The Japanese Emperor’s visit

For the generation of Filipinos who witnessed and lived through the atrocities of World War II, the Japanese Emperor’s visit to the Philippines this week is bound to summon painful memories that make forgiveness extremely difficult. The voices of the surviving Filipino “comfort women” who were captured and turned into sex slaves for Japanese soldiers may have been the most persistent. But they are not alone in asking: Is there an obligation to forgive and to forget?

Emperor Akihito’s visit comes at a time when Japan and the Philippines are forging stronger defense ties in order to deal with the perceived common threat that is China. It is thus understandable that what is highlighted in official pronouncements of this historic visit—the first by a Japanese emperor—is the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Not mentioned is the inconvenient fact that one week after the royal visit, survivors will mark the 71st anniversary of the holocaust that flattened most of Manila in February 1945, and killed 100,000 residents in a month of unspeakable carnage perpetrated by Japanese forces.

The sheer evil and the excessive cruelty committed by the cornered Japanese soldiers in what was supposed to be the last limping stage of the Japanese Occupation defy all reason.  Filipinos have only a vague idea of the scale of human suffering that attended the Battle for the Liberation of Manila. But thanks to the publication of the personal memoirs of some of those who experienced this brutality and barbarism, this awful episode in our nation’s history is not completely forgotten.

My own introduction to those events was through Alfonso J. Aluit’s “By Sword and Fire: The Destruction of Manila in World War II.”  I couldn’t believe that anything like this happened in our country only one year before I was born. By far, the most poignant account I have read of those years is Lourdes Reyes-Montinola’s “Breaking the Silence.” I have bought several copies of this amazing memoir by Ms Montinola, who survived the heinous massacre that wiped out the family of Nicanor Reyes Sr. in Malate on Feb. 9, 1945, to give to my Japanese friends who seek an honest closure to the war years. Written 50 years after the event, this book is astounding in its vividness and subdued tone.

Benito J. Legarda’s “Occupation: The Later Years,” a compilation of the author’s powerful essays which appeared mostly in the Philippines Free Press, provides a list of titles in this growing literature of war memoirs. Top in his list are: Alfredo R. Roces’ “Looking for Liling: A Family History of WWII Martyr Rafael R. Roces Jr.,” Jose Ma. Bonifacio M. Escoda’s “Warsaw of Asia: The Rape of Manila,” Joaquin L. Garcia’s “It Took Four Years for the Rising Sun to Set,” “These Hallowed Halls,” a gripping account of the massacre that took place inside De La Salle College written by Br. Andrew Gonzalez and Alejandro T. Reyes, Marcial Lichauco’s “Dear Mother Putnam: A Diary of the Second World War in the Philippines,” Fernando J. Mañalac’s “Manila: Memories of World War II,” and Felipe Buencamino III’s “Memoirs and Diaries (1941-1944).”

But, the Japanese have long memories, too.  One sees this in their monuments and museums, and in their children’s textbooks. What they care to remember or to forget, however, is an object of unceasing dispute. Accordingly, the necessity of a formal apology for all the cruelty and destruction inflicted by the Japanese forces during World War II has probably been more publicly discussed in Japan than anywhere else. The precise formulation of the remorse remains a divisive issue in Japanese politics. Many Japanese insist that Japan must not forget that the first nuclear bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki just when the war was about to end. On the other hand, Japan’s progressive intellectuals warn against expressions of Japanese nationalism that hint at a resurgence of the militarist ethos.

No one perhaps bears this inherited burden more deeply than the son and successor of Emperor Hirohito, in whose name the Japanese Imperial Army ravaged Southeast Asia. At the banquet he gave in honor of President Aquino during the latter’s state visit to Japan in June 2015, Emperor Akihito noted that the ties between the two countries had had a long history. “During World War II, however, fierce battles between Japan and the United States took place on Philippine soil, resulting in the loss of many Filipino lives. This is something we Japanese must long remember with a profound sense of remorse.”

We expect the Emperor to reiterate this personal manifestation of remorse and, by implication, plea for forgiveness during his visit.  The Jewish philosopher Avishai Margalit, in his profoundly moving book, “The Ethics of Memory,” writes “that the obligation to forgive, to the extent that such an obligation exists, is like the obligation not to reject a gift—an obligation not to reject the expression of remorse and the plea for forgiveness.” But, he argues that “forgiveness is based on disregarding the sin rather than forgetting it.”

We forgive, but we do not forget. Those who perished in the Manila massacre were not the hapless collateral damage in the war between America and Japan. Officers of the Japanese Imperial Army ordered their troops to commit methodical acts of viciousness and cruelty against unarmed and defenseless Filipino civilians. That we continue to remember this, even as we have decided to forgive and disregard it in the name of friendship, is what lends to forgiveness its moral meaning.

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