The city of Osaka is set to break off its sister city relationship with San Francisco. The reason: San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee has formally signed off on a unanimous city assembly vote to accept a "comfort women" memorial statue erected and donated by a citizens' group.
The monument, called the "'Comfort Women' Column of Strength," is accompanied by a plaque stating: "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. Most of these women died during their wartime captivity."
Osaka Mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura had stated that "spreading factually uncertain assertions as historical truth is Japan-bashing," and sought to speak with Lee directly about the issue. However, his request was not accepted, prompting Yoshimura to declare "the relationship of trust has collapsed" between the two cities. The Osaka mayor also announced that he would send a letter informing the San Francisco government that the sister city relationship was over.
Sister city relations between the two cities began in 1957, and have deepened since with homestays for high school students and visits by city delegations. Now, Osaka has furthermore announced that it plans to end subsidies for private organizations involved in exchange activities with the Northern California city.
The "comfort women" issue was formally resolved at the national political level with a Japan-South Korea agreement in 2015. The Japanese government has labeled San Francisco's actions over the statue, including its accompanying inscription, as regrettable.
The Osaka Municipal Government likely chose to cut the sister city relationship because it believed a much stronger expression of its position was needed, particularly after repeated formal protests failed to budge the San Francisco administration. However, we must question Osaka's decision to break off its ties with San Francisco, effectively throwing away all that has been built thus far through the sister-city connection.
The Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito factions in the Osaka Municipal Assembly have urged Mayor Yoshimura to resolve the statue dispute through dialogue. Though the mayor does not need an assembly vote to sever the city's ties with San Francisco, perhaps Yoshimura has gone a step too far with his prerogative.
In 1956, the year before San Francisco and Osaka tied the sister-city knot, then U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower launched the international sister cities program with a speech declaring that "all people want peace," and that the key was "for people to get together."
Relations between countries are easily disturbed by clashes of national interest. However, Eisenhower apparently believed that barriers are easily overcome in exchanges between local governments, as differences in opinion and sentiment are resolved through the people from each place.
The first Japan-United States sister city agreement was between the atomic-bombed Nagasaki and Saint Paul, Minnesota. The Osaka-San Francisco relationship was also trailblazing.
Differing opinions should not be a reason to cut off ties. Determination to call for mutual understanding is needed. We hope that Osaka returns once more to the true meaning and role of exchanges between local governments in different countries, including those through sister city ties.