By Gemma Cruz Araneta
In 2017, the term “comfort women” acquired a renewed resonance as memorials and monuments in their honor were installed in several places in Asia like South Korea, Hong Kong, and the Philippines. In San Francisco, USA, a monument was inaugurated at St. Mary’s Square before an emotional crowd bitten by the vermin of war memories. Last December, to honor Filipino “comfort women,” the National Historical Commission of the Philippines unveiled a 2-meter high bronze statue set on a pedestal, along the bay walk of Manila.
According to historical accounts, media reports, and rare video footages recently unearthed, the “comfort women” were sex slaves of the Japanese Imperial Army in countries Japan invaded and occupied during the Second World War. In the case of Korea, Japan conquered as early as 1910 and left only in 1945. The sitting prime minister of Japan said those women were not hapless sex slaves but prostitutes who applied for the job and were well-remunerated, but there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Anyone can access on-line information, photos and videos about the terrible fate of the “comfort women” and the memorials in their honor. Strikingly, the effigies are not of women but of innocent-looking, guileless young girls in their teens. Only the Philippine statue (superbly crafted by Jonas Roces) dressed in a Maria Clara and blindfolded could be described as a woman. The monument in San Francisco city has three figures representing a Korean, Chinese, and Filipina in their teens. I think the one in Hong Kong is similar and, according to Filipinos working there, it is situated in a very busy place for everyone to see.
In my opinion, the most unique memorial, or rather, memorials is the one in Seoul where the Dong-A Transit bus company put effigies of a “comfort woman” seated in the front seat of 5 of its buses, one of which passes in front of the embassy of Japan. She is a young girl with cropped hair, chubby cheeks, wearing the typical Korean dress. The history activists who made the figures “ride” the bus want to awaken the curiosity and historical consciousness of younger generations; it is an effective way of keeping the issue alive.
In contrast, here in the Philippines, we are afraid of ghosts. The “comfort women” monument, which was installed last December by the NHCP no less, but with such paltry ceremonies, has nettled and riled the sensitivities of the Japanese government. It conveniently forgets that there is a monument to the kamikaze in Mabalacat, Pampanga, and one to Gen. Yamashita in Los Baños, at the spot where he was sent to the gallows. Moreover, the Japanese flag figures in our commemorative re-enactments of the Death March. Filipinos are so accommodating and forgetful that hardly anyone protests. Besides, we have a horror of ghosts.
To my chagrin, the “comfort women” monument at the Manila’s bay walk was abducted upon orders of President R. Duterte himself.We are all flummoxed by the cavalier removal of that epitaph to their martyrdom. I said “abducted” because the bronze statue was made to disappear under cover of darkness. A historian friend, Prof Michael Xiao Chua, posted photos on FB of a menacing backhoe parked beside the “comfort woman” ready to crumple it in its mighty jaw. Apparently, the Department of Public Works and Highways said they had to fix drainage pipes upon which the statue and its pedestal happened to stand; what a tissue of pretexts. At this writing, no one wants to reveal the whereabouts of the statue, or what remained of it.
I dare say that I am very disappointed in Pres. Rodrigo Duterte. With relish, he threw at mighty America’s face the genocides their armies committed at Bud Dajo, Bud Bagsak, and Balangiga. He brandished archival photographs of piles and piles of dead Filipinos and American soldiers pounding their chests with glee. At last, I rejoiced, we have a leader who is not afraid of history! Finally, a president who is not afraid of ghosts of the past!
I must have spoken too soon.