Surviving “comfort women” continue to see each other in monthly gatherings, sharing stories or belting out love songs with the videoke machine.
Recently, they met at the office of Lila Pilipina, a survivors’ group in Quezon City.
It was the end of May and there was a heavy downpour that morning, but it didn’t drown out the sound of the voices of the lolas—grandmothers in Filipino—as they sang their own rendition of love songs from forgotten times.
They shared a bowl of hot soup and a loaf of cheese bread before discussing the next steps in their struggle for justice.
"We can no longer take back what happened to us but my hope is for future generations to not suffer the same thing," said one survivor named Virginia Villarma.
The issue of so-called comfort women isn’t usually mentioned by the Japanese government.
Philippine authorities have also been quiet, afraid that the issue may strain economic ties with Japan, which accounted for 18 percent of the Philippine export market in 2011.
However, in early May a Japanese politician brought the issue to the surface when he drew international press attention by saying that sex slaves served a necessary role during the Second World War, particularly to provide relief to Japanese troops.
"For soldiers who risked their lives in circumstances where bullets are flying around like rain and wind, if you want them to get some rest, a comfort women system was necessary. That’s clear to anyone," said Toru Hashimoto, mayor of Osaka, Japan.
Hashimoto’s words angered the women once part of the comfort system here and in South Korea.
"Such statement is unbecoming of a public official," Lila Pilipina said in a statement. “Japan cannot rewrite history by justifying such wrongful acts and thus exonerate its crimes against women.”
The group asked the Philippine government to issue a diplomatic protest. Instead, the Filipino Department of Foreign Affairs reminded Japanese officials to be careful in making comments on the issue of comfort women.
Now, survivors are planning to stage a rally on July 22, coinciding with Philippine President Benigno Aquino’s State of the Nation address.
Comfort women have long sought a public, worldwide apology from the Japanese government for the war atrocities committed. They want an apology, too, from Hashimoto, who has since claimed that he was misquoted by the press.
They are also seeking legal compensation from the Japanese government and for the Philippine government to join them in these demands.
"We want the Japanese government to recognize and apologize for its military policy of the use of comfort women during the war," said Richelda Extremadura, executive director of Lila Pilipina, which collects testimonies of Filipina comfort women. “Nobody has the right to use women in furtherance of their objectives.”
Lila Pilipina started in 1992 with 174 members. Today only 103 members of the organization are still alive.
They are part of the estimated 100,000 to 250,000 Asian women, many between the ages of 13 and 15, who were abducted by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II to serve as sex slaves.
The army kept them in military brothels where they were repeatedly raped, according to their own testimonies gathered by Lila Pilipina.
For seven decades these lolas have been searching for an apology and financial compensation for what they suffered.
"We will not waver," said Pilar Frias, 87 years old and widely known as Lola Pilar.
Japanese soldiers abducted Lola Pilar in 1943. She was only 16 years old at the time. She was forced to walk with Japanese military men as they roamed far-flung villages in her province in Camarines Sur in search of Filipino guerilla camps. In between the hunt for rebels, the Japanese troops would take turns raping her. She said around 100 soldiers raped her.
Lola Pilar said there are no words for the pain she went through during this time. When she was pregnant with her second child her husband left her when he heard her story.
To her last breath, she vowed, to join her fellow survivors in the quest for justice.
It’s not easy.
The lolas are old. Their legs are wobbly and they easily get tired.
No Justice Yet
Lila Pilipina’s Extremadura said that their arduous and painful struggle hasn’t gotten them any justice yet.
"We have exhausted everything," Extremadura said, referring to the legal actions taken by the group.
On April 2, 1983, 18 Filipino comfort women filed a lawsuit at the Tokyo District Court of Japan. They demanded post-war accountability including compensation and reparation.
On Christmas Day of 2003, the Japanese Supreme Court dismissed the lawsuit, arguing that Japan’s legal system has limitations in complying with international laws.
The mayor’s words have now energized the survivors.
Survivor Villarma can’t remember how old she is. Her almond-shaped eyes squint and her wrinkles seem to double as she tries to remember. Her lips, covered with a faded purple lipstick, purse into an embarrassed smile. She says she is 81. Or 82. No, she is 83, she says finally after counting from 1929.
She forgets many things, such as what she did yesterday morning or the morning before that.
But Lola Virginia, as her family and friends call her, will never forget that scorching noon day in 1943 when three Japanese soldiers dragged her from an empty street in Manila, pulled her black wavy hair and forcibly put her in their car, a small sedan. She was 14. They brought her to an abandoned building not far from Manila Bay where she saw many other girls her age locked up in different rooms.
The soldiers beat her for hours until she could no longer scream. In the evening, more Japanese military men came. And it was then when they took turns raping her. She had lost count. The rapes went on every single night for three months until she and the other girls managed to escape.
Maria Rosa Luna Henson, known as Lola Rosa, was the first Filipino comfort woman to come out in public in 1992, a move that gave way for others who suffered the same plight to also tell their stories.
Lola Rosa died in 1997 but her story did not die with her. For three months in 1943, soldiers raped her from morning to evening, she said in a story she has told and retold and which joins other testimonies compiled in the book “Justice and the Comfort Women,” published by the University of the Philippines, Manila.
Every comfort woman has a story to tell. Many of them no longer remember their children’s ages or how many grandchildren they have. But they still remember the atrocities of war.
Iris Gonzales is a Manila-based journalist and blogger, writing economic, development and humanitarian stories. Some of her work may be read at http://www.irisgonzales.blogspot.com
SIGNAL BOOST: this is important reading
Every Asian-nay-everyone should read this.
(Inspired by the commentary on this post)
For the purposes of anti-racism struggles, that’s all you need to go by.
Yes, the term, “colored” is not normally associated with Asian people these days, but it was definitely used to label people of Asian descent in this country in the past. We have been and still are the targets of White racism:
Believing the fallacy that people of Asian descent are not authentically or legitimately ‘Colored’ or ‘People of Color’ is wrong because:
1) It ignores the long history of racial discrimination and persecution of Asians in the U.S. (e.g. the Chinese Exclusion Acts, the Japanese-American internment during WWII, explicit campaigns to drive Asians out of the American West, the lynching of Asian Americans. (Which is something that is not commonly known due to the fact that many Asian and Mexican victims of mob violence in the 19th c. were classified as ‘White’ in official records*)
2) It ignores the history of White European imperialism in Asian countries, which intersects with White racism against Asian immigrants in White-majority countries. I assure you that White imperialists certainly did not view Indians, Chinese, or Vietnamese as being anything other than ‘Colored’
Imperial map of Asia, source of map
White European man receiving a pedicure from South Asian servants
3) It plays into the White racist divide-and-conquer strategy.
Even a brief look at the history of race/ethnicity in U.S. law alone makes it apparent that a key aspect of White racism has been the classification of non-Whites according to (white-defined) categories.
Those hailing from Asia (as well as the Middle East, the Caribbean, and Latin America) have been legally categorized in a myriad of ways—very occasionally as White, but more often as non-White (e.g. Ozawa v. United States, United States v. Thind). In general, Asians have occupied a strange ethno-racial limbo as ‘Other’ (e.g. the Census prior to 1870). As far as Whites were concerned, Asians might not have been ‘Negros’, but we certainly weren’t White either. Our otherness made us targets for discrimination and violence, and—because our right to citizenship has constantly come under attack—we’ve historically had as little recourse to the protection of the law as African Americans have.
Massacre of the Chinese at White Springs, Wyoming (source)
Yes, Asian people have (somewhat more recently than you think) enjoyed certain perks due to our ethnicity/race compared to Black and AmerIndian people (e.g. ‘the model minority’). But that’s just a more recent aspect of the divide-and-conquer strategy, which the White hegemony has used to pit minorities against each other so as to distract us from the real problems facing our communities.
And yes, some Asian people are complete racist dicks to those who aren’t Asian or White, but that’s internalized White racism. If you’ve been kicked and beaten by your master for years, then suddenly given a few scraps from his table, would you throw them in his face? Or is it more likely that—as beaten down as you are—you’d give in to Stockholm Syndrome and play along? (To be clear: that’s an explanation for Asian racism, not an excuse.)
Even so, incidents of Anti-Asian bias (e.g. Vincent Chin, Wen Ho Lee) and straight-up racist violence occur frequently enough these days that Asians are hyper-aware of the fact that many—including non-whites—don’t view us as Americans, let alone ‘Colored’. We’re simply foreign ‘others’.
So if White is grudgingly treating you OK, while Black and Brown seem to hate and distrust you, then whom do you ally yourself with? More importantly, who benefits from this apparent alliance?
In the American black-white paradigm of race relations, ‘others’ like Asians get shit on no matter which side we’re on. So the Asian internalization of White racism makes a twisted kind of sense as a survival strategy, particularly if your natural allies (other victims of White racism) are treating you like foreigners and even equating you with the oppressor himself.
My point: Asians’ conflicted, sometimes tense, relations with African Americans and those who have been historically, categorically considered ‘Colored’ is an artifact of White racism. This means that if you exclude Asians from ‘Colored’ solidarity against White racism, you are reproducing a highly successful strategy of White racism.
Let that sink in for a minute.
To conclude: Anti-Asian exclusion from POC solidarity movements is ignorant, wrong, and just plain stupid. Asians’s current role as a prop of White racial supremacy is not our doing, just as our historic role as the foreign ‘Other’ is not our doing. The peculiar place of Asians in race relations today has been the result of the intersection of White racism, xenophobia, and imperialism. It is a mistake to think otherwise.
TL;DR: Questioning the identity of Asians as “people of color” reinforces White racial supremacy.
So many Americans are anti-Obama these days. Millions of people watch Fox News and actually believe the gibberish being spouted at them. It’s only recently that the Tea Party seems to be taking a break from their hate parade. The whole Republican party seems dead-set on “de-throning the socialist king” or something along those lines.
Everyone should click over to this website just to get a taste of what has been accomplished in the past 2 years. There’s more where that came from, beginning with the DADT Repeal.
Today I’m proud to be American and a member of the Armed Forces. And I don’t say that nearly enough.
I had no internet over the weekend, so this is a bit of late news, but a good one, nevertheless.
Here’s a direct quote from Gawker.com user S.A.Tan which I found especially poignant:
“Because I can’t be bothered to reply to Freerepubs, Glenn Beck’s crew, and FoxNation, I’ll preach to the choir:
1. Gays in the military will not cause America to go backwards. Gays have been in the military THIS WHOLE TIME. They just get to talk about their partners *openly* when you talk about your hetero gf/bf in the foxhole.
2. Why is it always the 10 lbs of ugly in the 5lb sack that are worried that the gays will hit on them in the service? These are the same douchebags who think all women want them. I’m from a military family, I’ve seen some of you boys - you’ve got the face of a scrotum and the personality to match. NO ONE wants you. Gays have standards baby, and even in war, you ain’t it.
3. If you are so flipping unhappy that the gays get to serve their country, I suggest you winch yourself out of your La-Z-Boy and march down to the local recruitment office. You love America so much you can’t stand to let others proudly serve? YOU dodge bullets in some God forsaken Hell hole for a few years. These people are making the ultimate sacrifice for your bigoted self, and every other American out there. They are TWICE the men and women you will ever be.
4. I believe in God. Please stop using one singular line from the Bible to castigate an entire group of people, or I am going to be forced to call you out on the rest of Leviticus and see how well you stack up against the Holy Word.
5. The arguments made right now about gays serving are the exact same ones made in the 50’s when the military was desegregated (it will harm rank cohesion, people won’t be able to trust one another, etc). It was a bullshit stall tactic then, and it is now.
6. For as much as some of you outright hate the gays, you should be *happy* that more of them will get to fight and die in our pointless wars, while you get to sit back and enjoy the fruits of their labor. Nothing like genocide plus war theatre to get the old motor running, eh fellas?
7. Fact is, most of these ‘faggots’ are more men than you will ever be, and that just eats you up inside. The fact that a dude can be strong, decisive, powerful, and love another dude confuses and probably tingles your loins in a way you don’t like to think about. Well man up, Sally.
They’re here, they’re queer, and they’re saving your country.
Get Over It.”