The approximately three-kilometer Roxas Boulevard promenade along Manila Bay in the Philippines is well-known to residents of Manila for the bronze statues of popular actresses and former presidents lining it.
To this row of statues has now been added one person with no discernible identity. She is supposed to represent a comfort woman during the World War II Japanese Occupation.
A Chinese group recruited a Philippines human rights organization in secretly working to have this statue erected without the knowledge of the foreign ministry, and with little detail given to the host city government. A historical commission seemed to have coordinated with the women’s group, but is now pointing fingers after having issued a permit faster than it usually does.
The statue was unveiled on December 8. With the Department of Foreign Affairs not being informed about it, the Japanese embassy was also prevented from knowing about the statue and registering any protest until after the statue had been installed.
The inscription in Tagalog (a major Philippine language) on the front of the statue’s pedestal reads, in part, that the statue was erected in memory of the Filipina victims who suffered abuse under the Japanese occupation from 1942 to 1945. The phrase “comfort women” does not appear. The inscription was made by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines, a government institution.
One of the commission’s members said that the local human rights group Lila Pilipina and other organizations started to work on the comfort woman statue in 2014, and that these groups came to the commission in October of 2017, requesting the inscription to be made.
Lila Pilipina is the same group that brought South Korean comfort women activism to the Philippines in the 1990s.
Pointing Fingers, Shifting Blame
The historical commission places around 30 inscriptions each year on historical structures throughout the Philippines. However, the commission member with whom we spoke said that placing an inscription on a newly-erected statue is “out of the ordinary.”
The commissioner emphasized that the NHCP received a “request for cooperation from the City of Manila,” and that the decision was made by a committee of six members comprising historians and others.
The commission member was uncomfortable with the arrangement. In response to opposition from the Japanese government, she said that the statue was made using donations from the private sector. The commission is responsible only for the inscription, and commission members attended the unveiling ceremony only on invitation, the commission member said.
The historical commission announced the unveiling ceremony on its website on December 6—two days before the event—but thereafter deleted it due to the fuss the statue had caused.
However, an official with the City of Manila, which has jurisdiction over the promenade where the comfort woman statue is located, counters that it was the historical commission which was responsible for the administrative handling of the erection of the statue as well as the unveiling ceremony.
An invitation letter to the unveiling ceremony, addressed to Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada and dated November 16, 2017, is, indeed, from the NHCP. This conflicts with the commission member’s explanation that it was the commission which had received the invitation.
Manila city administrator Jojo Alcovendaz, who attended the unveiling ceremony on behalf of the mayor, was uncomfortable with the ceremony’s touching on unresolved issues between Japan and China. Before reading the prepared congratulatory remarks from the mayor, Alcovendaz openly expressed his hopes that the statue would not lead to any trouble.
Alcovendaz explained that he tried to confirm with the head of the historical Commission whether they had received permission for the statue inscription from the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, but said he received no immediate reply. The city and the historical commission are pointing fingers at one another and attempting to shift blame away from themselves.
Open Only to Chinese Media
The names of five individuals and groups are inscribed on the back of the pedestal as donors. Almost all of them are Chinese. Also inscribed, in English, is “Statue of a Filipino Comfort Woman,” along with the name of the Filipino maker of the statue.
We asked several people who stopped to look at the statue whether they had ever heard of comfort women before. Not a single person was able to say who the comfort women were.
A man, who said that he worked at the Aloha Hotel standing catty-corner across from the statue, was guarding the comfort woman statue. He said that construction of the statue began in the summer of 2017. The Aloha Hotel is managed by Manuel O. Chua, a Chinese man whose name is inscribed on the back of the comfort woman statue pedestal. A local Manila reporter said that Chua has personal connections inside Manila city hall.
According to those familiar with the situation, attendees at the unveiling ceremony assembled at the Aloha Hotel before going to the ceremony. The only invited media outlets were Chinese, such as Xinhua News Agency, the official press outlet of the Chinese government in Beijing. Chinese media outlets were also almost alone in reporting on the ceremony. There was hardly any coverage of the ceremony in the local press. Even supposed former comfort women, whom the statue seek to represent—were all excluded.
Others listed as donors on the back of the statue pedestal include a Chinese guerrilla who fought against the Japanese during the occupation period, as well as the Filipino-Chinese group Tulay Foundation, Inc.
The Tulay Foundation has been active in helping orphans living on the streets. It is unclear why this foundation suddenly became involved in the comfort women issue, but they told us that they were “not accepting Japanese media interview requests.”
The Wai Ming Charitable Foundation Fund Company Limited, appearing last on the pedestal donor list, is a Hong Kong-based organization whose founder, Chung Wai Ming, is believed to have supported comfort women relief on the Chinese mainland as well as the demands for reparations from Japan.
Chinese anti-Japan propaganda, which makes full use of the overseas Chinese network under the “comfort women” banner, was also undertaken in 2015 in Australia. However, the petition to erect a comfort woman statue in a public place was not recognized there on the grounds that it was outside the purview of the local city government to make decisions on such matters.
Because the issue in Australia was carried out publicly, the Japanese government was able to move and counter the statue efforts. In Manila, however, the Japanese embassy was unaware of any such actions until December 9, the day after the unveiling ceremony took place, when it was already reported by Chinese media.
The Japanese embassy stays in close contact with the Office of the Presidente and with the Department of Foreign Affairs in the Philippines. However, when the Japanese side inquired about the statue, both national offices said that they were caught utterly unawares as well. By the time the news had been reported, it was already too late.
On December 11, Harry Roque, the spokesman of President Rodrigo Duterte, said that he neither supported the comfort woman statue nor was in a position to oppose it.
China has thus driven a new wedge into the friendly postwar relations between the two countries. Japan is the Philippines’ biggest partner in trade, investment, and official development assistance.
At a Glance: The Comfort Women Issue in the Philippines
The governments of both Japan and the Philippines consider all reparations issues stemming from World War II to have been resolved by the San Francisco Peace Treaty, which went into effect in 1952. However, in the 1990s, women came forward in the Philippines, claiming to have been comfort women during the period of Japanese Occupation (1942-45). During the administration of Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, the Asian Women’s Fund was launched in 1995. It paid out “atonement monies” totaling JPY3.2 million to each of 211 Filipino former comfort women. Still, there were movements to refuse the monies from the Asian Women’s Fund and to demand that Japan make an official apology and provide official reparations.
Hideki Yoshimura is the Sankei Shimbun’s Singapore Bureau Chief. He is contributing this article from Manila.
(Click here to read the original article in Japanese.)