To forgive the unforgivable
Last Saturday I was shown an archive of papers that concerned the pain, loss, suffering, and healing that resulted from the violence of World War II, particularly those suffered by Filipinos during the Japanese Occupation. The archive was not within my usual research interests, but then history often takes me to places I would never have visited outside of work.
Such a place was a small private museum in Yasugi City, Shimane Prefecture, in southwest Japan, close to Hiroshima; it celebrates the art of Tatsuo Kano aka Kanrai Kano (1904-1977), whose early works are in the style of the French school, particularly Cezanne. Kano had maintained a determined correspondence with then President Elpidio Quirino that began in 1949 with his appeal for the pardon of Japanese prisoners of war held in the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa and ended with his advocacy for repentance and forgiveness as a means to end militarization and achieve world peace.
We do not know if Quirino had actually read any of the 63 extant letters sent by Kano, but these were at least acknowledged by various members of the Malacañang staff that included his private secretaries Juan Collas and Federico Mangahas (the fathers of Inquirer Opinion columnists Solita Monsod and Mahar Mangahas, respectively). Kano’s link to postwar Philippine history is but a footnote, but his story strikes at the core of human relations: His appeal to Filipinos was to “forgive the unforgivable.”
Kano served as a military artist in China during the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). Upon his return to his hometown, he met Rear Adm. Takesue Furuse who had returned from Manila to Japan but chose to stand trial by the War Crimes courts to admit his guilt in the so-called “Infanta Incident” that saw the massacre of 152 Filipino civilians in the closing days of the war (April-May 1945).
Inspired by Furuse’s remorse, Kano began in 1949 a persistent one-man campaign for the pardon of Furuse and the Japanese POWs in the Muntinlupa penitentiary. Kano carefully drafted his letters in Japanese, had them translated into English, and sent them off in handwritten, typewritten, or mimeograph form to various people and groups: 63 letters to President Quirino, 43 letters to Pope Pius XII in Rome (one acknowledged by then Cardinal Montini who later became Pope Paul VI), four letters to Douglas MacArthur (all ignored), and miscellaneous correspondence with presidents of the Philippines from Quirino to Ferdinand Marcos and officials of the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs and the Philippine Mission to Japan.
Among all these papers I was intrigued by the complicated signature of Alfredo M. Bunye, then superintendent of the New Bilibid Prison who sent Kano a full list of Japanese POWs and the status of their cases in the War Crimes Tribunal. When I sent a photo of the signature to Bunye’s son, former presidential spokesperson and now newspaper columnist Toting Bunye, he replied that Superintendent Bunye’s father was killed by the Japanese during the war and yet he protected the Japanese POWs in Bilibid from vengeful Filipinos who wanted to lynch them all. The Japanese POWs considered their jailer their Filipino father.
Japan and the Philippines remained in a state of war six years after 1945.
How could Quirino, from a hospital bed in Johns Hopkins Hospital in the United States on July 4, 1953, go against the anti-Japanese sentiment at the time and grant executive clemency to 105 Japanese POWs in Bilibid? He was criticized for this act of forgiveness and his allies thought it political suicide, yet he chose to take the high ground and at different times cited the value of moving on:
“Personally, were I to consider that my wife and my three children were all killed by Japanese machine guns, I would swallow the Japanese allies now; but I am not living in the world alone. I have my remaining children, and their children to follow. I am not going to allow them to inherit feelings of revenge.”
Much maligned in his time, Quirino must be remembered for paving the way for the normalization of relations between the Philippines and Japan:
“I know it will be hard for you to take, but I’m thinking of forgiving the Japanese, because we are neighbors, and neighbors must learn to talk to each other, live together, trade and help each other.”
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