The statue is as striking as it is unassuming. A bronze statue of an Asian woman wearing traditional Korean dress is seated next to an empty chair in Glendale Central park. The memorial, installed in the park last July, honours the estimated 80,000 to 200,000 so-called “Comfort Women” — including women and young girls from Korea, China, the Phillipines, other parts of Southeast Asia, and even parts of Europe — who were kidnapped and sexually enslaved by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II.
Memorial statues for victims of atrocities that occurred overseas are nothing new in America. This legal blog cites Wikipedia in noting that the U.S. is home to roughly 45 memorial sites for Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust, 16 to those who died in the Irish potato famine, and 6 commemorating those who died in the anti-Armenian genocide in Turkey.
A product of advocacy by Glendale’s relatively large Korean American population (representing 5.4% of the city’s total population), the Glendale statue is the fourth such memorial of Comfort Women erected in the United States according to New American Media. However, all have been embroiled in political backlash from Japanese politicans and local Japanese American residents. Not only have 3 separate Japanese delegations complained to the city of Glendale since the statue’s erection last year, but a New Jersey-based memorial was vandalized in October 2012 with pro-Japanese nationalist messages.
Now, the latest salvo from Japanese nationalists arrives in the form of a lawsuit, filed by Japanese American groups and residents demanding removal of the statue; this revolting lawsuit — which is based almost entirely on denying the Comfort Women atrocity — has been taken up by Chicago-based law firm Mayer Brown, a massive law firm that Google tells me is the 22nd largest law firm in the world.
The fact of the “Comfort Women” atrocity is largely settled history in the international community.
During World War II, the Japanese Imperial Army were concerned that their soldiers would commit sexual crimes against the local population as they fought throughout the Pacific Theatre; consequently, the Army established make-shirt “Comfort Stations” throughout the Pacific, and shipped women to live at these stations to “service” Japanese soldiers. Ostensibly established to prevent rape, the Comfort Stations quickly established a system of condoned rape, particularly when Japan realized that its initial efforts to enlist voluntary prostitutes from Japan would be insufficient to fill all the Comfort Stations. Consequently, women and young girls — some as young as 13 — hailing from throughout the Pacific Theatre were conscripted under false pretenses, or outright kidnapped, and forcibly imprisoned at Comfort Stations under appalling conditions: most Comfort Women were repeatedly raped by Japanese soldiers, and otherwise starved and housed in deplorable and unsanitary conditions.
Three-quarters of Comfort Women never survived their time at the Comfort Stations, and those who did still bear the scars: many of the survivors live with chronic sexually transmitted diseases or are barren due to repeated, violent sexual trauma.
Since the end of World War II, several former Comfort Women have come forward to tell their horrific stories of sexual enslavement and abuse, and every Wednesday, they stage protests around the world seeking acknowledgement and retribution from the Japanese government.
Yet as a whole, Japan continues to deny the “Comfort Women” atrocity (despite a fromal apology issued by their prime minister in 1993), hoping that the aging Comfort Women survivors will instead quietly go away and die rather than force Japan to confront these war crimes. Japan continues to argue that all of the Comfort Women — all hundreds of thousands of them — were not sexual slaves but voluntary prostitutes who were never raped or killed in the course of their sexual enslavement. They argue that the “Comfort Women” atrocity is a fiction invented as anti-Japanese propaganda.
They further argue that it is Japan who is being victimized by the ongoing attention to the “Comfort Women” atrocity, not the countless women and young girls who died at the Japanese Comfort Stations, their names and faces largely lost to history. They argue that it is abusive to Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans to be confronted with a historic atrocity committed by their government.
Michiko Shiota Gingery, the Glendale resident who brought the lawsuit, said in the court filing that because of the statue she can no longer enjoy Central Park and she suffers “feelings of exclusion, discomfort and anger” due to the bronze monument, which is often surrounded by bouquets of flowers.
It is one thing for a Glendale resident to file a largely frivolous lawsuit, it is another for one of the world’s most prestigious law firms to take on a case that is clearly based on an ahistorical denial of a war-time atrocity. Mayer Brown’s decision to take on the case dignifies a fringe political position by incorrectly asserting that there is some controversy over the fact that the “Comfort Women” atrocity happened; even just by taking the case, Mayer Brown reinforces the official position of the Japanese government that the “Comfort Women” are unreliable witnesses to their own abuse.
The lawsuit further makes wildly spurious legal arguments in order to rationalize itself:
According to the lawsuit, installing the statue “exceeds the power of Glendale, infringes upon the federal government’s power to exclusively conduct the foreign affairs of the United States and violates the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution.”
The lawsuit goes on to state that “by installing the public monument, Glendale has taken a position in the contentious and politically sensitive international debate concerning the proper historical truth of the former comfort women.”
Legal bloggers in America and around the world have already weighed in on the absurdity of this lawsuit, and its ridiculous claim that cities do not have the authority to erect monument upon public lands. Writes Ken White, a criminal attorney who blogs at Popehat:
This is not a First Amendment issue, exactly, because government entities don’t have First Amendment rights. But it is an issue of federalism, of local self-determination, and of citizenship. Local citizens, through their local elected government, wished to recognize a historical atrocity using local government money on local government land. Their city did not purport to engage in negotiation with any foreign government or to take any position on behalf of the United States — they just took a position on behalf of its citizens. They did not do anything prohibited by the Constitution, like establishing a state religion. The notion that the federal government or the federal courts should regulate this expression is noxious.
Moreover, the argument against it is vague, unprincipled, and endlessly malleable. If a case like this succeeds, what will the courts say to a Holocaust denier who argues that a memorial is too harsh in condemning Germany, a nation with whom we have dicey relations?
…This lawsuit is thoroughly contemptible. It should fail, and everyone involved should face severe social consequences.
So, why would Mayer Brown take on a case that so obviously lacks any legal footing? Eamonn Fingleton suggests over at Forbes that Mayer Brown is catering to its overseas Asian clients.
Should Mayer Brown have taken on this suit? Here is the opinion of the prominent First Amendment attorney Marc Randazza: “Every law firm gets confronted (on a pretty regular basis) with the question: ‘should I put my name on this?’ That soul searching comes into play when you wonder, ‘is this honorable?’ You know when it is, and when it isn’t. I’m not talking about representing a client that you know is guilty — they deserve a defense. I’m not talking about representing a really evil client — because there might be an important legal issue in play. I’m talking about when you do something truly disgusting.”
Why therefore would Mayer Brown, which ranks among America’s top 20 corporate law firms, take on such a case? Beats me but one answer suggested by a commenter at Ken White’s website is probably worth passing on: “Mayer Brown has a heavy practice in Asia…. They are probably either doing this as a favor to a large client, or trying to expand their Asia presence to Japan.”
Let’s be clear: this revolting lawsuit does not deserve a day in court, and shame on Mayer Brown for taking this case up. The only controversy here is not whether or not the Comfort Women atrocity happened, but why the Japanese government continues to deny it.
It’s true: Ms. Shiota Gingery, the plaintiff in the lawsuit, may be concerned with her “feelings of exclusion, discomfort, and anger” that come with being confronted with a memorial to Comfort Women, and the atrocities committed by the Japanese government during World War II.
Now imagine how the surviving Comfort Women — who have been repeatedly brutalized both physically and politically by that same government — must feel.
Act Now! Mayer Brown can be contacted via Twitter (@Mayer_Brown) and their Director of Public Relations is Bob Harris (email@example.com).