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Fairfax County leaders found themselves in the middle of a decades-old international dispute this week as they prepared to unveil a new memorial honoring the so-called “comfort women” of World War II.

The Comfort Women Memorial Peace Garden, located behind the Fairfax County Government Center next to the Sept. 11 memorial, is dedicated to all victims of human trafficking, said Grace Wolf, a Herndon Town Council member who helped the nonprofit Washington Coalition for Comfort Women Issues establish the memorial.

It is generally accepted that the Japanese Imperial Army forced women from occupied countries, primarily Korea and China, into sexual slavery during World War II to serve soldiers during the war.

However, many Japanese people believe that the women were prostitutes who were working in the sex trade of their own volition.

The Japan-based group Japanese Women for Justice and Peace launched an email campaign to members of the Board of Supervisors, county government leaders and local media to protest the memorial. They believe the memorial, like others installed in other U.S. cities, serves as “propaganda” against Japan.

“There are many human rights issues, present and past, in the world. It is not fair to single out and blame only Japan,” wrote Delaware resident Satoko Odom.

Two California residents of Japanese descent and a nonprofit organization filed suit against the city government of Glendale, California, in January to have a statue recognizing the comfort women removed.

“I understand that the issue is controversial, but I believe the memorial is tasteful, respectful and honors the memory of the victims of human trafficking during World War II,” Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Sharon Bulova (D-At large) said in a released statement. “The crime of human trafficking is a major concern for Fairfax County and addressing it is one of our highest public safety and human rights priorities.”

Remembering the comfort women is important to many members of the county’s large Korean-American community, Wolf said. About 18 percent of the county’s population identifies as Asian or Pacific Islander, according to census reports, but the census does not track ethnicity by country of origin.

“The idea behind these memorials are to memorialize an event that happened … and make people aware to stand against these events in the future,” Wolf said.

It is not intended to paint Japan in a bad light, she said.

“Bad things happen during wartime. The question is, what do you do moving forward,” Wolf said.

When the WCCWI approached the county about installing the memorial, it was very much in line with other efforts the county was making to raise awareness of human trafficking and to curtail it from a law enforcement perspective, Wolf said.

“People think this is a crime that happens somewhere else, and it happens here in Fairfax,” she said.

Bulova said her office worked with the nonprofit last year to help find a site for the memorial, with the group ultimately settling on the government center location. The construction and maintenance of the memorial are covered by private funds.

The memorial will be dedicated in a ceremony from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday at the government center. The event will include remarks from a surviving comfort woman who is traveling from Korea to speak about her experience.

Despite the outcry from the Japanese group, Wolf said she is not expecting the event to be disrupted by protesters, as the majority of opponents reside in Japan. However, the WCCWI has alerted county police, just in case there is an issue.

kschumitz@fairfaxtimes.com