Osaka to drop San Francisco as sister city over comfort woman statue row

The statue Comfort Women Column of Strength by artist Steven Whyte is displayed at St. Mary's Square in San Francisco. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (AFP) - The mayor of Japan's second-largest city of Osaka said on Friday (Nov 24) he would end sister-city relations with San Francisco after the US city decided to accept a donated memorial to wartime sex slaves.

Osaka Mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura said trust between the two, which have been "sister" cities for 60 years, had been "completely destroyed" by the incident.

"The sister city relationship with San Francisco will be terminated," said Yoshimura, adding that the split will be formalised in December.

Japan's national government has stepped in to urge San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee to reject the memorial, as Tokyo struggles to explain its position to the international community.

Lee signed a document on Wednesday formalising the city's acceptance of the memorial, according to Kyodo News.

Mainstream historians say up to 200,000 women, mostly from Korea but also other parts of Asia including China, were forced to work in Japanese military brothels during World War II as so-called "comfort women".

Activists have in recent years set up dozens of statues in public venues around the world, many of them in South Korea, in honour of the victims.

The statues have drawn the ire of Tokyo, which has pressed for the removal of one outside its embassy in Seoul.

Japanese conservatives say the 200,000 figure has no base and accuse activists as well as the South Korean government of politicising the issue even after the two nations officially settled it.

Japan's conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who also faces criticism as a nationalist attempting to gloss over the nation's wartime acts, has previously said San Francisco's "extremely regrettable" plan was "in conflict" with Japan's position.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga reiterated the sentiment on Friday.

"The government has explained our position to the San Francisco mayor about the comfort women issue" and urged authorities there to veto the measure to accept the memorial, Suga said.

"We will make efforts so that similar incidents will not happen again," Suga said.

In 2015, Japan signed a deal with South Korea offering an apology and one billion yen (S$12 million) to open a foundation for those sex slaves still alive.

Both sides have said the agreement "resolved (the issue) finally and irreversibly." However, some in South Korea say Japan has not done enough to atone for its wartime atrocities.

President Moon Jae In, who came to power after the deal was concluded, has said most South Koreans cannot accept the agreement as it is, although he has not so far formally called for it to be renegotiated.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.