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Virginia’s "comfort women" memorial reveals Asian tensions

In Virginia, US, a memorial dedicated to "comfort women" reveals that Asian Americans are not all quite so ready to forgive and forget.

VIRGINIA: French, British, American and Russian leaders have been commemorating 70 years since the D-Day landings took place in northern France, the beginning of Europe's liberation from the Nazis.

Joining them for the event was German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a demonstration of today's European unity.

But even as those leaders smoothed over former hostilities, in the US, a project in a small corner of Virginia reveals that Asian Americans are not all quite so ready to forgive and forget.

Virginia's memorial to "comfort women" now stands on a patch of grass behind a county administration building -- an unlikely spot to play host to historical Asian tensions.

"Comfort women" were taken into sexual slavery by the Japanese army during World War II from countries including China, the Philippines and South Korea.

Dedicated just days ago with a visit from a former South Korean comfort woman, the memorial commemorates a chapter of World War II that is still fuelling tensions between Tokyo and Seoul.

But an Asian American council member who helped organise the privately-funded effort said the memorial is a local initiative, and is just as much about today's problems of human trafficking and violence against women as it is about the past.

Grace Han Wolf, from the Herndon Town Council, said: “On the international scale, it's perceived to be a political issue. Here in Fairfax County, it really wasn't. We really focused on what Fairfax residents have wanted.

“So for us in Fairfax County, this is more about making sure that women and children are protected.”

Nonetheless, Japanese activists have pushed back against the memorial and sent protest emails to county supervisors -- some say it is a divisive move, others allege the comfort women were in fact willing prostitutes.

The Japanese embassy is considering a formal declaration of protest, saying the community should be more future-oriented.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was reviewing an official 1993 apology to the comfort women, has chosen to let it stand.

But some say it is not enough.

Jung-sil Lee, vice president of the Washington Coalition for Comfort Women Issues, said: “What we really want is a kind of acknowledgement by the government, a more official way of acceptance and apology.

“Even though this happened a long time ago and could be maybe forgotten and forgiven, there is some kind of a process needed to be totally forgotten and, you know, gotten over. “

German Chancellor Merkel commemorating D-Day alongside the country’s former foes, an act her predecessors had refused to do, is perhaps the very image of forgiving and forgetting.

Professor Christopher Simpson from the American University said: “When Merkel's on the beach at D-Day, she is acknowledging the criminal characteristics of the Nazi regime.

“When we come to the situation in Asia, we see a different situation. Japan has gone through a variety of different stages and changes.

“At present, and I think it's an ongoing problem in Japan quite frankly, it has had great difficulty coming to grips with criminal activities that the Japanese military used during WWII. And that's the difference between Germany and Japan today.”

For many Korean Americans, World War II has not quite been confined to the pages of the history books.

Europeans may be burying their previous enmity on the beaches of Normandy, but comfort women and their families, at least, still see the past as a battleground where they have unfinished business. 

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