Remembering the Filipino comfort women
Long before the Filipino comfort woman statue along Roxas Boulevard was uprooted, she stood tall and dignified on the thoroughfare — blindfolded though she was — facing eastwards, in the direction of Japan, with hands clutched to her bosom, as if meaning to say, “What have you done to me?”
The statue, created by Filipino artist Jonas Roces, would last only four months since its unveiling last December 2017. It was removed by a backhoe in the middle of the night some time in April — an act carried out by the Department of Public Works and Highways for a supposed flood control project. Why it was removed in the middle of the night remains a curious thing of suspicion, a furtive move that would warrant some to think it, perhaps, of having sinister intentions.
The installation was meant to pay homage to the estimated 200,000 comfort women from South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, the Netherlands and the Philippines who were condemned to a life of rape and enslavement by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II. Out of the said figure, 1,000 are believed to be Filipino women.
Seven decades have passed since the harrowing times of the war and many of these comfort women had already passed away. The cry for justice, however, could not get any more urgent and fervent, as the fight for an official unequivocal apology and reparations from the Japanese government has also become a fraught race against time. In Lila Pilipina alone, an organization of survivors of Japanese military sexual slavery during the World War II, only six Filipino comfort women remain alive, three of whom are already bedridden.
This begs the question of whether the undertaking is no longer just of the comfort women. It has turned into an issue of national significance which concerns the entire Filipino people, whose tendency to be forgetful could undermine the comfort women’s call for justice, and threaten to erase from the collective memory this tragic part of our history.
Remembrance of things past
For Tessie Ang See, chair of Movement for the Restoration of Peace and Order, the removal of the Filipino comfort woman statue on Roxas Boulevard last April was insulting to the highest order. The artist Roces, last May, has since shared that the statue was returned to him and is stored in his workshop in Antipolo where it remains away from the public eye.
See made her vehemence about the demolition known during the “Remembering Our Lolas: Opposing Wars of Aggression” forum in the University of the Philippines-Diliman last Nov. 15, which was organized by the Flowers4Lolas campaign, Lila Pilipina and Gabriela Youth.
“Nakakahiya, yung ibang bansa mayroong ganung comfort women [statue], pinressure ng Japan hindi naman tinanggal. Only in the Philippines…” See said. “They betrayed our lolas, kasi yung Japan binigyan natin ng hektaryang lupa. Itong comfort women halos isang square meter lang hindi pa natin mapagbigyan.”
(It’s a shame. Other countries have similar comfort women statues; they were pressured by Japan [to remove these] but they did not give in. Only in the Philippines… They betrayed our comfort women. Japan was given an hectare of land. Our comfort women only had almost one square meter, and they could not grant it.)
The comfort woman statue was removed just after midnight on April 28. The move almost came off formulaic, if it already was not, according to See, for the statue would not be removed if there was nothing to hide nor fear. President Rodrigo Duterte has since stated that the statue was removed to avoid offending Japan, adding that Japan had already apologized and made reparations.
What was one square meter, after all, compared to the numerous Japanese shrines and memorial parks erected in the Philippines in honor of the fallen Japanese soldiers of World War II? There is the Japanese Garden in Lumban, Laguna which spans 11 hectares of land, the Japanese Memorial Garden in Corregidor which pays homage to the 6,000 Japanese soldiers who died on the island, the 500-square meter Japanese soldiers’ shrine in Bulacan, and the Kamikaze Peace Memorial Shrine in Mabalacat, Pampanga, just among others.
“The Kamikaze Shrine, ‘yung suicide bombers of Japan?” said See. “They killed our men and women and children, and now you have a shrine for them in Pampanga.”
But if the intention in the removal of the comfort woman statue on Roxas Boulevard was to elicit fear or intimidation, it is clear that such attempts were deflected, as the opposite was what occurred. After the demolition of the statue last April, the Flowers4Lolas campaign came to the fore, thrusting into the glaring spotlight once more the plight of the Filipino comfort women that just can no longer be ignored.
Jugun Ianfu, comfort women
The organized sexual slavery system of the Imperial Japanese Army was an arrangement Dr. Ricardo Jose, a military historian and full professor at UP Diliman, found remarkable for it was unique only to the Japanese military.
“Any army around the world has brothels, prostitutes, some of whom are willing, many of whom were not, but the Japanese had this enforced sexual slavery system,” Dr. Jose said in the forum.
Heinous the comfort stations’ realities were, Dr. Jose pointed out that there was a logical reason behind the set-up of the comfort women system.
“Comfort women stations had to be secure to prevent espionage and venereal diseases. Kung pupunta sila sa prostitutes or brothels baka may link up ‘yun to the guerrillas,” he explained. “The comfort stations are secured, it was watched over… so walang lalabas na information about the Japanese military.”
(If they go to prostitutes or brothels, there may be a link up to the guerrillas. The comfort stations are secured and watched over. No information on the Japanese military would come out.)
The system was structured and routinized. Every month, a doctor would come around to check on the comfort women to see if they were still good for the stations or not. The check-ups were done on schedule, in every comfort station in the whole of the Asia Pacific Region.
The set-up of the comfort women system followed a rigid algorithm, so methodical and systematized that Dr. Jose likened it to a canteen where people would fall in long lines.
“Very strictly regulated ‘yung hours of operation. Parang canteen, parang kainan (It’s like a canteen or eatery). So in the morning, soldiers, privates,” he said. “In the afternoon mga corporals, sargento. In the evening, officers. Ganun ka-regulated ang sistema (That’s how regulated the system is).”
The soldiers, as known, only had five minutes to spend inside. “So you can imagine the trouble for the comfort women, [they] were easily having to satisfy 50 or even more men a day, and continuous ‘yan. Imagine, nakapila sila sa labas (Imagine the soldiers are lined up outside).”
The comfort women initially had a required age of 21 years, but according to Dr. Jose, the demand for women was so strong during the war that it went down to the teenage level. There have been reports where girls as young as fifteen, some even younger, were forced to serve in the comfort stations.
Exiling oneself thus became the afterthought of many of the comfort women when the war ended. Bridled by shame and guilt that came from being repeatedly raped in the stations, they effaced themselves and withdrew to a life of secrecy. Some were turned away by their own families.
“In the Philippines’ case, many women simply disappeared,” said Dr. Jose. “Nahiya sila dun sa (They were ashamed of the) experience, they were rejected by their families so they changed their names, they moved away. Di na sila nahanap (They could not be searched anymore), they are part of the casualties of war, the unnamed.”
It would take decades more before Lola Rosa Henson, the very first Filipino comfort woman to speak of her experience, surfaced in the 1990s during the 50th anniversary of World War II. This willed many other Filipino comfort women to follow suit. But before that, their willed facelessness and namelessness persisted for decades.
Lola Estelita Dy
Sharon Cabusao, executive director of Lila Pilipina, made it clear that it is not just mere monetary settlements the comfort women, now lolas, are after.
“Hindi kabayaran ang aming hinihingi, ‘yun ang sinasabi ng marami sa mga lola,” Cabusao said. “Hinihingi namin ay hustisya, ang hinihingi namin ay aminin sa amin, aminin sa buong mundo ng Japanese government ang kanilang pagkakasala. Pagkatapos, saka natin pag-usapan ang war reparations.”
(We are not asking for payment, as a lot of the comfort women say. What we are asking for is justice, for it to be admitted to us, to the whole world, that the Japanese government committed atrocities on us. After that only can we talk about war reparations.)
There is a difference, after all, between an official and formal public apology versus a non-apology, the kind that does not attempt to unrepentantly gloss over the horrific war crimes of the past, but takes full, unequivocal accountability for what was committed.
Through the years, past Japanese Prime Ministers offered their personal apologies to the wartime comfort women. In August 1994, Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama expressed his profound and sincere remorse and apologies regarding the issue, which “stained the honor and dignity of many women.”
In July 1995, Murayama announced the establishment of the Asian Women’s Fund, an expression of atonement on the part of the Japanese people towards the comfort women in matters of medical, welfare and other projects.
As per Dr. Jose, the Asian Women’s Fund was supposed to be a government venture. “But the [Japanese] government didn’t want to pay enough money for it so they asked the private sector to donate money to it.”
“They camouflaged it (Asian Women’s Fund), hindi pang (not for) comfort women, but they did offer money,” he added. “Some Filipinos accepted it, many more did not, but the program ended in 2001.”
In 1998, Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto personally conveyed his “most sincere apologies and remorse” to the comfort women who “suffered incurable psychological wounds” brought about by their experiences. In 2001, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, in a letter addressed to the comfort women, extended his “most sincere apologies and remorse” for the grave affront committed to their honor and dignity during the war.
These apologies, however, remain as expressions of personal feelings and not official and formal apologies from the Japanese government — which is what the comfort women are asking for.
Meanwhile, various reports showed that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in 2007, denied that the comfort women were coerced into the military stations. According to Abe, there was no evidence to prove the women were forced during the war. This is a claim that Dr. Jose refuted during the forum.
“The Japanese army, when it surrendered, destroyed the bulk of its records, most of its records were burned,” Dr. Jose said. “They burned all the sensitive documents [and] only a few managed to escape destruction.”
Cabusao, echoing Dr. Jose’s sentiments, stressed that the lolas are asking for a formal and public apology from the Japanese government.
“Hinihingi ng mga lola ay ‘yung formal at public apology,” emphasized Cabusao. “Dapat lamang na lahat ng pagkakakasala kaugnay ng kanilang kalakaran na ito, dapat lang na mag-offer ang Japanese government mismo ng kaniyang formal at full responsibility para sa lahat ng mga kasalanang nangyari sa mga comfort women.”
(What the comfort women are asking for is a formal and public apology. It is just that all the crimes regarding this be addressed by the Japanese government itself, claiming formal and full responsibility for all the sins committed on the comfort women.)
But time is of the essence. The comfort women of Lila Pilipina no longer live in its center in Brgy. Amihan, Quezon City. Many have since perished, while the last few have gone back to their provinces, some in Cavite and Antipolo, where they remain spending the last of their days. None have access to healthcare despite being afflicted with debilitating illnesses that come with old age. The organization, meanwhile, has found itself hitching and heaving over its lack of funding, these days running only on the compassion of volunteers.
Yet the likes of Lola Estelita Dy, a Filipino comfort woman gracing the forum with her presence, manage to go about the business of living. Quite weak now for the powered and winding assertions she so used to do in countless past forums, vigils and peaceful protests throughout the years, Lola Estelita still took to the stage to introduce herself to the young students who watched her in silence, in reverence.
Lola Estelita, who is nearing her 90s, was abducted in 1944 while selling produce in the market. A truck of Japanese soldiers arrived and started beheading men and women who were thought as guerrilla members. Mistaken for one herself, Lola Estelita was seized by a Japanese soldier when she tried to make a run for her life. She was brought to one of the garrisons of the Japanese soldiers in central Talisay, Negros Occidental, where she was kept for three weeks. In the chances when she would get to fight back against her captors, she would receive vicious blows from the soldiers, the beatings eventually pushing her to keep her silence and obey orders out of fear for her own life. She was only 14 years old.
“Magandang hapon sa inyong lahat, ako po ay si Lola Estelita Dy ng Lila Pilipina at Gabriela,” greeted Lola Estelita Dy, her voice shaking, almost to the point of incomprehensibility. Overwhelmed though she was from the crowd, she only had sparse words to say. “Ang mapapayo ko lang sa mga kabataan ngayon, mag-concentrate kayo sa pag-aaral para matapos kayo at makatulong sa inyong mga magulang. Yun lang po.”
(Good afternoon to all of you. I am Lola Estelita Dy of Lila Pilipina and Gabriela. All I can advise the young today is to concentrate on your studies, so you may graduate and be able to help your parents. That is all.)
Lola Estelita eventually married years after her time in the garrison and went on to have children of her own. Her secret, however, remained such; she never once uttered to her own husband her harrowing experiences in the hands of the Japanese soldiers, out of shame for herself.
Where is the fight now? And where is it going? These questions pose themselves in light of the harsh realities that surround the Filipino comfort women today. Separate from the call for justice, an unequivocal apology and reparations from the Japanese government, the inescapable truth persists: that the Filipino comfort women, the last living threads that connect the Filipinos to that painful part of history, do not have much time left.
And after they are gone, who will carry on the fight? JB
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