Philippines remains devastated long after World War II ended
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Philippines remains devastated long after World War II ended

As the world commemorates the end of World War II this week, allow me to reprint a story I did in 2005. 

Long afterward, war still wears on Filipinos

By Carlos H. Conde

International Herald Tribune / The New York Times

Published:: Aug. 13, 2005

MAPANIQUE, Philippines: On Nov. 23, 1944, Japanese soldiers stormed through this village, burning down houses and killing all the Filipino men they could find. They then herded dozens of women to a red mansion that had been turned into a garrison.

There, the soldiers took turns violating the Filipinas; they raped a mother and her daughter at the same time in one of the many rooms.

To this day, the women of Mapanique – many of those still alive are now in their 70s – talk about their ordeal with chilling clarity.

“I will never forget that horrible day,” said Maxima dela Cruz, 76, one of the survivors.

In other countries, remembering the atrocities of Japan is a matter of honor. In this village about 60 kilometers, or 37 miles, north of Manila, remembrance is at once cruel and bitterly ironic: Dozens of relatives of the women raped in the red mansion, many of them grandchildren, are toiling today in Japan – in its tofu factories, on its construction sites and in its homes.

In many instances – and this is what the survivors find particularly outrageous – they work there as entertainers, which is often a euphemism for prostitution.

To a large extent, what is happening to the women and children of Mapanique mirrors the reality of the Philippines 60 years after World War II ended. Unlike in other countries where the war’s end brought renewal and hope, there is a strong sense in this country that the war victimized Filipinos twice over, that its horrifying toll went beyond the destruction of its cities.

If the war destroyed 80 percent of the Philippine economy, its consequences – the reparations, the ensuing relationship between Manila and Tokyo, the Cold War, the rise of Ferdinand Marcos, who exploited Japan’s postwar penitence and benevolence and almost single-handedly repaired relations with the Japanese – damaged Filipinos even further, diminishing their sense of pride and their ability to appreciate their past and learn from it.

In short, World War II left the Philippines devastated long after it ended, historians and sociologists say.

This damage, they say, defines the modern Filipino: poor and lost, perpetually wandering the globe for economic survival, bereft of national pride, and – like the women of Mapanique – forced to suffer, to this day, the indignities of their violation.

“Filipinos have a very short historical memory,” said Ricardo Trota Jose, the country’s foremost scholar on Philippine-Japan relations, who teaches history at the University of the Philippines.

This despite the fact that an estimated one million Filipinos, of a wartime population of 17 million, were killed during the war. “Every Filipino family was hurt by the war on a very personal level,” Jose said.

But for a people wounded by Japan like no other in Southeast Asia, Filipinos are now very friendly toward Japan – a phenomenon that baffles many historians and sociologists considering that, in countries like China and South Korea, anti-Japanese sentiment still smolders and occasionally flares.

“It’s not just historical amnesia,” said Michael Tan, a sociologist and anthropologist who has been studying the impact of conflicts on Filipinos. “A large part of the blame goes to the failure by our historians to remind our people of our past,” Tan said.

He points out the case of textbooks, where many of the atrocities committed by the Japanese, among them the systematic rape of Filipinas who are now called “comfort women,” are not even mentioned.

As a result – and here Jose agrees – Filipinos are not as offended as the Chinese or the Koreans are, for example, about the fact that these atrocities are given only fleeting attention in Japanese classrooms, if at all.

According to Jose, the Philippines have never had an official history of the war. Most of the literature on the war was written by foreigners, many of them by American veterans and Japanese scholars. The first book on the Japanese occupation written by a Filipino was published in 1994, nearly half a century after the war’s end.

Not surprisingly, Tan says, hardly anybody protested – except the group of women raped by the Japanese during the war – when the tourism office in the town of Mabalacat a few years ago put up a memorial for Japanese kamikaze pilots. There was a kamikaze air base at the town during the war.

The town is in Pampanga, a province north of Manila that was the center of an anti-Japanese rebellion during the war.

Among the pilots honored was a lieutenant the memorial hailed as the “world’s first official human bomb!”

Nor did many find any irony late last year, when, while Filipino “comfort women” continued to lobby and demonstrate in search of justice and compensation from Tokyo, hundreds of young Filipino women held rallies in Manila protesting a move by the Japanese government to tighten rules in the hiring of Filipino entertainers.

A main factor in all of this is economic.

“Beggars can’t be choosers,” Tan said by way of explaining why Filipinos, particularly those who suffered at the hands of the Japanese during the war, decided to forget the past and try to survive the present.

According to officials in Manila, the majority of entertainers in Japan’s nightclubs and bars are Filipinos. The number of Filipino entertainers there has increased over the years; today, at an estimated 80,000, they now comprise the biggest number of Filipino workers in Japan, the majority of them women.

These women, along with an estimated seven million Filipinos working in other parts of the world, send $8 billion a year to their families back home, thus helping to prop up one of the weakest economies in Asia, a country chronically saddled by huge foreign debts and budget deficits.

But another factor in what Tan calls “national historical amnesia” is a conscious effort by the Japanese to change the way Filipinos regard them and the creation by the ruling class of Filipinos of an ideology that, according to Tan, “convinces us that we have to be grateful to Japan.”

This class, he says, gained from collective amnesia and from the friendship of Manila and Tokyo after the war.

Indeed, historians point out that Japan never ceased trying to win back the Philippines’ sympathy after the war. It poured in tremendous amounts of money and resources – more than any other country, including America – as part of its postwar diplomacy.

To this day, Japan is the Philippines’ top donor of so-called official development assistance. Japan is also the Philippines’ top foreign investor.

Japan is among the top countries in the world in sponsoring the education of Filipino scholars, while its cultural diplomacy is among the most extensive.

“Our neighbors did not receive the same amount of aid and assistance from Japan,” said the historian Manuel Quezon 3rd.

What is not widely discussed here, however, is that most of these resources from Japan were actually loans and were, in fact, linked to Japan’s quest for export markets after the war.

Japan tied these loans, which were mainly used for infrastructure like highways, to contracts with Japanese contractors and suppliers.

On the Philippine side, only a small clique of influential Filipino contractors and businesses benefited from the postwar largesse. Most Filipinos thus did not benefit substantially from reparations.

According to one study, Japanese “reparation payments to the Philippines were relatively less efficient than in other countries.”

In fact, according to another study, the reparations “provided investment mainly to private-sector projects for reaping short-term profits, leaving long-term profitable key industries with insufficient capital.”

The result is that the Philippines did not develop its industries, a defect whose impact is still felt today. Worse, according to historians, the way the loans and reparations money and goods were utilized ushered in the era of bureaucratic corruption that is now so prevalent here.

Japan increased its engagement with the Philippines after Washington shifted its attention to the Cold War.

During the Korean War, Washington actually gave more support to Japan than it did to the Philippines, because of Japan’s strategic relevance, Quezon said, even though Filipino guerrillas had fought side by side with Americans against the Japanese.

While Tokyo had little success in repairing relations with Philippine presidents immediately after the war, things changed when Ferdinand Marcos took power in the 1960s. Marcos repaired relations with Japan, ingratiating himself with Tokyo, which was only too happy to pour in more loan money.

Marcos, in turn, used the loans to prop up an economy that was becoming increasingly weak because of his mismanagement.

Some historians even point out that the Japanese loans allowed Marcos to fatten his and his cronies’ wallets and, perhaps more important, prolong his brutal regime. 

The loans Marcos incurred contributed to the foreign debts that are still choking the Philippines to this day. The debts prevent the government from developing industries and creating more jobs, thus pushing Filipinos to seek a better life abroad, even in countries their loved ones loathe.

“We did not have a choice. We’re poor people,” said Ruperto Quilantang, who worked for years as a construction worker in Japan.

Quilantang’s wife, 78-year-old Maria, was one of those raped inside the red house.

“Of course it’s painful,” said one of the Mapanique women when asked about a grandchild who now works as a hostess in a Tokyo bar. “But we need this,” she said, forming the money sign with her thumb and index finger.

Aida, a dressmaker in a Manila suburb who asked that only her first name be used, is unapologetic about the decision by one of her daughters to work as a bar girl in Japan.

“Her children are growing up and my daughter was worried she could not feed them well or send them to school,” said Aida, whose father fought the Japanese as a guerrilla. When asked what her father would think of her daughter, Aida replied: “My grandchildren cannot eat the past.”