Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Palisades Park to display first U.S. memorial to women forced into sexual slavery by Japanese in WWII

Palisades Park to display first U.S. memorial to women forced into sexual slavery by Japanese in WWII


It happened thousands of miles away, and more than 60 years ago. But the pain lingers; so, too, does the determination to make sure it is not forgotten.

Artist Arin Yoon, a Korean-American from Leonia, took portraits of some of the surviving 'comfort women' at the House of Sharing in South Korea, including this one of Hwa Seon Kim.
Korean-Americans in North Jersey, and non-Korean community and political leaders from Palisades Park and Bergen County, want to heighten awareness of the hundreds of thousands of Asian women — many of them Korean — who were forced into sexual slavery to Japanese soldiers before and during World War II.

And so, today, they will hold a groundbreaking ceremony for a memorial — a boulder with a plaque — that will be displayed later this month outside the public library in Palisades Park, the first U.S. town to have a memorial to the victims, some of whom are still alive and in their 80s and 90s.

"I hope the memorial brings awareness, and encourages women everywhere to step forward and speak out against any kind of abuse," said Steve Cavallo, art coordinator for the Palisades Park Public Library and an organizer of the memorial activities. "There's also hope that this memorial brings some peace to the women who are still alive, that they know that it's not being ignored, not being forgotten."

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Fast facts

The Palisades Park Public Library is holding the following events in October in remembrance of the Asian women who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army before and during World War II.

Event: Groundbreaking ceremony for a memorial to the victims, known as "comfort women." The ceremony will include a speech by Bergen County Executive Dennis McNerney.
When: Today
Time: 11 a.m.|
Place: Palisades Park Public Library (outside the building), 257 Second St.

Event: Unveiling of the monument to the comfort women. The event also will include a short play and poetry readings.
When: Oct. 23
Time: 1 p.m.

Event: Art exhibit, "Come From the Shadows," about the comfort women. The exhibit will feature some 50 photographs, paintings and mixed media by nearly a dozen artists from New Jersey, New York and South Korea.
When: October through Nov. 15


These are the words that will be etched on the plaque for the comfort women:

In memory of the more than 200,000 women and girls who were abducted by the armed forces of the Government of Imperial Japan, 1930s – 1945. Known as "Comfort Women," they endured human rights violations that no peoples should leave unrecognized. Let us never forget the horrors of crimes against humanity.

The ordeal of the so-called "comfort women" remains a painful subject for many Asian-Americans whose ancestral lands, including China and Korea, were controlled by the Japanese before and during World War II.

"This is a very emotional issue for us," said David Haemin Chung, chairman of the board of the Korean American Voters Council, which was a force behind a non-binding congressional resolution passed in 2007 that called on the Japanese government to apologize and acknowledge its role in providing sex slaves for its soldiers. "This is a human rights issue, a women's rights issue. We don't want this horrible, serious [treatment] to happen again anywhere in the world."

Books and other accounts based on interviews with surviving victims say that the Japanese military established "comfort stations," or military brothels, and that young women were lured there through false promises of bona fide work, though some were kidnapped outright.

Women described being beaten and raped daily, sometimes by as many as 30 to 50 soldiers and even military doctors who examined them for venereal diseases.

The Japanese government, which at one time denied comfort stations existed, eventually apologized, but it has never accepted full responsibility in its statements, Koreans maintain, for what many say was its central role in procuring women for the military.

Cavallo met some of the surviving victims last year when he visited "The House of Sharing," a home in South Korea that was built for them in 1992. He said that they still get deeply upset when recalling their ordeal.

"When they spoke about it, they trembled," said Cavallo, whose wife, Kyung, is Korean. "Each of the women wants to be called 'Grandma.' One woman told me 'I wish they [Japan] would apologize to us.' Every week they protest in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul.

"They don't want to let it rest, so we'll help them let people know this is part of history," he said.

The Korean American Voters Council is planning to help set up memorials in other U.S. locations that are home to large Korean-American populations, including New York and California.

About half of Palisades Park's 17,000 residents are of Korean descent. North Jersey has one of the largest Korean-American populations in the country.

The Palisades Park Public Library is featuring an exhibit around the theme of the comfort women that will include some 50 art works, many of them produced by Bergen County Korean-American artists, as well as artists from Korea.

The exhibit will be on view through mid-November.

The unveiling of the copper plaque is planned for Oct. 23. It is expected to feature readings of poems about the comfort women written by local Korean-Americans, as well as a short play about the victims.

Many younger Korean-Americans do not know about the wartime sexual slavery, said Jason Kim, a Palisades Park councilman whose daughter, Audrey, 14, will read a poem she wrote at the unveiling of the memorial.

"In some families, it's too painful for people to talk about, some people just don't want to dwell on it," he said. "But history repeats itself if you don't talk. There are still wartime crimes against women going on now in different parts of the world."

The council passed a resolution earlier this year approving the monument at the library.

Juhee Kim, a 21-year-old artist from Palisades Park, said that when she was working on paintings for the comfort women exhibit, her Korean-American friends asked her about the topic.

"They didn't know, they hadn't heard about it," she said. "This was a very difficult subject to paint about."

Arin Yoon grew up in a Korean-American home in Leonia, but it wasn't until later, in college, that she learned about what had happened to the women.

An artist and photographer, she met them in the summer when she visited the House of Sharing and shot portraits of them, which she promised them never to sell. The women, she said, feel strongly about not being exploited again.

"Some of them are bedridden now," Yoon said. "There's the one who smiles, the one who smokes, the one who's guarded. They like to watch the dramas, their soap operas."

"I went with them one day when they protested in front of the Japanese embassy," she said. "They just pulled all the shades down in the embassy when they saw the women."


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