Whose comfort woman?
I have met the erection and subsequent removal of the comfort woman statue on Roxas Boulevard with much ambivalence despite the controversy that demands a critical response. Initially, I justified this as burnout or reaction fatigue in the face of the many inanities plaguing our nation. After a quick sojourn I found that the sentiment hadn’t left me, and, worried that I might be lending my silence to either side of a divisive debate, I decided to investigate my impressions and unpack my discomfort.
It begins with the circumstances of the sculpture’s appearance in December 2017. Amid the holiday rush, a small crowd gathered to unveil the statue that was meant to be relevant to a nation. But where was the nation then, or even the ordinary Filipino whose grasp of history probably doesn’t include the Japanese Occupation? And what of the women represented in bronze, of whom there are still a few living with these memories? As I recall a source tell me, even the comfort women whose experience is memorialized by the statue were not present. Neither was any
representative of a local media outlet.
I couldn’t believe this so I looked up the reports on the statue and learned that, indeed, it made the news only when the Japanese Embassy complained over its construction. The reports were also keen to note the very tentative responses of government officials, who were themselves seemingly surprised by the figure’s presence on Roxas Boulevard. Who allowed it to rise, in the first place? The silence that met this question was telling. It was sleight of hand, for how could a statue of such importance suddenly find itself in a public space overnight with all offices mum about the issuance of permits, etc.?
The messaging, too, was swiftly managed, and groups with varying interests quickly turned to propaganda questioning Japan’s reaction and the government’s inaction, none of which surprised me except for the fact that no one bothered to ask a fundamental question about the statue’s provenance: Why was it on Roxas Boulevard? What was its historical significance to the place where it stood? (An article in the Sunday Inquirer answers this when the artist laments the takedown of his work and refers to its original placement: “Since Japan is the ‘Land of the Rising Sun,’ the statue turned its back to the sea where the sun sets.” He argues that this is a protest against Japanese aggression, but for the life of me, I have read the statement enough times to conclude that it makes no sense.)
The monument built by Jonas Roces was a commissioned work by the Tulay Foundation, a Chinese-Filipino group that, as its name suggests, seeks to bridge the two cultures. The foundation has done important work but in this instance, I question both its motives and its mission of bridging communities as this action of putting up the statue with very little public consultation seems to have backfired, straining multiple relationships. Where the foundation sought to promote understanding, it appears to have sowed intrigue and pitted people against one another in an attempt to make this about national memory—when, really, wasn’t it that the statue was built in deference to its founder, the late Manuel Chua, owner of Aloha Hotel? Sure, I accept his history of imprisonment under Japanese rule and understand his desire to set the record straight, but may I ask what one man’s beef has to do with a nation’s history? Why does the Tulay Foundation have to coopt the experience of Filipino comfort women?
I have deep respect for the Chinese community in the Philippines. Its contribution to our history as a nation is not lost on me. The Wha Chi Movement composed of Chinese guerrillas who chose to fight Japanese invaders alongside Filipino and American troops during the Occupation is an example of a historical moment that mustn’t escape our memory.
I write this to return to the purpose of memorializing. We are trying to honor a community of women whose experience is constantly denied, but erecting a beautiful statue devoid of substance does not make for historical significance. Historian Pierre Nora offers the notion of a lieu de mémoire (site of memory): “[referring] to any place, object or concept vested with historical significance in the popular collective memory … [and signifying] the cultural landmarks, places, practices and expressions stemming from a shared past.”
If we are to build these sites, let them be imbued with meaning we can recognize through our collective memory rather than an ill-conceptualized gesture that comes to naught, like this statue that came and went, leaving controversy in its wake.
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Nash Tysmans is an independent researcher doing work on Philippine narratives of resistance.
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