Despite a Japanese official expressing to President Rodrigo Duterte her disappointment in the sudden construction of a comfort woman statue in Manila, the Philippine chief executive will not act on it himself, his spokesman said.
In a press briefing on Thursday, January 11th, a Filipina journalist asked Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque about Duterte’s reaction to the remarks of Japanese Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Seiko Noda when the latter paid him a courtesy call two days earlier.
Noda said Duterte did not make a comment, but had clearly understood the concerns of the Japanese side.
The two-meter-high bronze statue was unveiled on December 8 along Manila’s Roxas Boulevard, the promenade famous for its magnificent view of the sunset. Its marker doesn’t mention the words “comfort women,” but says, in Filipino, that the monument is for the “memory of women who were abused in the Philippines during the Japanese Occupation.”
Only the Chinese media were notified about the unveiling, and were in fact reporting about it even before the unveiling date. The statue was funded by private Chinese individuals and the Chinese foundation Tulay (Bridge). The National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP), whose seal appears on the marker, and the city government of Manila, which has jurisdiction over the site, are pointing fingers at each other after it appeared the statue was erected either without permits or was approved in an unusually expeditious manner.
A few days after the unveiling of the statue, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs wrote to Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada (a former Philippine president whose campaigns had been funded by Chinese businessmen), asking for “background information” after the Japanese embassy aired its concerns.
“Taking into account the sensitive nature of the comfort women issue both domestically and bilaterally, with Japan, the department requests for background information regarding the monument, including the process of erecting such monuments, and the circumstances that led to the erection of the comfort woman statue,” DFA Assistant Secretary Millicent Cruz-Paredes said in a December 12 letter to Estrada.
On Thursday, Duterte’s spokesperson initially tried to avoid addressing the issue, saying, “Not everything that goes on closed doors bilateral talks can be reported upon or commented upon.”
Roque himself, along with two other Philippine officials, was present during Noda’s courtesy call to President Duterte. The Japanese delegation included Koji Haneda, Japan’s ambassador to the Philippines; Kenichi Imabayashi, director-general, Global Strategy Bureau Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications; Kazuaki Omori, director, International Cooperation Division, Global Strategy Bureau; and Takehiro Kano, Embassy of Japan deputy chief of mission.
Pressed for more specific comments, Roque said the statue was “not something that the President will act on himself” because he did not order its construction. The historical commission, however, is under the Office of the President.
Finally, the presidential spokesman said the comfort woman statue was not a diplomatic issue, despite Japanese officials airing their concerns.
“Our ties with Japan remain very strong. We have every reason to be optimistic, that bilateral relations with Japan would become even stronger,” Roque said.
Japan is the Philippines’ top source of official development assistance. During the ASEAN Summit in Manila in November, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Duterte witnessed the exchange of notes on 5 projects that will be funded by multi-billion-dollar loans.
Manila, where the comfort woman statue stands, is a sister city of Japan’s Yokohama. In October 2017, another Japanese city, Osaka, cut its sister ties with San Francisco, California, after the city government allowed comfort women statues to be build in a park.
Below is the transcript of the exchange on the issue during Malacañang’s January 11th press briefing:
Sir, the Japanese Minister of Internal Affairs said that she expressed regret over the comfort woman statue erected on Roxas Boulevard. May we know how the President reacted to this?
I think we issued a press statement, and we stand by the press statement.
So, sir, you’re denying that the minister ever said…?
I’m not denying. I’m saying that the press statement prepared by Malacañang—and that’s the press statement.
Sir, do you believe in that statement?
Can you respond on the premise that she gave those remarks? Because my next question would then be: how would the remarks impact on the relationship between Japan and the Philippines?
Well, as I said, there’s a press statement issued. Not everything that goes on closed doors bilateral talks can be reported upon or commented upon.
But, sir, Japanese media already reported on it. Because she (Noda) herself admitted that during a press briefing or interview.
Let Japanese media report on it. Next question, please?
But will the Philippine government be doing anything about the statue at least, given how it has caused such controversies?
You know, the statue is not erected by Malacañang. What are we supposed to do?
But, sir, it has the seal of the NHCP (National Historical Commission of the Philippines), which is a government agency.
Then, that should be addressed to the NHCP. It’s not something that the President will act on himself.
So, sir, Malacañang is hands-off on this issue?
We didn’t erect the statue, so it’s not a presidential project, so to speak.
So the government doesn’t see this as a diplomatic issue?
I don’t think it is really a diplomatic issue, no, because our ties with Japan remain very strong. We have every reason to be optimistic that bilateral relations with Japan would become even stronger.