On the busy street of Juan Luna in Tacloban City, one cannot escape staring at the imposing Hotel Alejandro, one of the city’s hotels that is owned and manage by the prominent Montejo family whose American period ancestral house dominates the front portion of the said establishment, and is said to be one of the few best preserved Spanish and American period houses amidst a city of ever changing taste in architectural style and gusto – a sad tragedy of poor historical conservation and protection on the part of local authorities.
Today is Saturday, October 20 and went there to order a pancit which I will take out since it is both I and my grandmother’s favorite snack in the afternoon. While waiting for my order in the cafeteria, I have decided to roam around the old house of the Montejo which has now been part of the hotel and contains pictures and memorabilias during the Second World War. My visit is so timely since today, 68 years ago, General Douglas MacArthur landed in the shores of Red Beach, Palo, Leyte in what has now been remember as the Leyte Gulf Landings.
Local news have been reporting of the preparations and commemorations in the different parts of Leyte leading to this event. Ambassadors of the United States, Canada, Australia, and Japan are expected to attend the memorial service today although it is raining outside – the same weather according to my grandmother that prevailed when MacArthur fulfilled his promise to liberate the country from the clutches of Imperial Japan’s cruelty. President Aquino, will not be present in this year’s Leyte Landing Anniversary and will be represented by Ramon B. Magsaysay, Jr. the son of the late President Magsaysay.
As I scan through the pictures that hang in walls of the old Montejo mansion and admiring the models of American warships used in World War II, I cannot help but recall the wartime stories related to me by my grandmother, stories that still echoes until today. She told me of the hardships that her family has been through when they evacuated their town and went to the mountains hiding for fear of Japanese cruelty. They sleep in the darkness, eat root crops, drink rainwater, and walk on foot to evade the Imperial Japanese Army. Her tired mother unknowingly sat on a big python while taking a rest after a long thirsty walk in the mountain trail. They live in fear and helplessness.
With their lives in constant danger, her father decided to go back in the town and try to live a normal life. Her three brothers joined the guerrilla movement while she, at the age 9 look after the socks of rice being dried as food ration for the Filipino resistance fighters. When the Japs (as they were called) began hounding people as hostage and killing them every time guerrillas kill a Japanese soldier (1 Japanese soldier killed = 20 innocent Filipino lives). They kill without mercy – throwing a baby in the air and then catching it with the sharp bayonet in their guns and torturing to death any suspected guerrilla sympathizer by the notorious kempeitai, the Japanese secret police.
One of the unsettled war issues in the Philippines is the sad plight of Filipina comfort women who were forced to sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army. Girls and women abducted, coerced, and raped by these soldiers before they were brought to the “comfort stations” where they were repeatedly sexually abused by many Japanese soldiers. For many years after the war, they have remained silent – bearing the shame and agony in silence until a brave woman by the name of Maria Rosa Henson came out in the open and tell her story in 1992 in a book Comfort Woman: A Slave of Destiny.
As one article puts it:
“Lola Rosa provided an achingly straightforward voice to the erstwhile silent and invisible existence of Filipino comfort women. Almost 200 Filipino women soon followed Rosa’s example as they decided to reveal themselves and their personal stories for the first time—not only to the world, but to their families as well.”
What followed was a series of lawsuits made by Filipina women against the Japanese government demanding for “justice in the form of a formal apology from the Japanese government; the inclusion of all the war-time atrocities committed by the Japanese into Japan’s school history books; and monetary reparations to compensate for all the abuses and violence committed against the women”. An Asian Women’s Fund was established to provide compensation to comfort women across Asia including the Philippines and each survivor was also given a signed letter of apology from then Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama. The fund was later abolished in 2007.
The letter states that:
“As Prime Minister of Japan, I thus extend anew my most sincere apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences and suffered incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women.”
Apology and compensation went well with victims of Japanese atrocities during World War II in Korea and other Asian countries. The case of the Philippines was different. In what has been a controversial landmark decision made by the Supreme Court in 2010, it stated that the country cannot ran after the government of Japan for compensation for the Filipino comfort women since the country already signed a Treaty of Peace with Japan have already settled all war claims of the Philippines. The decision was challenged by prominent human rights advocate and comfort women lawyers Harry Roque and Rommel Bagares citing that some of the statements in the decision were plagiarized and proper citation was not observed. Until now, the appeal for the revision of the decision is still in high court.
During the campaign trail, President Barack Obama announced that there will be an additional $15,000.00 U.S. dollars compensation for Filipino war veterans who fought during the Second World War under the American flag. This is different from the benefits given by the United States government for the war veterans that was included in the stimulus package (or better known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009) under the present administration. Critics have questioned the timing of the pronouncement in the wake of the election campaign as they have accused Obama of trying to secure the votes of the Filipino-American community in the U.S.
Occasions like this provide an opportunity for us to reflect on the events of the past, to learn something from it, and to accomplish what remains to be done. Every year, during the Leyte Landing Anniversary, Japan’s Ambassador to the Philippines continues to offer his country’s apology for all the wrongdoing that his people have done in the past. The fact that my country and Japan is in good terms signifies the return to normalcy of diplomatic relations that were marred by the war. Even some of the granddaughters of comfort women now work in Japan as entertainers according to one documentary.
However, unless there is an acknowledgment that Filipino comfort women exists and that there is a formal apology from the government of Japan in addition to monetary compensation will somehow there be a closure to the 70 years of wounds left open by the ravages of war. My own family is still longing to find the remains of my late grandfather’s sister, a nun who was murdered by the Japanese and was reputedly buried in the plaza of Catbalogan, Samar. We are still finding definite answers. A lot have already died seeking for answers and justice. With these women and men in their twilight years of their lives, I hope that they will get justice and compensation that they so well-deserve to earn.