Rethinking history: Jose P. Laurel

Through a film, historians rehabilitate the memory of the Philippines’ third President, seen as a wartime Japanese collaborator in popular memory

IN BLACK AND WHITE The docu-drama, as the title suggests, revolves around the misunderstood nationalist and former Philippine President Jose P. Laurel. Scene from the movie

Crises do not only bring out the best and worst in people, they also bring out conflicting perspectives after they’ve been resolved.

Take for example the Second World War, where Filipinos both resisted and collaborated with the Japanese, where some hoarded wealth while others shared what little they had with their communities. But how about people whose actions on the surface didn’t match their intentions?

As the Japanese invasion mopped the Philippines up, then President Manuel L. Quezon instructed Jose P. Laurel to take care of the country as the former left for the US to maintain a Philippine government-in-exile. From 1943 to liberation in 1945, Laurel gave all his efforts to that mission, yet history writes him off as a collaborator with the country’s last colonizers.

Gray areas often get shaded over, especially as a community, society, or nation finds itself rebuilding not only its infrastructure and institutions but also its identity as a people. Understandably, in the immediate postwar years, and in light of US hegemony at that time, Philippine historians and educators were forced to paint in broad strokes.
Today, however, as Filipinos become more critical of all colonizers, a more nuanced historiography of figures like Laurel is slowly emerging.

Historians from different institutions such as Xiao Chua, Rey Ileto, Florina Orillos-Juan, and Ricardo T. Jose, together with descendants of President Laurel, have teamed up to produce the docu-drama Laurel, focused on the man’s wartime activities as President of the Republic under Japan.

LAURELITES The cast and crew of the film Laurel at its premiere in 2019

Laurel had the unique position of experiencing three colonizers, being old enough to understand developments during the revolution against Spain, starting his career under American rule, and making his life’s biggest decisions under Japanese occupation.

It should be noted that during the American period, there was a significant population of Japanese living in the Philippines, some as businessmen and others as laborers. One notable case was the Japanese workers who built Baguio’s main roads.

There is a world of difference between historical revision and historical distortion—the former is done in good faith, with rigor, and a basis in facts, while the other either denies facts or spins them.

With the memory of independence denied being fresh in the minds of many Filipinos, there was also an undercurrent of anti-American sentiment among the populace, and this was expressed subtly through the time’s art forms, like in bodabil productions, the equivalent of today’s variety shows.

Under this context, Laurel co-represented wartime Philippines alongside Quezon. The film draws from Laurel’s memoirs, analyses by historians, and contextualized readings of news clippings from the day in order to make the primary assertion that Laurel “did not want to be in this position,” as stated in his memoir.

Here, Laurel was for true independence, from both the Americans and the Japanese.

CONTROVERSIAL LEADER Philippine President Jose P. Laurel, during his visit to Tokyo to attend the Greater East Asia Conference in 1943 (Mainichi Newspaper Office)

To this end, Laurel during his term made nuanced calls, from establishing a pantheon of Philippine heroes (then banned under the Americans), to making the presidential Palace a Japanese-free zone guarded by an all-native Philippine battalion, to stopping the executions of captured resistance fighters, all the way to announcing a “state” instead of a “declaration” of war when Allied forces began attacking Japanese units in the Philippines.

As such, he was unpopular with both the Japanese and American authorities. Ultimately, such decisions were designed to protect the lives of Filipinos. He also promoted programs to directly help common citizens under Japanese occupation, such as repurposing land for agricultural purposes, making a Filipino-only food bank (as agricultural output was sequestered by the Japanese war machine) and transferring Philippine industries from Japanese military control back into Philippine civil hands.

Many of these initiatives evolved into present-day institutions such as the social security loan system, the PhilHealth system, and Rizal education across all Philippine schools.

“If I did not accept the position , someone more pro-Japanese will take it … I do not love the Americans, I do not love the Japanese, I love the Filipinos,” Laurel wrote, sometimes behind Japanese-guarded bars.

It should be noted that there is a world of difference between historical revision and historical distortion.
Both try to assert new understandings of history, often directly contradicting established understandings. But the former is done in good faith, with rigor, and a basis in facts, while the other either denies facts or spins them to serve motives that favor a few people at the expense of the rest of society.

Amid current attempts to distort Philippine history, examples like Laurel show that there is a right—and ethical—way to question and rethink history, especially if led by rigorous experts with years of experience in their respective fields.
Still, historians and other truth-tellers can only do so much. We as citizens have our parts to play, too.

For updates on or bookings for screenings, follow the Laurel Film Facebook page.