Move would end 60-year-old program between Japanese and American cities.

October marked the 60th anniversary of the formation of a sister city pact between Osaka and San Francisco. However, another development from this autumn could end the relationship.

This fall, a statue was installed in San Francisco’s Chinatown to serve as a memorial to World War II “comfort women,” or women from occupied Asian territories who were coerced into service as sexual companions for occupying Imperial Japanese military personnel. The San Francisco memorial consists of four statues, three of which are young women (symbolizing women from Korea, China, and the Philippines, and one elderly women, representing survivors seeking contrition from Japan. The installation also includes a plaque saying “This monument bears witness to the suffering of hundreds of thousands of women and girls euphemistically called ‘Comfort Women,’ who were sexually enslaved by the Japanese Imperial Armed Forces in thirteen Asian-Pacific countries from 1931 to 1945.”

The memorial, the first of its kind in a U.S. city with a population as large as San Francisco, has drawn criticism from Osaka mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura, who argues it is a form of “Japan bashing.” The 42-year-old politician has sent two letters to San Francisco mayor and first-generation Chinese American Ed Lee, claiming in his correspondence that “There is disagreement among historians regarding historical facts such as the number of comfort women, the degree to which the former Japanese army was involved and the extent of the wartime harm.” Yoshimura has also called on Lee to reconsider the city’s approval of the installation, writing “I once again strongly urge you to treat this issue with careful consideration. In this letter I hope you can realize the heartfelt request that I wish to convey.”

Yoshimura’s requests have failed to prompt a reversal of the memorial’s installation, however, and so the Osaka leader has now said that if things are left to stand as they are, he intends to cancel the cities’ sister city relationship within the year.

In response, the Osaka-based Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s largest and oldest newspapers, with a circulation of over six and a half million, published an editorial urging Yoshimura to abandon is hard-line stance on the matter.

While neither supporting nor denying the accuracy of the memorial’s plaque, the Asahi Shimbun editorial seeks to remind Yoshimura that “The sister city relationship between San Francisco and Osaka is a historical asset of both cities, and not something to be severed at the mayor’s personal discretion…If you disagree with the memorial’s statement, then it is important to say so, but withdrawing friendly relations because your opinion is not accepted and adopted indicates a lack of calm rationality.”

“A sister city relationship is not one between country and country,” the editorial continues, “but one between people and people, and one which aims, in particular, to deepen cultural exchange…People from different countries have different ways of thinking, and the spirit of a sister city program is supposed to be that through cultural exchange, people can understand their differences and overcome the barriers between them.”

The editorial, however, has not convinced Yoshimura to chance tack. Following its publication on November 19, Yoshimura fired off a tweet on the same day calling out the newspaper for inaccuracies in its past reporting, and giving no sign that he intends to back away from his professed intention to repeal the sister city status unless the San Francisco authorities show a change in attitude.

On the bright side, it’s unclear whether or not Yoshimura has the authority to single-handedly make such a decision, and the soft-influence nature of sister city arrangements means that even without a formal arrangement in place a portion of the cultural exchange systems in place could continue to operate. Nevertheless, it would be a shame for 60 years of cordial relations to come to an official end, especially in light of the Asahi Shimbun’s reminder that differences of opinion can be a prime reason for, not against, sister city relationships.

Sources: Hachima Kiko, Asahi Shimbun, Newsweek, The Washington Post, The Japan Times
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