"Comfort Women' statue draws curious questions

Kwang Ji, 67, of Los Angeles snaps a shot of his granddaughter, Kate Kim, as she sits near comfort woman statue Wednesday (Brittany Levine / July 31, 2013)

Maria Garcia from Compton huddled around the 1,100-pound monument Wednesday afternoon with her cousins as they waited for a family member to finish a test at the adjacent Central Library.

As they read the inscription, Garcia's cousin, Vanessa Santos, was shocked to learn that the young Korean girl sitting next to an empty chair represented nearly 200,000 Korean, Chinese, Filipino and other women who were taken as sex slaves by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II.

The slaves would become known as “comfort women.”

“It's crazy to know that this happened,” said Santos, a 20-year-old from Torrance. “I had no idea.”

But Garcia’s initial reaction to the metallic statue was one of confusion.

“Why is the statue here?” the 19-year-old thought.

It’s a question other park-goers may have in the coming weeks — or at least those who aren’t clued into the political drama surrounding the comfort women issue and how it was focused on Glendale in the weeks leading up to the statue’s dedication on Tuesday.

While Korean groups want to raise awareness of the atrocities from decades ago, a group of Japanese nationalists who say comfort women willfully worked as prostitutes sent thousands of emails to Glendale officials protesting the memorial.

Glendale officials said the statue was a memorial to the suffering endured by comfort women that experts agree represents the true historical record.

It was a move heralded by hundreds of supporters on Tuesday, and one that continued to attract people from far and wide.

Joel Kwan, 68, drove from Irvine to take pictures of the monument to frame in his home. He was born in Korea around the end of the war and remembers his grandmother telling him stories of Japanese soldiers “hunting” teenage girls.

Kwan, who wasn't the only onlooker snapping photos, said he planned to ask his City Council to install a similar monument, which is actually a replica of one in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul.

Glendale's is the first comfort woman statue on the West Coast, but Korean groups hope to install more — an intent that has riled Japanese nationalists.

The official Japanese government line — despite an apology issued in the 1990s — is that the history of comfort women should not be a diplomatic or political issue.

Several bouquets of flowers and a white lei from the unveiling ceremony the day before remained on the statue Wednesday. They inspired Mike Bievenouer, 67, to buy flowers too as he sat on the grass about 100 feet from the statue.

The Glendale resident was surprised to see the memorial at his regular lunch spot because he expected it to be in Los Angeles' Koreatown, unaware that 5% of Glendale's population is Korean.

After learning about comfort women at an exhibit inside the adjacent library, he thought it was an important symbol, but he hoped it wouldn't cause friction between Japanese and Korean communities.

“It's a terrible thing, but at some point you have to move on,” he said. “You can't build a future if you're stuck in the past.”

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