in bronze and granite by artists Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung, the artwork is known as the Statue of Peace. Although the figure is not meant to represent any particular person, the Kims used their daughter’s hands and feet as a model for the nameless girl who sits with a bird perched on her left shoulder next to an empty chair. The statue symbolizes the estimated 200,000 comfort women forced into sexual slavery to serve Japan’s armed forces during the early 20th century. During a recent visit, young German children placed yellow leaves in her hands or sat in the unoccupied chair to keep the girl company.

The statue was installed two years ago by Korea Verband, a local nonprofit focused on education in human rights, Korean culture, and Korean-German relations. Before then, Heimberg didn’t know about the comfort women, who first came public with their accounts in 1991. Today, his shop, Kuchentischlerei, is decorated with miniature replicas and postcards of the little girl. “History should be discussed, and you have to stand up for it even if you don’t have any part in it,” Heimberg said.

Over the past year, a group of Berliners have been fighting to make the statue a permanent exhibition. There are more than 90 Statues of Peace around the world that have come to represent not only the comfort women’s travails but also those of other survivors of sexual violence and wartime abuse.

“The statue is a symbol against patriarchal violence during wars and other conflicts, a memorial for all nations to stop this behavior—an apology, and therefore a memorial for peace,” said Angelika Krüger, a member of senior citizens activist group Omas gegen Rechts (Grannies Against the Right). “Because Germany began this terrible war, and Japan was a confederate of Germany, Germany and Berlin has a special responsibility to show that it is important to let this statue, this memorial for peace exist.”

German authorities, however, do not fully share Heimberg or Krüger’s perspective. The noncommittal stance worries the statue’s supporters during a time of rising Japanese antagonism, and when a new South Korean president fervently backed by anti-feminist voters wants to improve relations with Japan. “There is this genuine attempt by South Korean conservatives to discredit the comfort women movement entirely,” said S. Nathan Park, a nonresident fellow of the Sejong Institute who writes about Asia. “This is the part that escapes a lot of outside observers.”

When Shinzo Abe died on July 8, many obituaries omitted the former prime minister’s adamance in silencing comfort women and his resistance to offering a formal apology. During his leadership, Japanese textbooks erased references to its army’s colonial brutality.

Since the first Statue of Peace was unveiled in Seoul in 2011, Japanese officials and right-wing extremists have harassed educators, activists, and others who publicly discuss the Japanese military’s wartime system of forced labor. Many who reject the history of comfort women believe Japan has apologized enough, or that offenses have been overblown. Wounded national pride is a less-publicized excuse among Japanese conservatives.

“There’s a lack of will by the Japanese government in keeping up this memory and engaging with its own imperial colonial past,” said Gang Sung-Un, a Korean who’s studied in Germany since 2010 focusing on Korean women during the colonization era.

Government documents and interviews detail how comfort stations were set up to follow Japanese soldier deployments throughout Asia. In Yonson Ahn’s book Whose Comfort? Body, Sexuality and Identities of Korean ‘Comfort Women’ and Japanese Soldiers During WWII, she reports that comfort women taken from throughout Asia were subjected to forced sex, lynching, whippings, stabbings, and shootings.

Today, there are only about 12 known survivors, making wider awareness of their stories vital, Kim Seo-kyung told me. “Since a lot of them are passing away and there will be less primary evidence available, there’s a lot more pressure from the opposition to get this over with and stop the installations,” Kim said.

Alexis Dudden, a history professor at the University of Connecticut whose research specializes in Korea-Japan relations, helped organize a 2015 letter signed by a group of American academics condemning Japan’s revisionist history regarding comfort women. Denialists retaliated by sending her 10 to 15 death threats every day; eventually, an FBI officer was assigned to her classroom.

She is also one of several professors at American public universities who’ve received Freedom of Information Act requests in an unfounded search for incriminating e-mails. The requests emanated from white American men living in Asia, whose online writings are sympathetic to Japanese nationalism and anti-comfort women.

“I was charged with working together with Nancy Pelosi on an international conspiracy to bring down the government of Japan,” Dudden said. “I was simply teaching about comfort women from documents I have found in the government of Japan archives.”

The Japanese government became more open with their efforts to muzzle the comfort women after a statue was erected nine years ago in Glendale, Calif., according to Tomomi Yamaguchi, a professor of cultural anthropology at Montana State University. When the appeals court upheld the dismissal of a pro-Japan conservative group’s lawsuit against Glendale, the Japanese government filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court, which declined to review the case in March 2017.

Comfort women denialists have been successful stopping other installations, though, sometimes with direct requests coming from the Japanese consulate general, Yamaguchi said. She added that Japanese businesses have even pressured local governments, noting the Denso Corporation’s protests against an installation in Southfield, Mich.

Similar harassment tactics have been employed in Germany. In 2017, the Memorial Museum Ravensbrück, a former concentration camp for women, displayed a miniature Statue of Peace at its visitor’s information area. The Japanese embassy in Berlin contacted the Brandenburg state government to remove the statue, according to Horst Seferens, a press officer at the memorial. “The statue symbolizes the historical fact that women from Korea were abused by Japanese soldiers during WWII,” Seferens wrote in an e-mail.

Four years ago in Hamburg, Japanese Consul General Kikuko Kato asked to meet Irene Pabst after she organized a comfort women exhibit at the Dorothee-Sölle-Haus. Kato dismissed requests to hold a joint public event to discuss comfort women history and demanded removal of the Statue of Peace at the exhibit, Pabst said.

Although Pabst did not acquiesce, a statue in Freiburg was scrapped in 2016 after protests from Japanese state officials and politicians in Matsuyama—Freiburg’s sister city in southern Japan.

Initially, Berlin appeared ready to capitulate until Omas gegen Rechts joined Korea Verband to organize in resistance. Together, they have led weekly rallies calling on local leaders to keep the Statue of Peace permanently.

Deutsche Welle reported that Stephen von Dassel, mayor of the Berlin borough of Mitte, acknowledged that his district “had to submit to the needs of German national interests—including German-Japanese diplomatic relations” when considering the statue’s future. Gang Sung-un identified how there are streets or parks in several German cities named after Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

Nine Yamamoto-Masson, a Japanese French artist and activist who resides in Berlin, noted how Germans often speak of vergangenheitsaufarbeitung—which essentially means “working off the past”—to promote how they’ve atoned for violence committed during World War II. She said local leaders are contradicting themselves and the concept of vergangenheitsaufarbeitung by not recognizing victims of Japanese war violence. “There are a lot of people of Japanese descent who very actively want this to be talked about, who support the struggle,” said Yamamoto-Masson, who has created artwork about the attempted erasure of the comfort women’s stories. “Stephan von Dassel’s statement also tells us that we don’t belong.”

A press officer for von Dassel wrote in an e-mail that the district office is engaged in discussions about the statue with various parties and that “no further public statements will be made on the subject of the Peace Statue until further notice.”

The Japanese Embassy in Berlin did not respond to requests for comment, but other Japanese officials have been more vocal. Last April, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida asked German Chancellor Olaf Scholz for swift removal of the Berlin installation during a meeting in Tokyo.

When asked for comment about the meeting, a German government spokesperson wrote in an e-mail: “The federal government of Germany has strong, frequent and trustful relations with the Japanese government. As standing policy, we do not report from confidential talks.” (In 2015, then–German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Japan to face up to its wartime past.)

“If they withstood that pressure and fought for truth, that would look really good for them, but somehow they don’t want to do it,” Yamamoto-Masson said of German officials. “It is much more than an issue between South Korea and Japan. It is a feminist issue, an anti-colonial issue, an issue of human rights, an issue of challenging what happens in war time and conflict and the subsequent silencing of victims and attempts to whitewash history and to distort narratives.”

Many German residents with ties to Korea don’t expect the South Korean government to intervene. The new president, Yoon Suk-yeol, ardently courted misogynistic voters at a time when anti-feminist screeds are increasingly common in Korean society and politics—regularly emanating from Yoon’s conservative People Power Party. Yoon is also reportedly seeking to dissolve South Korea’s Ministry of Gender Equality and Family.

“I think there are very good reasons to believe Yoon Suk-yeol will not be interested in helping,” said Gang. “His political party I think is reason enough to be worried this new government won’t be interested in representing the interests of the comfort women.”

Simultaneously, Korean right-wing publications are frequently translated into Japanese, and Korean denialists are regularly invited to speak to Japanese audiences, Yamaguchi said, adding that “when the Korean conservative sector becomes stronger, that will certainly energize the Japanese right-wing sector.”

Japanese and Korean denialists, Dudden said, “feel disenfranchised, they feel socially marginalized, so they connect through these spaces in which hatred and the denunciation of something that appears to be smearing their pride brings them together.”                

Amid the growing opposition, Korean Germans are continuing acts of resistance. On July 8, a Statue of Peace was installed at the University of Kassel, after Tobias Schnoor, president of the student council, learned about the uproar over the Moabit site and began collaborating with Korea Verband—the organization that erected the Berlin statue.

Nataly Jung-hwa Han, chair of Korea Verband, has lived in Germany for the past 40 years. Like many Korean Germans, her mother, a nurse, emigrated during the Cold War and helped rebuild the country as part of the Gastarbeiter (guest worker) program—beginning in the 1960s, an estimated 20,000 South Korean nurses and miners arrived in West Germany in an exchange of labor for economic aid.

Han told me that the statue is not anti-Japan but anti-colonialist and that the history of comfort women should be regarded as German history. “Migrants and our memories are also coming here,” Han said. “They always talk about integration, but who’s history should you remember? Not everything in German history has happened on German ground. What is German? We are also German.”

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