To Japan, with love
This and my last article are prompted by the engaging memoirs on the Japanese occupation of Los Baños by my late father Dr. Celestino P. Habito. We rediscovered his manuscript after he passed away at the ripe old age of 91 in late 2010. To commemorate his centennial, our family recently launched his book, “The Oppressively Hot Rising Sun Over the UPCA Campus,” in which we could feel the extent and intensity of his personal experience with the Japanese invaders at the UP Los Baños campus in 1942-1945.
He, along with fellow campus guerrillas, endured being incarcerated and deprived of food for three days in the hands of the Japanese invaders. They were fortunate to have suffered little more beyond that, with incessant indoctrination on the merits of the “Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere” that the invaders preached—“an idea of Imperial Japan in fostering their sovereignty over Southeast Asia and the entire Asia,” he wrote. The most gut-wrenching of his observations came in the aftermath of the liberation of Los Baños, in a precision raid on Feb. 23, 1945, by a joint task force of American soldiers and Filipino guerrillas from the air and on the ground. The surprise attack freed over 2,000 civilian prisoners of war from the Allied Nations held captive by the Japanese at a large internment camp they had built on the campus athletic grounds.
The reprisals from shamed Japanese soldiers from nearby were ruthless. “Before too long, we received news through the grapevine that the Japanese soldiers massacred residents and burned houses in the adjacent towns of Calamba and Bay,” Itay wrote. “Upon proceeding to the St. Therese Chapel, we were met by the stark evidence of the tragedy that overtook those who took refuge in the chapel in the false hope that the religious nature of the building would deter the Japanese soldiers from burning it down. According to the eyewitness account of professor Andres P. Aglibut, there must have been about 140 persons who perished when the Japanese put the chapel to the torch. The soldiers reportedly doused the interior of the chapel with gasoline before setting it on fire. A corpse lay face down on the paved walk… We could see some dogs dragging away what looked like human body parts… We found a more gruesome sight at twin nangka trees fronting the chapel. Tied to twin trunks of the tree were two white-robed, white-haired, elderly priests who must have died from the bayonet wounds that they received….”
As a child, I used to see the old marker describing the St. Therese Chapel massacre on the church’s outer wall. That marker is long gone, perhaps in the Christian spirit of forgiveness and burying the unpleasant past.
Within our family, that negative past has also been put behind us, with any remaining resentment against Japan and the Japanese having gone with Itay to his grave. In his epilogue to our father’s book, my eldest brother Ruben wrote: “The two decades I spent as a Jesuit in Japan… were a powerfully enriching and tremendously fulfilling period of my life. I learned many precious things from my numerous Japanese friends and from their rich culture and spiritual traditions, just from having received the irreplaceable gift of living in their midst and connecting with them at a deep level. I am profoundly indebted to countless numbers of Japanese men and women who remain close to my heart.”
I and other family members have likewise worked closely with the Japanese in our professional and personal capacities. In my past government hat, I dealt with Japan as the single largest source of official development assistance to the Philippines since the postwar years, with which they may have tried to atone for their sins to the country, at least in the material realm. I’ve worked closely with various Japanese institutions to advance shared advocacies in sustainable development and economic reform. I have lived in Japan twice to do academic research, and have come to admire traits of the Japanese people I wish we Filipinos had. My most frequented shop is Daiso, and my favorite side dish is gyoza. And now I have a Japanese apo.
Where our father felt bitterness, we now only feel admiration and love.