Philadelphia Art Commission votes to move forward with new ‘Comfort Women’ divider park

On Wednesday, October 12 (local time), the Philadelphia Art Commission voted to conditionally approve the construction of the Philadelphia Peace Plaza, which includes the erection of a “statue of peace” described as a sculpture commemorating the alleged victims of the sexual slavery under Imperial Japanese rule. . The motion was passed by 8 of the 9 commissioners, with one member, Mario Zacharjasz, absent from the entire meeting.

Approved by Philadelphia’s Office of Arts, Culture, and Creative Economy, the proposal was originally presented to the city’s Arts Commission by Shinjoo Cho, chairman of the Philadelphia Peace Plaza Committee, in February 2021.

Following the announcement of the plan, some local residents and civic groups expressed apprehension, citing possible ethnic feuds and targeted discrimination against Japanese and Japanese Americans generated by this monument.

The regional issue has expanded transnationally, as a number of intellectuals and activists from South Korea and Japan have sent letters of opposition to the commission.

At Thursday’s meeting, committee chairman Robert Roesch said he had received 150 emails in the past few months. He acknowledged that 99% of the correspondence asked the commission not to endorse this project.

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Chairman Robert Roesch addresses the commissioners during Thursday’s meeting. He received 150 emails within a few months, many of which contained letters opposing the project. He assured that the letters had been taken into consideration. (courtesy of the Philadelphia Art Commission)

Ignore public concerns

In September, in an attempt to address these concerns, the commission held a special forum inviting people from home and abroad to make public comments. Of the 31 attendees who spoke, some 21 attendees, or more than 70 percent, expressed mild to intense criticism of the statue proposal.

Opponents have particularly criticized the inscription panel accompanying the Statue of Peace, which they say singles out the Japanese as the sole perpetrators of wartime sexual violence and the Koreans as the sole victims.

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At Thursday’s meeting, Commissioner Carmen Miguel offered to incorporate a broader nature of these war crimes into the story without compromising the details of this particular event during World War II.

However, the commissioner and self-proclaimed activist Sarah McEneaney suggested that the initial inscription is reasonable and that the sculpture is “poignant and powerful” precisely because it highlights the victims of a specific historical incident. Deborah Cahill, also a member of the commission, supported his opinion.

McEneaney further argued that, based on her research, women during World War II were “forced into rape by the Imperial Japanese Army” and that the findings of the United Nations supported this account.

It is unclear whether she was referring to the “Coomaraswamy Report” in 1996 or the “McDougall Report” in 1998, both published by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Regardless, academics left and right have for years criticized both publications for factual inaccuracies and errors.

Reaction from Korean and Japanese experts

Kim Byungheon, co-chair of End Comfort Women Fraud, a South Korean civic group, was completely surprised to hear the commission’s decision. “I was deeply involved in the ‘resistance movement’ against the Peace Plaza proposal, as were many of my colleagues in Korea and Japan,” he commented.

“Given that no commissioner hesitated to approve the plan, despite overwhelming opposition, I can’t help but doubt their rationality and decision-making process,” Kim added.

Kim, who has more than 14,000 subscribers on Twitter, shared this news this morning. At the time of publication, it has since been retweeted 743 times, garnering 954 likes and assorted comments.

Yumiko Yamamoto, who runs Nadeshiko Action, a Japanese civic organization, noted: “The president has received gargantuan opposition emails, and yet none of them seem to have factored into the decision, which is deeply regrettable.”

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She lamented that “some cities in America deliberately choose to become a hotbed of ethnic feuds by encroaching on diplomatic issues between third states. How aware these officials are of the comfort women’s story and its ongoing academic discourse is one but they are certainly setting a precedent that irreparably damages Japan and the honor of the Japanese people.

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Curator Sarah McEneaney comments on the project. She brushed off opposition to the inscription as historical revisionism and Holocaust denial. (courtesy of the Philadelphia Art Commission)

Conditional approval by the Arts Commission

Thursday’s meeting lasted about 30 minutes and commissioners approved the plan subject to two conditions: 1. A universal depiction of wartime violence must be incorporated into the revised panel. 2) The translation of the inscription plate and its interpretation will be part of the general discussion.

Shinjoo Cho, who leads the Peace Plaza plan, agreed to these arrangements without objection.

The commission will meet again to review the evolution of these conditions. And if they’re satisfied, the memorial space and sculpture are set to be built at a designated site in Queen Village, Philadelphia.

It will be the seventh Peace Statue built in the United States since it was first erected in Glendale, California in 2013.

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Author: Kenji Yoshida

Find other reports by Kenji Yoshida for JAPAN Striker here.

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