OPINION: The DFA + 'Comfort Woman' Statue—Why It's An Issue

Remembering comfort women is important.
PHOTO: istockphoto

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) recently questioned the erection of a statue of a comfort woman in Manila, saying that it made Japan uncomfortable. Apparently, the statue made Japan so uncomfortable, Yokohama’s sister cityhood with Manila might be at stake. The way the Japanese embassy acted, you’d think they were the ones kidnapped, abused, raped multiple times a day by different men, and have not gotten a formal apology to this day.

That a Philippine government office (DFA) should seemingly side with a foreign country (Japan) over atrocities we experienced (forcing Filipino women and preteen girls into sexual slavery during World War II) is a big cause for concern.

But first, what are comfort women?

"Comfort women" is a translation of ianfu, a Japanese euphemism for prostitute. They were women and girls forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army during and before World War II in occupied countries like China, Korea, Taiwan, Burma, and the Philippines. No one knows how many comfort women there actually were—numbers range from 20,000 to as high as 410,000. Many comfort women were abducted, while others were lured with false promises of employment.

Despite the "comfort" in their name, their lives were anything but. Women were "broken in" by being gang raped for days. Many died from disease and physical abuse. Many more became infertile because of physical trauma or sexually transmitted diseases.

They were raped as many as 30-40 times a day. In Japanese army records, they were listed as "units of war supplies." They weren’t seen as people. They were disposable.

Why is remembering comfort women important?

After the war, the governments of countries like South Korea and the Philippines have tried to seek recompense. The South Koreans have been especially active in this area, where comfort women are honored for their sacrifice. Statues have been put up in the country, some even in public transportation as a way to never forget. Koreans in other countries have also put up statues to commemorate comfort women. Japan has already un-sister citied San Francisco because of such a statue.

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The Japanese government has been trying to smooth things over for the longest time, mostly by hoping everyone forgets about the issue. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has, as recently as 2007, been denying that comfort women were a thing at all, though Japan later paid Korea ¥1 billion to help with the rehabilitation of the comfort women if South Korea would lay off on the public criticism.

Why is this a problem?

It seems simple, but it’s really not. The DFA is placing more importance on the hurt feelings of the Japanese government over the damaged lives of many Filipino women.

When a government agency values a foreign country over its own citizens, doesn’t that automatically mean it isn’t doing its job properly?

Saying that the statue was erected without the proper permits just makes everyone seem more incompetent. How can you erect a statue in the middle of a major city—a country’s capital—without proper permits? And why did it take a while before anyone noticed? Would anyone have noticed if the Japanese embassy hadn’t complained? It’s more instances of government folks doing slapdash work, something that’s been going on since forever (I’m looking at you, Aguinaldo).

It’s heartbreaking that instead of standing up for wronged Filipinos, our own DFA is embarrassed by them. It’s maddening that a city sisterhood is more important to the DFA than the welfare of the country’s comfort women.

Can’t we just forgive and forget?

Filipinos are famous for forgiving and forgetting. And who can resist Japan? The land of sushi, kawaii, and lots of employment opportunities.

At the same time, it’s easy to see why the DFA is so keen to placate the Japanese government.

A lot of Filipinos work in Japan and it would be terribly easy for the richer country to put the squeeze on us poorer folk. So in a way, maybe the DFA *is* looking out for the Philippines. But at what cost?

Matthew 6:26 sums it up nicely: “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?”

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