Shanghai’s historic sex slave station should be saved

By Yang Lan Source:Global Times Published: 2016-2-24 18:18:01

Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

The demolition of Umi-no-ie, the brothel-like "comfort station" operated under the command of the Japanese navy in Shanghai during the World War II, began on Monday.

Some local media reported that the demolition was suspended after Chinese scholars publicly decried the destruction of the historical site. But the two-level, 17-room building, located at 425 Gongping Road in Hongkou district, was already being gutted by construction workers when the Global Times arrived for a last look. Its faded-red windows and other carved-wood relics, which can be resold in antiques markets, were the first thing to be scavenged.

Professor Su Zhiliang, director of the China Comfort Women Issue Research Center at Shanghai Normal University, said that Umi-no-ie (House of Sea) is an important landmark in remembering the horrid atrocities committed upon innocent female civilians, many just adolescents and teenagers, between 1939 and 1945 by Japanese troops, and that the architecture was supposed to be officially protected.

Sadly, several old buildings along Gongping Road including the former site of Umi-no-ie were recently requisitioned by the district government for further development, once again illustrating that Shanghai's unstoppable quest for urbanization means sacrificing some of its own history.

Real estate is of course Shanghai's most valuable asset, with property prices here the highest in all of China and near the top of all worldwide rankings. As a Shanghai homeowner, I can understand the need to modernize some dilapidated wood-and-stone structures, which nouveau riche residents see as a blight on their prosperous city.

However, Shanghai has a long and glorious past - with the occasional painful memory - that should not simply be deleted from the map. Doing so is really no different than Japan's shameless attempts over the decades to have any record of their unconscionable actions in wartime China permanently removed from history books.

With the Japanese government refusing to admit its involvement in Shanghai's comfort stations (where thousands of girls were kidnapped into sexual slavery by Japanese troops, confirmed by numerous sources including the son of Umi-no-ie operator Kumazo Sakashita) and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe's denial of the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, the only physical legacy left behind from their war crimes are the land where they were committed.

Hongkou is itself one of Shanghai's most historic districts, and local leadership there have already set a precedent in protecting its heritage sites, including the famous Shanghai Ghetto, which housed over 20,000 Jewish refugees, and the Ohel Moshe Synagogue, one of the only synagogues in Shanghai built by Russian Jews. In 2007, the district government provided funds to restore these sites, along with opening and operating the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum there.

We can concede that leaving Umi-no-ie untouched while constructing shiny steel-and-glass skyscrapers all around it would look odd. So how about developing its architecture into a comfort women museum - just like Jing'an district did with the Sihang Warehouse (another crucial site from the three-month Battle of Shanghai in 1937) - as a new city landmark?

There are in fact over 160 such former comfort women stations across Shanghai, with a majority of them in Hongkou district, and while we can not reasonably expect property developers to preserve all of them, some should stay permanently standing before that painful part of history becomes permanently erased.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Global Times.

Posted in: TwoCents, Metro Shanghai

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