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Discomforting Neighbors: Emotional Communities Clash over “Comfort Women” in an American Town

  • Author(s): Wasson, Kai Reed
  • Advisor(s): Fruhstuck, Sabine
  • et al.
Abstract

In this thesis, I consider how a controversy over a monument commemorating the suffering of victims of imperial Japan’s “comfort women” sexual slavery system erupted in Glendale, California, a small suburb of Los Angeles, in 2013. On its surface, public speakers and activists used the language of historiographical debate that questioned the types of historical evidence that can be considered legitimate and which interpretations are well-founded. Yet, underneath the surface, this debate is less about history and more about conflicting group identities. First generation Japanese immigrants, motivated in large part by fear of discrimination and pride in being Japanese, took Glendale’s monument project as a threat against which fearful members of this diasporic community could rally. In other words, the monument could be used as a vehicle to build and strengthen a community of otherwise scattered individuals who feel in some sense endangered by the rising ride of critical sentiment against Japan for crimes committed over seventy years ago. In contrast, Korean Americans and Armenian Americans used the media attention the controversy attracted as an opportunity to demonstrate their authenticity as Americans by building the monument and framing it as a symbol of Glendale residents’ cosmopolitan memory and courageous defense of women’s human rights.

I based this research on ten interviews I conducted in 2017 with people who were actively involved in either the project to install the Peace Monument in Glendale or who spoke in favor of or against that project at a special hearing the city council held on July 9, 2013 to assess the public’s opinion. In addition to the interviews, I reviewed the city’s records of their deliberations on whether to build the peace monument, with special attention given to video recordings in which city officials or members of the public discussed the matter. I similarly reviewed pertinent local and international newspaper articles mentioning Glendale and the actors involved with an eye toward the vocabulary such articles used to frame the controversy for local and international audiences. The information I gathered from these various sources form the corpus from which I formulate my take on how the controversy in Glendale unfolded and how we should situate it in the scholarship on Japanese nationalism and the continuously expanding “comfort women” redress movement.

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