San Francisco unveiled a statue commemorating “comfort women” in 2017. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The complicated ‘sister city’ relationship between San Francisco and Osaka

Presented as a gift from Osaka in 1960, the Kanrin Maru Monument on the northwestern edge of San Francisco commemorates the voyage of Japan’s first diplomatic mission to the U.S., which had been escorted to San Francisco by the Kanrin Maru warship a century earlier.

The Kanrin Maru Monument. (Pranthik Samal)

Reporting on the historic 1860 encounter, the Sacramento Daily Union depicted the crew’s arrival as mutually bewildering. The Californians marvelled at the Japanese guests’ “poetic language” and their almost religious devotion to etiquette. The Japanese were struck by the informality of the Californians, who tracked mud onto expensive rugs. Given ice cream, the skipper of the Kanrin Maru declared it the most wonderful thing he’d ever tasted.

Over the years, the U.S.-Japan relationship remained largely friendly before taking a catastrophic turn during World War II. The gift of the Kanrin Maru Monument was part of post-war efforts intended to restore good will between the two sides. So was the declaration in 1957 by Osaka and San Francisco that they would henceforth be “sister cities,” formally committed to sharing ideas and heritage.

But six decades later, the port cities’ friendship ran into trouble once more. A private group in San Francisco erected a statue in Chinatown known as the “Column of Strength” that depicts three young women in a circle, holding hands and facing outward. They represent the “comfort women” from China, Korea, and the Philippines who were enslaved in Japanese brothels during World War II.

After its unveiling 2017, Japanese leaders said it destroyed a spirit of mutual trust built up over generations. San Francisco refused to take it down. A year later, Osaka officially severed their sibling relationship.

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