December 15, 2016 / 7:28 AM / a year ago

Race complaint lodged over 'comfort women' statue in Australian church

SYDNEY (Reuters) - A Japanese community group in Australia has lodged a legal complaint under racial vilification laws objecting to a statue commemorating Korean “comfort women” in a Sydney church, the group’s president said Thursday.

Reverend Bill Crews poses in front of a statue commemorating Korean "comfort women" at a Sydney church in Sydney, Australia December 15, 2016, a 1.5-metre statue imported from Korea which has been a flashpoint for tensions between Korean and Japanese communities in Sydney since it was unveiled in August. REUTERS/Jason Reed

The memorial, a 1.5-metre statue imported from Korea, has been a flashpoint for tensions between Korean and Japanese communities in Sydney since it was unveiled in August.

The issue of “comfort women”, those who were forced to work in Japan’s wartime brothels were euphemistically known, has long plagued ties between Korea and Japan.

Scholars continue to debate the number of women exploited. Activists in South Korea say there may have been as many as 200,000 Korean victims, although only 238 women have come forward and identified themselves as former “comfort women”.

Sydney-based Australia Japan Community Network (AJCN) made its complaint to Australia’s Human Rights Commission on Wednesday on behalf of local parents of Japanese origin concerned the memorial stirred anti-Japanese feeling, AJCN President Tetsuhide Yamaoka told Reuters by phone from Tokyo.

“If we are commemorating something in the past, you just have to do it in the right way and by that I mean that you do not cause any issues in today’s community,” he said, adding that the 20-30 Sydney-based members felt too intimidated to speak themselves.

A statue commemorating Korean "comfort women" is pictured at a Sydney church in Sydney, Australia December 15, 2016, a 1.5-metre statue imported from Korea which has been a flashpoint for tensions between Korean and Japanese communities in Sydney since it was unveiled in August. REUTERS/Jason Reed

“If the Korean people want to believe what they are believing, they should do it discreetly among themselves...I want the Korean people to stop pushing this in the public domain,” he said.

Australia’s Human Rights Commission does not publicly acknowledge receipt of complaints for privacy reasons, spokeswoman Georgia Flynn told Reuters. It only brings complaints to court if conciliation between the parties fails.

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Under Australian law it is illegal to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” a person on the basis of “race, colour or national or ethnic origin”.

The statue in Sydney, which depicts a Korean “comfort woman” sitting beside an empty chair to symbolise the victims of the prostitution programme, was erected in Sydney’s Ashfield Uniting Church after Japanese groups successfully campaigned to have it prohibited from a public park.

“It’s not about denigrating any country or race, anything like that,” said Reverend Bill Crews. “It’s saying God help these suffering women and let’s move on...you’re never able to move on until you acknowledge it.”

In December 2015 Japan agreed to apologise and promised about one billion yen (6.78 million pounds) for a fund to help victims, a deal that foreign ministers from both countries said resolved the issue.

Reporting by Tom Westbrook; Editing by Michael Perry

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