Comfort and justice
Perhaps the only upside to the ongoing territorial dispute involving China over reefs, shoals and islands in the South China Sea is the fact that it has nudged an alliance among other claimant-nations as well as between Japan and the Philippines.
In fact, President Aquino’s recent visit to Japan was intended to highlight the closer ties between the two countries, with Japan announcing its decision to help out a less-endowed neighbor by donating 10 new patrol vessels to the Philippine Coast Guard and training more than 250 of its personnel in the face of China’s aggressive forays in the disputed waters.
But lost amid the expressions of mutual support is a long-festering issue that both countries seem to have studiously avoided: redress and restitution for Filipino comfort women.
It was an oversight that the groups Lila Pilipina and Malaya Lolas astutely pointed out in a rally at the Japanese Embassy, where they condemned Mr. Aquino’s support for a proposed change in Japan’s constitution, especially the part that renounces war. The groups, which represent some 200 Filipino comfort women, expressed fears about the resurgence of a militarist culture in Japan that had turned their now aging and frail clients from wide-eyed innocents into terrorized sex slaves.
Barely in their teens when forcibly taken from their families by the Japanese during World War II, the girls were held in what revisionist Japanese historians euphemistically called “comfort stations,” there to serve as sex slaves to Japanese soldiers. According to testimony from comfort women in Japan-occupied countries, they were repeatedly beaten and raped—some by as many as 35 men a day. Those who got pregnant were forced to undergo abortions. Filipino comfort woman Rosa Henson detailed a similar ordeal in the book “Comfort Woman: A Slave of Destiny,” and recalled how the Japanese would hoist one of her legs and tie it to the bedpost, making it easier for them to ravage her.
The women have long been demanding restitution: an official apology from Japan and recompense for their ruined lives. The response so far has been a tepid and generic apology about the excesses of war from then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, and a compensation fund, the Asian Women’s Fund, sourced from private donations and not government money—both hardly an official acknowledgment of a nation’s culpability.
Worse, some Japanese officials have rationalized this official policy of rape and pillage, with Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto saying that comfort women were “necessary” to maintain morale during the war. He also spread the guilt, saying that other countries did the same thing during the war, and that the Japanese should be taught to reply to some accusations by saying, “We were wrong, but you were wrong as well.”
Of late, however, things appear to be changing for women in male-dominated Japan.
In 2007, during his first term as prime minister, Shinzo Abe declared “there was no evidence” that Japan had used coercion on the women despite a 1993 admission and apology from its parliament. But he appears to have since reconsidered his apparent antiwomen stand. In a recent commentary, where he spoke of Japan’s revitalized economy and trade beyond Asia, Abe noted the need for his country “to reinvent itself and recover its true spirit of risk-taking and innovation” by putting more women in the boardroom, and ensuring that 30 percent of all government hires are women. It is time, he said, for the Japanese to change its “pervasive male-oriented thinking.”
In another commentary, Abe praised the Aquino administration for its landmark peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and announced Japan’s “[focus] on giving women in the region the skills they need to earn a living.” He said that “in Mindanao, where Japan built a vocational training center for women, the sounds of gunshots and angry cries have been replaced by the whirr of sewing machines.”
Abe said that “if anything has changed, it is that women are much more visible” in the new Japan that “is fully capable of change, and indeed relishes it, as the world will see in the months and years to come.”
It is hoped that such sterling assurances would cover all women in the region as well, especially the long-ignored comfort women who deserve a measure of comfort and justice in their woefully numbered days.
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