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COMMENTARY

Memorializing wartime atrocities

05:06 AM January 23, 2018

Tokyo—The recent controversy involving the 7-foot bronze statue of a Filipino “comfort woman” on Roxas Boulevard stirred debate on how it would affect the relationship between Japan and the Philippines. Seven decades after World War II, the two countries have transformed their relationship from foes to partners, both wishing to foster mutual peace and development in Asia.

Japan’s wartime aggression is well-documented. In fact, the Japanese government has admitted this aggression many times in the past and vowed to never again engage in such a policy, as reflected in its postwar constitution. Then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama’s remark on Aug. 15, 1995, during the 50th anniversary of Japan’s surrender, encapsulated that acknowledgment: “During a period in the not too distant past, Japan, following a mistaken national policy, advanced along the road to war, only to ensnare the Japanese people in a fateful crisis, and through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations.” This stance was reaffirmed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in his own speech during the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender in 2015. Unfortunately, the case of the comfort women was never acknowledged.

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In the summer of 1991, a former comfort woman from Korea came out and criticized the Japanese government. It was the first time that the spotlight was trained on the
issue of “comfort stations” put up by the invading Japanese military during World War II. In response, the Japanese government established the Asian Women’s Fund in 1995 to compensate and provide “atonement money” to the comfort women across Asia, among them 211 women from the Philippines.

M. Evelina Galang’s book “Lolas’ House: Filipino Women Living with War” (Northwestern University Press, 2017) tells the story of 16 Filipino comfort women interviewed by the author. The harrowing narrative of these women—one attested that she was raped by 20-30 men in a day—shows how no one can be capable of fabricating such stories, as alleged by right-wing elements in Japan.

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As much as the atonement money can help the victims of this wartime aggression, band-aids do not fix bullet holes and cannot erase the fact that these wartime atrocities happened. And while economic reparations can help the victimized women move forward with their lives, such atonement money speaks more about Japan than for the women. It implies regret. Thus, the response of the Japanese Embassy to the bronze statue on Roxas Boulevard—in which it finds the process of memorialization “extremely regrettable”—is quite unfortunate.

To be fair, Japan has assisted the Philippines in many aspects. In fact, the National Economic and Development Authority reports that the Japanese government was the biggest source of official development assistance in 2017. Without telling, it seems that Japan is doing its fair share of development assistance to help its Asian neighbors that suffered much from its wartime aggression.

Unlike China and South Korea, Japan is the Filipinos’ most trusted Asian nation with an 81-percent trust rating, as indicated in the Pew Research Survey conducted in 2015. This is reaffirmed in the Pulse Asia Survey conducted in March 2017, in which Japan emerged with a 75-percent trust rating. Hence, Japan has no reason to fear that the issue of the comfort women will change the perceptions of Filipinos.

Japan’s image has changed much in the eyes of Filipinos due to the efficient deployment of soft power, its postwar pacifist stance and massive development assistance.

But what happened 70 years ago cannot be changed. And as much as the Japanese government disagrees with this process of remembering, we owe the victimized comfort women the chance to be memorialized to prevent the repeat of their harrowing experience. Never again should we allow any form of sexual violence. Let the bronze statue on Roxas Boulevard remind us of that.

Jesse Angelo L. Altez is an Asian Development Bank-Japan scholar pursuing public policy at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies. React: @AngeloAltez

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