The sad case of Filipino women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese occupying forces during World War II continues to rankle, with the Japanese government refusing to do more than extend a token apology and, supposedly, assistance programs for them. The terribly euphemistic term for them—“comfort women”—presents a cruel irony.
And they are getting fewer; those remaining are surviving on the barest means and on the most tenuous hopes of attaining justice in their lifetime. And time is running out for them. The comfort women advocacy group Lila Pilipina used to have 174 living members. Now, it has only four.
“I don’t think we have much time left. The lolas [the comfort women now grandmothers] are aging fast and becoming weak(er),” Lila Pilipina executive director Rechilda Extremadura said, adding that “Some 70 years after the lives of these women were ruined, they still do not have justice.” Now in their 90s, they steadfastly refuse any kind of compromise, she noted.
Last year, in a speech marking the 70th anniversary of World War II, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed “profound grief” over the millions killed and said Japan’s repeated “heartfelt apologies” in the past should already be enough. This did not go down well with anyone; South Korea, for example, criticized the speech and China called it a “nonapology.”
But the Philippine government apparently thought it was enough. Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario lauded Japan for its compassion: “This 70-year history demonstrates to the world that through their relentless efforts, peoples of the two countries can attain a remarkable achievement in overcoming issues of the past and establishing a strong friendship.”
This pat on the back was seconded by Malacañang. “Japan has acted with compassion and in accordance with international law, and has more actively and more positively engaged with the region and the world after the war,” deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said. She later added that President Aquino wanted an update on what the Philippine government was doing for the remaining Filipino comfort women.
Does Japan’s current humanitarian and developmental aid change in any way the horror of its actions during World War II, in particular, its military’s preying of comfort women?
The Philippine government should bestir itself and look to South Korea as an example of purposeful action vis-à-vis its own comfort women. Seoul has managed to get Tokyo to agree to a “heartfelt apology” and a sum (a billion yen or $8.3 million) to compensate (if at all that’s possible) its women’s sufferings. Dubbed a “final and irreversible” deal, the landmark agreement comes just in time for the remaining 46 surviving Korean comfort women, but it has also been criticized by the female victims themselves. “We will continue to fight until the end,” said 88-year-old Lee Yong-su.
However, Japan itself has a different interpretation of its own agreement with South Korea. “It’s not compensation. It’s a project to recover the honor and dignity of all comfort women and to heal their emotional wounds,” Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said. “The comfort women issue… occurred with the involvement of the Japanese military… and the Japanese government acutely feels its responsibility.”
Now Taiwan is demanding the same. Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou pushed Japan to do the same for the Taiwanese comfort women. The government demands that “the Japanese government apologize to the comfort women from our country during World War II, to compensate them and to return justice and dignity to them,” Ma said. Kang Shu-hua, director of the Taipei Women’s Rescue Foundation added: “South Korea is only the beginning and Japan should consider how to resolve the issue with the aging comfort women in Taiwan, China, the Philippines and Indonesia who expect an apology and compensation.”
If South Korea and Taiwan can do it, why can’t the Philippines? It is the proper, dignified thing to do for our comfort women, for the Filipino nation. Is Malacañang afraid to disturb its good relationship with Japan? Tokyo’s continuing refusal to do what is right means no less than the continuing degradation of comfort women here and elsewhere. The organizations helping our own comfort women push their case have done much; it is high time our government took the lead and demanded firmly what’s due them.
This is one legacy the Aquino administration can gift our people. Or is it too late for such expectation?
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