Next to the memorials for the two World Wars and the Korean War is a memorial for war victims many may know little if anything about. They were called “comfort women” — about 200,000 Korean, Chinese and other Asian women who were lured to Japan during World War II and forced into slavery.
Steve Cavallo is the artist. “The inspiration of the design was reading some of the testimonies of the former comfort women and how they would cower in the corner,” he said. “How they were not just being raped but they were being beaten by the soldiers. They said the officers were far worst than the average soldier.”
The memorial sits on the grounds of the public library in Palisades Park, a borough where Koreans now make up the majority of the population and where Korean-language signs dominate the business district.
The memorial has been met with controversy — with some saying it doesn’t belong on public property because it may offend Japanese residents and others.
But Mayor James Rotundo says it’s serving its purpose well. “This monument was not for the Korean women. We’ve made that clear to them at the beginning,” he said. “This was for the comfort women who had suffering and it was for educational purposes so that the world and people knew that during war travesties that happen should never happen.”
Cavallo said because of the nature of the crimes, it’s been swept under the rug, but people want their stories told.
Seat Paik says many young Koreans don’t know the history of comfort women. “My generation, people we don’t know about the comfort women but I think we need that kind of statue.”
The memorial, which has been in Palisades Park for two years, has caused something of a diplomatic issue with members of the Japanese government visiting and asking for its removal.
Mayors of New Jersey boroughs don’t often find themselves in the middle of an international incident, so Rotundo was surprised when the Japanese ambassador paid him a visit. He was told that the Japanese government has officially apologized for its actions and made war reparations and then was asked to take down the memorial, which he refused.
Recently, the Chinese sent warships to disputed islands to protest the Japanese position on comfort women — which escalated last weekend when Japan temporarily recalled its ambassador to China.
Some Japanese living here say this memorial is historically inaccurate because it fails to mention that Japanese women were also victims of the Imperial Army and that many of the comfort women came to Japan voluntarily.
“They need to correct the content because the content is wrong,” said Serina Shibagaki
Palisades Park is a town that is undergoing a huge demographic shift. A few years ago, old-time residents complained about too many Korean-language store signs. So conflict among people with different backgrounds is not new.
No matter which side of the issue you fall on, the memorial seems to have accomplished one goal — people are talking about a war atrocity few learn about.
Andrew Schmertz reports from Palisades Park.