JAPANESE Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko arrived in the country Tuesday afternoon for a five-day state visit, the first to Southeast Asia by a reigning Japanese royal.
The royal couple, who are scheduled to meet President Benigno Aquino III Wednesday morning, are here to mark the 60th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations between Japan and the Philippines, the Palace said.
“The Philippines is deeply honored to welcome their Imperial Majesties, the emperor and empress of Japan on the occasion of their state visit. Their visit underscores the abiding friendship between the Japanese and Filipino people. As our country charts the path that leads to sustainable, inclusive growth we are fortunate that Japan is our steadfast partner and ally,” said Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr., in a statement Tuesday.
The Palace also acknowledged Japan as the largest contributor of official development assistance to the Philippines, and one of the leading international advocates of the peace process in Mindanao.
Presidential Communications Undersecretary Manuel Quezon III, on the other hand, said the royal visit could be “an instrument of healing and reconciliation,” but said it was unlikely that the issue of Filipino comfort women during World War II would be brought up.
“Let’s understand the role of the emperor of Japan. It would surprise many of us, but he is not a head of state. He is a symbol of Japan,” Quezon told radio dzRB.
“The emperor has always made a point to be an instrument of healing and reconciliation between the Japanese and the Filipino people,” Quezon said.
Quezon seemed to agree with UP Third World Studies Center professor Ricardo Jose, who said “the issue of comfort women is a historical wrong that has not been righted” but said it would be up to the Department of Foreign Affairs to pursue an “appropriate approach” to a painful chapter in the country’s history.
The Lila Pilipina (League of Filipino Grandmothers) had expressed the hope that Aquino would bring up the case of the comfort women on behalf of the former sex slaves of Japanese soldiers in World War II during the emperor’s visit.
The group wants just compensation, recognition that sex slavery occurred at the time, and a public apology from Japan.
Rechilda Extremadura, executive director of Lila Pilipina, echoed the stance of the comfort women that Japan must still “apologize, uphold the truth and extend just compensation.”
The group called on the President to raise their concerns during the emperor’s state visit.
Emperor Akihito pledged Tuesday to honor those who died in one of World War II’s deadliest battles as he began his visit.
Akihito, 82, and his wife, Empress Michiko, 81, will visit two war memorials during the five-day trip.
“In the Philippines, many lives of Filipinos, Americans and Japanese were lost during the war,” Akihito said at a ceremony before leaving Tokyo.
Akihito specifically noted the battle for the liberation of Manila in 1945, where an estimated 100,000 people were killed.
“We’d like to conduct our visit by always keeping this in mind,” he said.
As soon as Akihito stepped out of the plane at Manila’s airport, he offered a slight bow. He was then welcomed on the tarmac by President Benigno Aquino and his Cabinet secretaries.
The Philippines is the latest stop in the soft-spoken emperor’s pacifist pilgrimage, which has appeared to contradict his government’s nationalist bent.
The emperor and empress have previously journeyed to other Pacific battle sites where Japanese troops and civilians made desperate last stands in the name of wartime emperor Hirohito, Akihito’s father.
On visits to Saipan in 2005 and Palau last year they prayed not just for the Japanese soldiers and civilians who perished, but also colonial subjects and troops from its wartime enemy, the United States.
In remarks at a memorial marking the 70th anniversary of Japan’s 1945 surrender, Akihito expressed “profound remorse” for the war fought in his father’s name, reportedly the first time he used those words at the annual event.
Akihito was 11 years old when the war ended with the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In the Philippines, the couple will pay their respects at separate memorials for Filipino and Japanese WWII casualties.
They will also visit a Japanese language training center and the International Rice Research Institute.
Japan’s brutal three-year occupation of the Philippines ended in 1945 after the Americans liberated their former colony.
The two nations have steadily built closer ties, with Japan the Philippines’ biggest source of foreign investment and aid.
Akihito’s trip is being held to celebrate 60 years of diplomatic relations.
The two nations have also drawn closer in recent years as they have struggled to deal with similar territorial rivalries with China.
However, not everyone in the Philippines has welcomed the closer ties.
Filipino women such as 90-year-old Hilaria Bustamante who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military have vowed to hold protests during Akihito’s visit.
“Many of us have died without seeing justice, but we will fight until our last breath,” Bustamante said in a voice trembling with anger at a shelter in Manila for the now elderly women, run by Lila Pilipina.
“We want to tell Emperor Akihito: pay your debts. We are holding you accountable for the sufferings of the comfort women during the war.”
Up to 200,000 women in Asia, many of them South Koreans but also from China, the Philippines and what is now Indonesia, are estimated to have been forced to provide sex to Japanese soldiers during World War II.
Only 70 known Filipina victims are still alive, according to Lila Pilipina.
Japanese leaders and senior officials have over the decades offered apologies and compensation to the Filipina victims, albeit deliberately sourced from the private sector rather than the government.
The women have deemed these efforts insincere, demanding instead an apology that comes with reparations directly from the Japanese government, as well as inclusion of the comfort women’s plight in its official history books.
Seoul struck a landmark deal with Tokyo last month for a one-billion-yen ($8.3 million) payment and a “heartfelt apology” for the South Korean comfort women. With Agence France-Presse
A similar deal for the Filipina victims is not on the agenda.
Despite intense lobbying from the women, the Philippine government has not initiated similar negotiations with Japan.
Foreign Affairs spokesman Charles Jose said the matter would not be raised during Akihito’s visit.
But for the comfort women, glossing over the war crimes is impossible.
“It’s a nightmare that never ends. We walk with heavy hearts and we don’t know who to turn to for help,” Estelita Dy, 85, said as she tearfully recalled the day she was brought to a military brothel.
Dy said she was aged just 14 and buying food in a market after a long day of digging at a construction site when a truckload of Japanese soldiers started rounding up suspected spies.
Dy said she tried to run away but tripped and fell to the ground. A Japanese soldier grabbed her by the hair and threw her to the back of the truck, she said.
Dy said she stayed in the brothel for three weeks.
“Every time I was raped. I would just close my eyes, cry and pray that it will be all over soon,” she said, fidgeting with her fingers to relieve anxiety.
A Filipino spy working for the Japanese helped her escape, she said.
Dy, who later married and had two children, blames her weak hearing on having her face banged on a table by a Japanese soldier who then raped her.
Dy, who worked as a rice cake and soda vendor, said she was lucky her family accepted her fate.
Many others, she said, were condemned and driven out of their homes by conservative parents.
At Lila Pilipina’s rundown office in Manila’s suburbs, the former sex slaves came to depend on the refuge where they found comfort in shared suffering.
The now-faded walls are painted purple, the color of the local feminist movement.
The women there affectionately call each other “lola”, the Filipino word for grandmother.
“Calling each other ‘lola’ shows that they are bonded by the same struggle,” said Extremadura, who runs Lila Pilipina.
“They come here to cry their hearts out. They yearn for the familiar touch of someone who understands exactly what they’re going through.”
Bustamante, one of only 10 Filipina comfort women physically able to join the rallies planned for this week, said her fellow women gave her the strength to continue fighting for justice.
“This is an uncertain fight, but we will not stop,” she said.
Two members of the leftist Makabayan bloc on Tuesday urged Aquino to demand an apology from Akihito for Japan’s forcible and systematic use of Filipinas as sex slaves or comfort women during World War II.
Bayan Muna party-list Reps. Neri Colmenares and Carlos Zarate said the visit of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko was the best time for the Philippine government to finally bring resolution to war crimes committed by Japan, particularly on the comfort women.
“President Aquino must step up and demand apology and reparations for these war crimes,” Colmenares said.
Zarate and Colmenares, both human rights lawyers, also demanded from the Japanese Diet a full acknowledgement of its wartime policy of sexual slavery committed by the Imperial Armed Forces of Japan, and, a formal official apology.
“Foremost, Japan must admit that the women and girls forced into sexual slavery was a wrong committed by Imperial Japan, thus, a state responsibility and not only of some erring soldiers. They must admit that it was Japan’s war time policy to enslave women and girls for sex, and they must apologize for this heinous crime,” Colmenares said.
Colmenares said surviving comfort women are in their 80s, and only about 70 of the estimated 1,000 Filipinas forced into sex labor during the Second World War are still alive.
“We hope that in their lifetime they will be afforded a formal apology and indemnification for the atrocities done to them,” Colmenares said.
The Japanese royal couple are here until Jan. 30. With Agence France-Presse
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