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Comfort women statue proposal riles group of Japanese Canadians in Burnaby

Local academics say the issue of the comfort women of the Second World War is still relevant today.

International tensions landed on the City of Burnaby's doorstep Wednesday, due to a proposed Central Park statue.

Approximately 20 Japanese Canadians showed up at the monthly parks, recreation and culture commission meeting to protest the prospect of a statue commemorating "comfort women".

"Comfort women" is a euphemism for women forced to work in wartime brothels at Imperial Japanese army outposts during the 1930s and '40s.

Many of the women were from Korea, which has led to decades of back-and-forth between Japan and Korea regarding whether or not the women were coerced and forced into being sex slaves for the Japanese military.

There is also debate about how many women were taken from Korea, China and other countries where Japan had outposts; and what sort of apology and compensation is appropriate.

The group attending the Burnaby meeting was told the commission would not be discussing the statue as it was not on the agenda for the meeting.

"We've simply received the proposal," parks director Dave Ellenwood said, adding the commission could not respond to questions about what had appeared in Korean and Japanese-language newspapers on the subject. "We can't control what the media says. We haven't issued statements."

Ellenwood did accept a petition and printed statements from the group, adding correspondence could be sent to the city.

Tina Rafferty, a Japanese-Canadian resident, spoke with the NOW about the statue.

"This proposal is against the Canadian tradition of multiculturalism," she said. "This is a country where people come from all over the world to build a new nation."

A Burnaby statue commemorating the comfort women would be divisive and open old wounds, Rafferty said.

"The idea of the statue is to create conflict, no matter what the proponent would say," she said.

Rafferty also questioned the number of comfort women reported to have been forced to work in the brothels - numbers range from 20,000 to around 400,000, depending on the source. The accepted estimate is about 200,000.

Rafferty said she doubts the number is as high as 200,000.

"Then, during the Second World War, Japanese soldiers had to make love four to six times a day," Rafferty said.

The sexual violence experienced by women during the Second World War stayed with them for decades, according to Leonora Angeles, an associate professor of community and region planning, and women's and gender studies at UBC.

Angeles presented a paper on the topic at a U.N. satellite meeting in 1993, and has heard interviews with the women affected.

"Many years later, they would speak of the trauma they experienced," she said.

She pointed out there are war memorials honouring men who served but few specifically for women, particularly those who suffered during wartime.

"There's no memorial for their bravery, no compensation, which is why it's an issue now," she said.

The issue of the comfort women is especially relevant because the sexual exploitation and abuse of women is still happening in conflict zones today, according to Alice Lee, a member of the Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution.

"The comfort women example is an important one for all women, but especially for Asian women," she wrote in an email to the NOW. "What happened to those women in part is still happening today."

Peter Kohno, who has lived in Burnaby for 30 years, delivered a written statement to the Burnaby parks commission.

"I am here to request that the municipal (sic) must not get involved in foreign affairs as a city," he wrote.

The statue would create resentment between Korean and Japanese Canadians in the city, he added, and the city might be liable for anything that happened due to what he termed a "political time bomb."

If a comfort women statue is justified, then the city should also erect statues for Vietnamese women raped and killed by the Korean army during the Vietnam War, and Japanese women raped by American soldiers after the Second World War, he wrote.

There is one other known statue commemorating comfort women in North America - it is located in Glendale, Calif. and has been the focus of controversy there, as well.

The group proposing the comfort women statue for Central Park could not be reached. There isn't a current staff report on the subject, and the city did not respond to requests for more information.

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