On December 8, 2017, the anniversary of Japan’s initial invasion of Manila, along the iconic Manila Bay, a 7 foot World War II “Comfort Woman” bronze statue was unveiled. National Historical Commission of the Philippines chairman Rene Escalante and Acting Executive Director Ludovico Badoy attended the unveiling ceremonies. Once unveiled, the statue almost immediately stirred up controversy. The Japanese Embassy in Manila contacted the Manila City administrator to ask about the statute and express strong reservations.
According to Jojo Alcovendaz, Manila City administrator Jojo, the Japanese officials were concerned that the issue of comfort women and comfort women testimonies , which they thought they had settled years ago, was still a serious issue for their country, for China and for Korea. They wondered why with the strong ties between the two countries a statue of their past would be erected in Manila, at this time. He also said that the Japanese Embassy informed him that when the statue of a comfort woman was erected on private land in San Francisco in the US, that action led to the ties between San Francisco and its sister city, Osaka, to be severed. Alcovendaz noted that the story about the comfort woman statue was carried by newspapers in Japan and China highlighting the strength of the feelings around this symbol.
So who exactly are these comfort women and why are the statutes put up in their honor causing rifts across continents and damaging relationships like the San Francisco Osaka sisterhood relationship that was 60 years strong? What is so compelling about their story that Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano would warn that the Philippines “long-term” relationship with Japan is at stake over the erection of the statute?
For that, we have to go back to World War II when Japan invaded the Philippines and enslaved about 1,000 young women and girls to be sex slaves to the invading army. While that number appears small in Manila, many researchers have estimated that around 200,000 women, mostly in Korea but some from China, Indonesia, Taiwan and of course the Philippines, served Japanese soldiers in “comfort shelters”. The 200,000 number has not been accepted by all and has been challenged by a professor at the Seoul National University who put the estimate at only about 5,000. Whatever the number, this issue touched a lot of countries and a lot of women and is still a very raw subject on both the victims and the perpetrators’ side.
After the war, in 1956, Japan entered into the Reparations Agreement with the Republic of the Philippines to provide the Philippines with $550 million in reparations and this according to the Philippines authorities, “officially settled” the matter. Cayetano stated that “The official stand not of the DFA but of the Philippines for several years is that it has been officially part of the reparations and it has been officially settled,” However, the World War II comfort women have criticized that stance and are demanding a public apology and compensation from Japan.
The response from Cayetano is that while that is the official position, it does not stop the World War II comfort women, any group or individual or Filipinos in general from contacting the Japanese government to seek any kind of settlement or justice.
In 1993, Tokyo issued a landmark apology acknowledging the military’s involvement in the brothel system but did not admit to the government’s part in allowing the situation to continue during the war. In 2014, a United Nations watchdog called on Japan to accept full blame for the plight of the comfort women but this call was rejected.
So what exactly is at stake? For starters, Manila is the sister city to Yokohama in Japan and if what happened in San Francisco is an indication, if this delicate situation is not handled properly, that sisterhood ties could be severed. In addition, there is significant trade between the countries and aid coming from Japan to the Philippines and all that could be jeopardized.