Kathy Chin Leong
Comfort Women and Goddess of Democracy
Updated: May 4, 2021
*Included in the print edition
Her pained expression evokes a mother’s suffering. "Comfort Women: Column of Strength” is the life-sized sculpture of Hak Soon Kim, who in 1991 was the first sex slave survivor to speak out publicly. She gazes up at a trio of young women on a pedestal joining hands representing Korea, China, and the Philippines.
The monument tells the story of the "Comfort Women,” a euphemism for the young women from thirteen Asian countries who were coerced to serve as sex slaves for the Japanese Imperial Armed Forces soldiers before and after WWII from 1931 to 1945. Erected in 2017, the monument stands in the annex of St. Mary’s Square on the edge of Chinatown. It leaves a lingering effect on passersby, and a nearby placard summarizes this ugly historic truth. In 1991, thirty-seven women’s groups from Korea boldly came forward, bringing the issue to light. The wartime atrocities are estimated to have impacted hundreds of thousands of women and girls throughout Asia when Japanese soldiers occupied these countries. During that time, many of the enslaved died during captivity.
After the two-year, $205,000 project was unveiled to the public, San Francisco’s sister city of Osaka, Japan was so incensed by the sculpture that it cut off its 60-year relationship. Nonetheless, San Francisco city leaders refused to remove the memorial, agreeing that war time sex trafficking is a crime against humanity. Created by sculptor Steven Whyte, the memorial is a project commissioned by the Comfort Women Justice Coalition.
A popular statue located at Portsmouth Square is the 10-foot Goddess of Democracy is a smaller version of the original 33-foot statue made during the Tiananmen Square student protest for democracy in China in 1989. Students at the Center Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing created the foam and paper mâché statue to lift the spirits of protestors and gain attention of government leaders, but a military tank from the People’s Liberation Army mowed it down five days after presentation. The tragic demonstration left thousands of demonstrators dead.
Today, the San Francisco monument is one of ten replicas and memorials stationed worldwide in New York, Washington D.C., Hong Kong, Toronto, and other cities. Standing since 1994, the statue was commissioned by the San Francisco Goddess of Democracy Project and features the inscription: “Dedicated to those who strive for and cherish human rights and democracy.” American sculptor Thomas Marsh designed and built the bronze, 600-pound statue along with five anonymous Chinese artists.