Last month, a curious piece of street furniture appeared in Manila. No real fanfare – one day there was nothing there; the next it appeared. But although the making and the installation of it were carried out very quietly, the storm from it – now reverberating along diplomatic corridors – has placed the Philippine Government in a very awkward situation.
The installation is a life-size bronze statue of a young blind-folded female figure (photo). It represents a “comfort woman” – a sex-slave of the Imperial Japanese Army’s occupation of the Philippines between 1942 and 1945. The site it occupies is on the waterfront promenade of Roxas Boulevard – an iconic road, popular with tourists – and just 3 kilometres away from the Japanese Embassy.
The point is, the government had no knowledge of this statue until it appeared; the entire operation seems to have been conducted in secret. Knowledge of it seems to have been restricted to the artist who made it, the groups who funded and encouraged its making, the Mayor of Manila, former president Joseph Estrada, and the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCR) which apparently authorised the erection of it – though it’s not clear if any official permit was ever issued to site it in a public place.
What is clear is that this work was paid for by Chinese groups and individuals; that comfort-women advocacy group, Lila Pilipina (the League of Filipino Women) collaborated on the work – as possibly did feminist organisation, Gabriela – and that the NHCR fully supported the project.
With diplomatic understatement, the Japanese Foreign Ministry has informed the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs that it regards the statue and its prominent display in the heart of Manila as “extremely regrettable” – an assessment evidently shared by Philippine Foreign Secretary, Alan Peter Cayetano who, on Friday, announced that a government panel has been set up to look into the issue.
This follows – to our mind – a less-than-helpful statement by presidential spokesman, Harry Roque, earlier in the week which attempted to downplay the matter. Responding to concern expressed by Japan’s Internal Affairs and Communications minister, Seiko Noda, Roque said this: “I don’t think this is really a bilateral issue because our ties with Japan are very strong. We have every reason to be optimistic that bilateral relations with Japan will become even more stronger”.
If Roque believes that, he’s mistaken. Last November, the erection of another comfort-women statue in San Francisco in the US resulted in the mayor of Osaka in Japan dissolving his city’s twinning agreement with SF. Manila has a similar sister-city arrangement with Japan’s second-largest city, Yokohama. Maybe the mayor there won’t be quite as sanguine about the statue controversy as Roque apparently is.
Moreover, in everything from trade to investment to development assistance, Japan is the Philippines’ biggest partner and Tokyo is a central player in Manila’s plans to rebuild the Philippines infrastructure. Japan is also the Philippines’ closest ally, while Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are also very close.
The fact is Japanese sensitivities over that period of history run deep and raw. And Japan feels that it’s being singled out to take the hit for all such atrocities committed in wartime by foreign armies. And certainly, that’s an argument it can make. In addition, there are sections of Chinese communities in most places which seek to perpetuate hatred of Japan.
That goes back way beyond the events of the Second World War and to the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) and the later Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) by which Imperial Japan expanded its territorial interests in northern China and Manchuria.
But let’s be quite clear. No-one condones the violence against civilians of either gender perpetrated by troops in times of war. It doesn’t matter whether those troops are Japanese, Russian, Ukranian, German, American, Dutch or British – or for that matter, Chinese. It’s ugly and wholly reprehensible and it should always be condemned. But, unfortunately it’s a fact of war.
Our question then for this weekend’s Your Forum is this: After more than 70 years, isn’t it time for a full reconciliation between the Philippines and Japan? In other words, does publically humiliating the Japanese nation over something that its present-day citizens had no part in, no memory of, help in any way to further peace and understanding? Forgiveness and moving on is never easy, but isn’t it time – particularly among those Chinese groups – to make some effort in that direction, rather than keep this issue alive and use it as a stick to beat Japan?
Here’s another horrendous episode from that same period of history that might be worth considering. In 1944 and 1945, Soviet Red Army troops moved into Germany as World War II was being brought to its conclusion. While they were there, however, they raped anything up to an estimated 2 million German girls and women – some 1.4 million in East Prussia, and the Central European regions of Pomerania and Silesia, alone.
In the capital, Berlin, they’re believed to have been responsible for 100,000 rapes – and repeated rapes; some women were violated 60 and 70 times. Abortion rates surged in the aftermath of this brutality. English military historian, Sir Anthony Beevor, who’s studied the Second World War extensively, describes this period as the “greatest period of mass rape in history”.
And yet, there are no street statues to those German girls and German women; no demands for reparation and apology from the Russian Federation which took over from the Soviet Union after it fell in 1985.
Lamentably, there are many accounts like these down through the ages – from pre-Biblical times to the Vikings to present-day wars in Africa and elsewhere. No-one can excuse them; no-one should – but there has to come a time in all such cases where history must be laid to rest.
Actually, if the Philippines wants to erect a statue to sex slaves and other forms of slavery, let it be to those of today. According to the 2016 World Slavery Index there are some 401,000 Filipinos living in modern-day slavery. That report claims that 47.67 Filipinos per 100 head of population are vulnerable to slavery.
And sex slavery, specifically, is well represented courtesy of a burgeoning sex-trade industry – taking in everything from massage parlours, girlie bars and brothels to the production of pornography and online live-streamed child sex offered to perverts from around the planet. Not to mention the trafficking in women for “domestic use” and “marriage”; nor the around-the-clock rape which goes on virtually unmentioned in the Philippines – one every 51 minutes in 2015.
Japan isn’t responsible for this wretched state of affairs which is happening right now under the nose of that statue on Roxas Boulevard. Blame for that lies much closer to home.