A 60-year sister city relationship between Osaka and San Francisco may end after a controversial statue was formally accepted by the latter as a memorial to the “comfort women” of World War II. The statue, which features three women holding hands in a circle, honors the Asian women who worked in military brothels for Japanese troops — a little-told story in which tens of thousands were apparently coerced into sex work.
The memorial reads: “This monument bears witness to the suffering of hundreds of thousands of women and girls euphemistically called ‘Comfort Women,’ who were sexually enslaved by the Japanese Imperial Armed Forces in thirteen Asian-Pacific countries from 1931 to 1945.”
Although Japan apologized for the human rights violation in 1993, it’s still a highly sensitive topic, and in recent years the country has denied that the women were forced into sexual slavery, implying that those who worked out of brothels chose to do so.
That claim, and San Francisco’s blatant disregard of it through accepting the donated statue has created a rift with its sister city of Osaka. Mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura told Reuters that the situation is “highly regrettable,” and that “the relationship of trust has been completely destroyed.”
Sister city relationships tend to be mostly symbolic, though occasionally cultural, educational, business, and technical exchanges take place. San Francisco’s relationship with Osaka was created in 1957, and marks the first such partnership for the U.S. city.
In 1968, Osaka donated a peace pagoda to San Francisco’s historic Japantown. The five-tiered structure on Buchanan Street is the central point of the Peace Plaza, and was designed by famed Japanese architect Yoshiro Taniguchi.
The pagoda isn’t going anywhere. But with this break, its symbology will evolve. Once a reminder of a link between two cities 5,300 miles apart, it now tells the somber tale that few connections last forever.