The statue stands at the back of St. Mary’s Square in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Three girls, cast in bronze — one Chinese, one Korean and one Filipino — stand on a pedestal holding hands. In front of them, the bronze figure of Kim Hak-sun looks on. She was the first "comfort woman" to speak out in 1991 about her experiences.

The sculpture honors the estimated 200,000 women and girls from China, Korea, the Philippines and other countries who were forced to work as sex slaves by occupying Japanese troops during World War II. 

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, in one of his last acts before he died on Dec. 12, signed a resolution to turn the statue into a city monument — to the fury of Japan.

The Japanese city of Osaka and San Francisco are sister cities. But after Lee signed the resolution, the mayor of Osaka, Hirofumi Yoshimura, moved to terminate the relationship. “The relationship of trust has completely been destroyed,” Yoshimura reportedly said.

The day after the memorial was unveiled, Jun Yamada, the Consul General of Japan in San Francisco, released the following statement: "The difficulty of this issue lies in the fact that there are wildly conflicting views, even today, as to what actually happened. Unfortunately, the aim of current comfort women memorial movements seems to perpetuate and fixate on certain one-sided interpretations, without presenting credible evidence, in the form of physical statues."

Activist Lillian Sing, who co-chairs the Comfort Women Justice Coalition, stands by the statue. “The Osaka mayor wrote our mayor, Ed Lee, a letter, saying, ‘If you don’t tear the memorial down, we are going to break off our ties.’ That is called is a threat. That is bullying us in San Francisco,” she says.

Sing applauds Lee for not giving in. “Mayor Lee did not succumb to the threat. And we hail him as a hero.”

But the pressure from Osaka continues. On Tuesday, the same day Mayor Lee suddenly died of an apparent heart attack, the Osaka City Assembly passed a statement of opinion, once again urging the city of San Francisco to take the statue down. 

From PRI's The World ©2017 PRI