Open wounds

My daughter Kara asked me the other day, “Papa, do you know what happened in Barrio Mapaniqui, Candaba on Nov. 23, 1944?”  A documentary she has been researching on Filipino “comfort women” has led her to this little village in Pampanga. From her interviews, she has learned that the residents of this place have suffered some of the most barbaric and humiliating experiences in World War II.  “But that’s an old issue,” I replied, without answering her question.  None of the history books she consulted contain any specific reference to Candaba or to that fateful November day in 1944.

An old woman, Lola Januaria, vividly recounts the events of that day. “It was early morning — maybe around 5 — when the Japanese began to shell the town.  We went down from our huts and lay face down on the ground.  Then, Japanese soldiers came and herded everyone into the school building.  The men were separated from the women and children.  We were all made to squat.”

What happened next defies the imagination.  The soldiers made the men strip in front of their horrified families, and randomly picked some of them. Then they drew their swords and swiftly cut their penises. They collected the severed parts and stuffed them like cigars into the mouths of these men — rolling in laughter at the bizarre scene.  The other soldiers quickly joined in the mood of this orgy of cruelty.  They sliced the buttocks of the other men and slapped these on the faces of their victims.  They ended this unspeakable ritual of terror by shooting all the men and burning the entire schoolhouse.

They then turned to the women and the young girls, about a hundred of whom were brought at different times to a place that came to be known as the “red house.” Lola Apang was 17, had been married for a year, and was 5 months pregnant. She and two other women were taken by Japanese soldiers to the “red house” and repeatedly raped.

Lola Apang and her baby survived the war.  Today, one of her granddaughters works as an entertainer in Japan.  Hers is not an uncommon story in this sleepy town of migratory birds and long stretches of rice fields.  Regular remittances from Japan-based workers have funded many of Candaba’s impressive middle-class homes. Traces of the war cannot be discerned from the town’s prosperous façade.  The pain is lodged in the private memories of old women who cannot forget or forgive.

Japan has consistently refused to acknowledge the existence of wartime “comfort women.” Beyond issuing perfunctory apologies for general atrocities committed during the war, it has not recognized the crimes committed by its soldiers.  This general apology seems sufficient to us Filipinos.  Somewhere in Pampanga, we have even allowed a memorial to rise in honor of the Japanese Kamikaze pilots. Thousands of our women work as entertainers in Japanese bars and nightclubs.  If this is not a normalization of relations with a former aggressor, what else might it be?  Japan insists it has long atoned and paid for the destruction it caused during the war.  Its officials point to the millions they gave in war reparation.

Although they are too young to have any personal memories of the war, China’s students, in contrast, have not forgotten.  Every year, in massive demonstrations in the major cities of Beijing and Shanghai, they tell the Japanese government they will continue to remember until Japan, by its present actions, disowns its militaristic past. Memories of Japanese war atrocities in China are carried across generations and kept alive through children’s textbooks. Some Japanese commentators interpret this collective remembering as an aspect of the shrewd geopolitics of China.  But an alternative view is that China’s policy is an ethical one of remembering, paid as a forward tribute to a future without war.

Is there an “Ethics of memory,” asks the Jewish philosopher Avishai Margalit in a book by this title. “Are we obligated to remember people and events from the past?  If we are, what is the nature of this obligation?  Are remembering and forgetting proper subjects of moral praise or blame?  Who are the ‘we’ who may be obligated to remember: the collective ‘we,’ or some distributive sense of ‘we’ that puts the obligation to remember on each and every member of the collective?”

The old women of Mapaniqui in Candaba continue to bear the pain of remembering, but perhaps the greater tragedy is that our government has left them alone to deal with their unhealed wounds.  Our collective “we” appears to have moved on in its accustomed amnesia, totally unburdened by the past, even as the personal “we” stubbornly remembers.  In Lola Apang’s case, the open wound is relieved for the first time when her granddaughter working in Japan returns to Candaba for a visit and hears the story of what happened in Mapaniqui on Nov. 23.  It is a painful moment of awakening for the young woman, who has to go back to Japan.  Tomorrow’s (Nov. 28) “I-Witness” episode on GMA-7 puts faces to this ironic twist.

In the last 5 years, another grandmother, Lola Pilar, has traveled all over Japan to bring the story of comfort women to a generation that is too young to know what happened during the war.  But as if to mock these efforts, somewhere in the red-light district of Nagoya, a young Filipino pimp sings the sad refrain of a conquered nation that remained poor: “During the war the Japanese came to our country and took our women.  Today we ourselves send them to Japan to work as modern comfort women.”

We must by all means bury our resentments. But we must not forget, or mock the memory of those events that have made us who we are.

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