Group protesting a comfort woman statue in Seoul, South Korea

A small Japanese community group has garnered national coverage for their cause after announcing they were ready to file a Racial Discrimination Act complaint against a church’s erection of a statue of a seated girl, depicting a “comfort woman”, a representation of thousands of Korean girls forced into sexual servitude by the Japanese army during World War II.

But the complaint has less to do with free speech than it does the continuing legacy of World War II, and how it plays out in Australia’s migrant communities.

“I didn’t intend the media pick up on this matter this quickly,” says Australia-Japan Community Network president Tetsuhide Yamaoka, speaking to Crikey from Japan. “We were not expecting a high-profile case. Our intention is very … ordinary. It is to protect our mothers and children in the local community from any unreasonable feelings of discrimination done by some people, from our point of view, that are insensitive to the matter.” The group, he says, has just made an 18C complaint to the Human Rights Commission — the process is at its very beginning.

The AJCN is far from the peak group for Japanese Australians. It’s a collection of about 30 core members, many from Sydney’s inner west (though given recent media coverage Yamaoka says its membership has grown somewhat). It formed in April 2014 in direct opposition to the erection of commemorative statues of comfort women.

The statues were proposed by the Korean Committee of the Austral Korean-Chinese Alliance Against Japanese War Crimes. The group resolved to erect 10 Australian statues commemorating the crimes against comfort women. One group receptive to erecting a statue was Strathfield Council, whose deputy mayor is Korean. But after significant opposition from the local Japanese community, a motion to erect the statue was defeated. The group that spearheaded that campaign would go on to form the AJCN.

Yamaoka told Crikey existing Japanese community groups were unwilling to do anything on the issue. Erecting statues commemorating victims of Japanese crimes, he says, works to undermine racial harmony and promotes racism against Japanese people.

“Other societies — like the Japanese Society — are really designed to communicate with other groups or the rest of Australia. Nobody has really intended to face this kind of attack. When this happened in Australia, there’s no organisation really responsive to deal with it. They’re not really geared in any way to do political things — they just live in peace. They’re completely defenseless.”

The group was started, he tells Crikey, after he received emails from Japanese mothers who were concerned their children could be bullied or ostracised at school if the community was confronted with and reminded of Japanese war crimes.

[The 18C hypocrites wilfully ignore other threats to free speech and the actual public]

The AJCN had an early victory at Strathfield Council. But that led, in a way, to an even greater battle.

Reverend Bill Crews, the founder and head of the Exodus Foundation, appears on 2GB every Sunday night. Hearing of the trouble the Korean groups had had erecting statues of comfort women, he decided to offer up his Ashfield church as the site for one. The statue has sat at the back of the church for four months, but it will soon be moved to face the road.

Crews told Crikey he had met several women forced to act as comfort women in World War II and was struck by the result of the Strathfield Council fight. “I was outraged — really outraged. It took me six months to find them. And I said they could put it up here.”

“What it’s about is the way women get treated in war. You’ve just got to look in Aleppo now to see all of that.”

The statue has been welcomed by the local community, he says, particularly many of the homeless people who use the services provided by the church. “When it rains, they put an umbrella over it. When it’s cold, they put a scarf and beanie.

“The community around here have made her their own, and they look after her. It’d have been lovely if the community looked after the women [in World War II]. Korean people come and visit it as well. I find it very meaningful.”

But to the AJCN, it’s a regular reminder of anti-Japanese sentiment — racially charged propoganda that harms their community. Yamaoka reels off local and global stories of attacks on Japanese students, who he says are regularly victimised by Koreans around the world. The plaque on the statue, he says, clearly blames Japan for the attocities. “It singles out the Japanese race. It’s pretty clear discrimination — it’s racial.”

[Rundle: why the right won’t ever win the 18C debate]

The AJCN’s website contains posts that question whether the Nanjing massacre ever happened. Some of the group’s members were interviewed on 7.30 last night being highly sceptical of characterising comfort women as sex slaves, saying many of them were prostitutes who were well paid.

Yamaoka avoids discussion of exactly what happened in World War II. He says it’s a matter for historians, and one on which society should be able to accommodate multiple opinions. He rejects the narrative that the group is using section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act to challenge the historical record.

“The war was a long time ago. Everything is legally settled and people have moved on,” he says. Japan agreed to compensation for comfort women in South Korea last year. “It’s OK to have different views, and OK to argue over it and debate. But at the end of the day, we have to make sure we don’t harm each other in actual life.

“The fact is that young children are far more susceptible for the racial hatred. Some adults tell me, ‘It’s just honouring what happened, doesn’t harm anybody’. Adults may be able to handle it. But young children are influenced by overt anti-Japanese demonstrations. They just act on a simple-minded defence of justice. They think it’s OK to attack Japanese children.”

“Our intention is, and has been always, to protect local Japanese community. Children are vulnerable. I just had to stand up and do this. Otherwise who else will protect them?”

Crews doesn’t agree.

“The thing I’ve learned is if something like that happens, you say yes we did it, we’re sorry, and you move on. You don’t try and pretend it never happened. That’s the whole thing — I find it outrageous that people want to stop commemorating women who were treated in the most terrible way. I’m not against the Japanese people or the Japanese government. I’m just for those women who deserve recognition of what happened.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey