Seeking justice: Felicidad Delos Reyes, 85, a former comfort woman, joining a protest outside the Japanese embassy in Manila. - EPA
The long-ignored comfort women deserve a measure of comfort and justice in their woefully numbered days.
MANILA: Perhaps the only upside to the ongoing territorial dispute involving China over reefs, shoals and islands in the South China Sea is the fact that it has nudged an alliance among other claimant-nations as well as between Japan and the Philippines.
In fact, President Aquino’s recent visit to Japan was intended to highlight the closer ties between the two countries, with Japan announcing its decision to help out a less-endowed neighbour by donating 10 new patrol vessels to the Philippine Coast Guard and training more than 250 of its personnel in the face of China’s aggressive forays in the disputed waters.
But lost amid the expressions of mutual support is a long-festering issue that both countries seem to have studiously avoided: redress and restitution for Filipino comfort women.
It was an oversight that the groups Lila Pilipina and Malaya Lolas astutely pointed out in a rally at the Japanese Embassy, where they condemned Aquino’s support for a proposed change in Japan’s constitution, especially the part that renounces war.
The groups, which represent some 200 Filipino comfort women, expressed fears about the resurgence of a militarist culture in Japan that had turned their now ageing and frail clients from wide-eyed innocents into terrorised sex slaves.
Barely in their teens when forcibly taken from their families by the Japanese during World War II, the girls were held in what revisionist Japanese historians euphemistically called “comfort stations”, there to serve as sex slaves to Japanese soldiers.
The women have long been demanding restitution: an official apology from Japan and recompense for their ruined lives. The response so far has been a tepid and generic apology about the excesses of war from then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, and a compensation fund, the Asian Women’s Fund, sourced from private donations and not government money – both hardly an official acknowledgment of a nation’s culpability.
Worse, some Japanese officials have rationalised this official policy of rape and pillage, with Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto saying that comfort women were “necessary” to maintain morale during the war.
He also spread the guilt, saying that other countries did the same thing during the war, and that the Japanese should be taught to reply to some accusations by saying, “We were wrong, but you were wrong as well.”
Of late, however, things appear to be changing for women in male-dominated Japan.
In 2007, during his first term as prime minister, Shinzo Abe declared “there was no evidence” that Japan had used coercion on the women despite a 1993 admission and apology from its parliament. But he appears to have since reconsidered his antiwomen stand.
In a recent commentary, where he spoke of Japan’s revitalised economy and trade beyond Asia, Abe noted the need for his country “to reinvent itself and recover its true spirit of risk-taking and innovation” by putting more women in the boardroom, and ensuring that 30% of all government hires are women. It is time, he said, for the Japanese to change its “pervasive male-oriented thinking.”
Abe said that “if anything has changed, it is that women are much more visible” in the new Japan that “is fully capable of change, and indeed relishes it, as the world will see in the months and years to come.”
It is hoped that such sterling assurances would cover all women in the region as well, especially the long-ignored comfort women who deserve a measure of comfort and justice in their woefully numbered days.