By Maria Saporta
As published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on March 3, 2017
A proposed “comfort women” memorial at the Center for Civil and Human Rights in downtown Atlanta has set a potentially explosive rift within the city’s business and international circles.
The memorial of an Asian woman sitting in a chair next to an empty chair was proposed by the Atlanta Comfort Women Memorial Task Force, a diverse group of leaders from the Atlanta and Asian-American communities.
It would highlight the memory of more than 200,000 girls and women who were removed from their homes in 13 Asian-Pacific nations to be tracked and sexually enslaved by the Imperial Armed Forces of Japan from 1932 to 1945, considered to be one of the largest known cases of human tracking in the past century.
The Task Force, which started working on the idea a couple of years ago, signed a memo of understanding with the Center for Civil and Human Rights on Feb. 3, and that was followed by a public announcement on Feb. 9 that the memorial would be installed at the center on April 27.
But now those plans are up in the air partly because of pressure from various Atlanta leaders who fear possible reprisals from the Japanese government and businesses.
Derreck Kayongo, CEO and president of the Center for Civil and Human Rights, confirmed that the center is reviewing an earlier decision by the board in December to proceed with the memorial.
At the center’s board meeting on Feb. 16, “it was decided that we needed to revisit this,” Kayongo said. “What they are debating now is whether there’s another way to do this that does not inflame two communities in our city, and if this symbol of a resting monument is going to create a rift between two communities.”
Kayongo said he had thought the memorial would be a good idea for the center, which is dedicated to human rights and focused on the issue of human trafficking. But he added that he serves at the pleasure of his board.
“At the very least, we can have a conversation between these two communities,” Kayongo said. “We can add one more brick on the bridge of reconciliation.”
A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress, who serves on the center’s board, said they put a pause on the memorial because they were concerned about a possible precedent.
“The question for the center is whether we want to be in the monument business, and we have to take a look at it,” Robinson said. “We don’t have a policy on monuments, and that’s why there is a pause on this.”
But Robinson said the center is dedicated to the human trafficking issue.
“Human rights is not an easy subject,” he said. “We have no problem with the subject matter. We want to shine a light on this issue. There’s no better place to have a conversation about this than the center.”
In a statement to Atlanta Business Chronicle, the Japanese Consulate in Atlanta explained its government’s point of view. “ e Government of Japan is seriously concerned that the statue in Atlanta may cause discrimination, humiliation or bullying against members of the Japanese community in Atlanta who wish to live in peace,” said Yasukata Fukahori, Japan’s deputy consul general in Atlanta. “The Government of Japan must not allow the situation where Japanese residents overseas are discriminated or their safe and secure lives are threatened. The Consulate-General of Japan does not understand why, under such circumstances, a project of erection of a comfort woman statue in Atlanta, which will lead to divisiveness among communities, came to be considered, and sincerely hopes that this will not take place in the great city of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a city of peace, tolerance and inclusiveness.”
Helen Kim Ho, a paid special advisor and member of the Comfort Women Task Force, said she had been working with the center since September, working with officials on selecting a site for the memorial and signing a detailed three-page agreement with the center on Feb. 3. There was never any discussion about a monuments policy.
“We commissioned the sculpture for $35,000 hugely on the word of the center,” Ho said. “All of our fundraising is tied to this wonderful partnership. We moved forward on good faith.”
Ho said she and Task Force members had cautioned the center that there could be pushback from the Japanese because of what had happened in other cities.
There are 52 cities around the world with comfort women memorials, and Atlanta would be the ninth U.S. city. “We will be the first major city that I know of that capitulated to this pressure, and that’s in the city that touts itself as the birthplace of civil rights,” Ho said. “We know Japanese resistance is strong.”
Ho said she first realized the Task Force’s efforts were in trouble when State Rep. Pedro Marin (D-Duluth), who represents a diverse district in Gwinnett, was going to introduce a resolution in support of the memorial. He had attended a dinner in early February and was moved by the history of the “comfort women,” and he thought what better place for the memorial than Atlanta.
“I was asked by several entities not to move on that resolution,” said Marin, who added that Dave Williams, a vice president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, asked him not to move on the resolution until further notice. “I know the Japanese were the ones that were probably on edge of me supporting the resolution.”
When asked about its involvement, the Metro Atlanta Chamber issued a statement. “Like many in our community, we’ve recently been learning more about this topic,” wrote Deisha Barnett, a chamber spokeswoman, in an email. “It has become clear many have strong, but sometimes varying views on the best ways to acknowledge and memorialize this part of history.
“The Metro Atlanta Chamber’s role in this discussion has been only to remind all involved to find a solution that supports our efforts to drive economic development in our region and is not divisive, but instead reinforces the appreciation for diversity and inclusion that exists among our residents and our business partners,” Barnett added.
The Korean press has been more direct. An article in the Korea Herald on Feb. 26 stated that the Japanese consul general in Atlanta was meeting with influential leaders to “squash the plan” for a comfort women statue. The paper reported that the “Japanese side is warning about an economic fallout resulting from many Japanese companies operating in Atlanta.”
Ho is still hopeful a relationship can be worked out with the Center for Civil and Human Rights, which hasn’t made a final decision. A meeting between the center and the task force is being planned.
“I love the Center, and I love the city of Atlanta,” said Ho, who is a trained civil rights attorney. “I know this lovely sculpture will find a deserving home. We genuinely believed the Center was the right home.”
Note to readers: This story was published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on March 3, but it was written on March 1 for that day’s press deadline. At the time, the Task Force was still hoping to work out a resolution with the Center for Civil and Human Rights. But the Center sent an email to the Task Force on March 2 saying it would not be moving forward with the memorial.