by Gretchen Ho Powell
Korean Americans in northern Virginia unveiled a new memorial last Friday evening that honors hundreds of thousands of women and girls forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II. Kang Il-chul, 85, a former “comfort woman,” the euphemistic name given to these women, took part in the ceremony, also attended by U.S. Congressmember Mike Honda and local Fairfax County officials.
“I am grateful and excited to see you all, but somehow feel a little grief,” said Kang in remarks translated from Korean, expressing the bittersweet nature of the memorial, which brings up painful memories of the past, but she also hopes helps prevent these acts in the present and future.
Privately funded by benefactors domestically as well as in Korea, the intimate memorial is located on the grounds of the Fairfax County Government Center, about 20 miles west of Washington, D.C. The area is home to a large number of Korean Americans, and a group called the Washington Coalition for Comfort Women Issues formed to create the Comfort Women Memorial Peace Garden, which consists of two metal butterfly benches, a circle of flowerbeds and two plaques mounted on either side of a large stone in the center. Butterflies have long been a symbol of hope for “comfort women.”
“In honor of the women and girls whose basic rights and dignities were taken from them as victims of human trafficking during WWII,” one of the plaques reads. “May the memories of these women and girls serve as a reminder of the importance of protecting the rights of women and an affirmation of basic human rights.”
Grace Han Wolf, co-chair of the Washington Coalition for Comfort Women Issues, emphasized that this memorial should not just be seen as a response to the injustices of the past. “Human trafficking is a very real, very present issue,” Wolf said. “And this memorial garden serves not only as a reminder of the past, but is here to create awareness for these crimes in Fairfax County today.”
The program also included remarks from Congressmember Honda and Fairfax County Board Chairwoman Sharon Bulova, a traditional Korean dance and the release of live butterflies.
Similar memorials honoring the “comfort women” have gone up in Palisades Park, New Jersey, and Glendale, Calif. As was the case with those monuments, the one in Fairfax County has drawn some public protests. Some object to using government grounds in the U.S. for international, political conflicts, while others dispute that the “comfort women” were actually sexual slaves, versus prostitutes.
Top and bottom photos via AFP. Middle photo of memorial by Gretchen Ho Powell.
TOP PHOTO: Former comfort woman Kang Il-chul (center) thanks Park Jeong-Sook for her performance during the dedication of the Comfort Women Memorial Peace Garden on May 30, at the grounds of the Fairfax County Government Center in Fairfax, Va.