In Amihan, Quezon city, a certain house stands in the street of Narra—an old, run-of-the-mill kind of house that is easy to miss and pass over. It has no prominent signs and no doorbell, instead guarded by two watchdogs who bark at the slightest sound and movement. This house is the center of Lila Pilipina, an organization of survivors of Japanese military sexual slavery during World War II (WWII).
Housed under the organization are the comfort women lolas, the remaining of the 174 identified Filipino women who were condemned to a life of rape and enslavement in the garrisons of the Japanese military during WWII. Out of the 174 women, only 70 are still living, while less than 10 are active and in close communication with Lila Pilipina.
“Habang ginagahasa ako ng isa, yung dalawa naman nakahawak sa kamay at paa ko.”
It was 1943 when Lola Hilario was abducted by Japanese military men. Walking alone on the way home to the barrio after a day of farming, a truck of Japanese soldiers stopped her in her tracks.
Two soldiers got down from the truck, grabbed her hands, and tried to shove her inside the truck. “Eh ayaw ko nga pumayag, nagpipiglas ako. Nang lumalaban ako, sinikmurahan ako. Binitbit ako sa kamay at paa at initsa nila ako sa trak,” recalls Lola Hilario.
She was brought to the garrison by the soldiers and dragged inside one of the rooms. As she was shoved on the floor, three soldiers started to rape her. “Pagkatapos ng una, yung isa naman, hanggang sa matapos silang tatlo.”
In the mornings, Lola Hilario and the other women would wash the uniforms of the soldiers and cook them food. At night, different Japanese soldiers went up their rooms and raped them repeatedly, often by multiple soldiers at a time. “Pag gusto nila, kahit lahat ng oras, wala kaming magawa kundi umiyak nalang at magdasal.”
Lola Hilario was just 16 years old when she was abducted. She was kept in the garrison for over a year.
“May isang hapon, ginahasa niya ako. Pagkatapos, may sumunod naman. Di ko mabilang dahil nawalan ako ng malay.”
Lola Estelita was abducted in 1944. She was selling produce in the market when a truck of Japanese soldiers arrived and started beheading men and women, who were assumed to be guerrilla members. Afraid, Lola Estelita tried to make a run for her life. A soldier nearby who was keeping watch on her chased and seized her.
She was brought to Central Talisay (Negros Occidental) where one of the garrisons of the Japanese was located. “Dinala ako dun sa bahay na may mga kuwarto-kuwarto, binalandra ako sa loob.” Whenever she would fight back, she would get blows from the soldiers and, fearing for her life, she gave up and started to obey their orders instead.
Reduced to tears, Lola Estelita adds, “Sinunod ko nalang kung ano ang gusto nila, ipinikit ko nalang ang aking mata, iiyak nalang. Wala ka namang mahihingan ng tulong, wala namang magliligtas sa iyo.”
Lola Estelita was kept in the garrison for three weeks. She was only 14 years old.
An uncomfortable reality, a life of secrecy
It is common for rape victims to feel ashamed and embarrassed following sexual assault and abuse. In Lola Hilario and Lola Estelita’s case, they opted to keep their experience a secret, only revealing bits of their story to a few direct family members, but never the whole thing.
“Sinabi ko sa nanay ko kung ano ang nangyari sa’kin, dun lang ako nagtapat. Hangga’t sa namatay ang nanay ko, walang ibang nakakaalam,” says Lola Hilario. She did mention, however, that she told her husband that she was raped and was no longer a virgin, but never about her experience in the garrison.
Lola Estelita, on the other hand, said that even though she married and had children, she never told her husband about her experience. “Di ko sinabi sa kanya na na-rape ako ng mga Hapon dahil nahiya ako sa sarili ko.”
This immense mental and physical battle is made even more bitter when considering that the comfort women lolas have been relentlessly fighting for their justice for two decades now—a fight so laborious that there seems to be no end in sight. The lolas, however, remain hopeful.
What are the lolas fighting for?
Three simple things: an apology from the Japanese government, accurate historical inclusion, and compensation. But the comfort women lolas have a long way to go before they get the justice they deserve.
There are many obstacles blocking them from their goal. The greatest one that they have to endure so far seems to be the refusal of society to acknowledge them.
The lolas have to first dispel nearly a century of misconceptions and ignorance that plague the label ‘comfort women’. Even today, many people are unaware of the suffering that the comfort women lolas have gone through.
According to Professor Marvin Lagos, a history professor in De La Salle – College of St. Benilde and a graduate of Asian Studies in Univeristy of the Philippines – Diliman, there are many instances of Filipinos—and in fact, everyone else—displaying what he refers to as ‘collective amnesia’.
For one thing, there are many people who continue to doubt their existence. The first comfort woman to come out, South Korean Kim Hak-Sun, revealed herself in 1991, which was already many decades after WWII. This only served to make it easier for people to deny their existence. Most of the evidence supporting the existence of comfort women was also allegedly destroyed and covered up by the Japanese.
History, too, is also rewritten in an attempt to forget. There are many history books that choose to omit comfort women from its pages. In fact, Professor Lagos observes that new textbooks from Japan are hungrily scanned by South Korean and Chinese media for inaccuracies and downplay of events.
In the past and until now, Japan has been heavily censoring or glossing over the war crimes it has committed in the past. Just last month, Japanese officials urged Korea to remove their memorial statue of a Korean comfort girl in Seoul—an attempt, it seems, to erase a national and historical memory.
Many conservative Japanese politicians have insisted that comfort women never existed. If acknowledging their existence, they claim that the comfort women were “necessary” during the war because it gave the soldiers a time to rest.
Professor Lagos also mentions that forgiveness and healing will never be achieved without recognition of the aggressor’s mistake and trespasses. “Filipino-Japanese formal relations will always [involve] an imminent shadow and dark stain without the Japanese government’s formal apology [for] its war time aggressions.”
Nevertheless, Japan has tried to make up for their passiveness on the issue by creating the Asia Women’s Fund and giving compensation packages and loans to “certified” comfort women.
Their “compensation”, however, does not reach the entirety of the comfort women. The lolas from Lila Pilipina alone do not get direct compensation from either of the Japanese and Philippine governments, instead getting support from private individuals.
A call to action
The sad truth about the comfort women is that what happened to them is either forgotten or disregarded by most people, and often undermined by their perpetrators themselves.
The lolas, although almost senile, weak, and pushing 90 years old, still continue to hold protest rallies from time to time. Perhaps these protests are not just done as an outcry against the government, but also a call for action from the people.
Professor Lagos asserts, in the end, that the Filipinos have a moral obligation to the comfort women lolas to help them and act in their battle for justice. Without this action, the crime committed against the lolas will remain as a bygone wartime ordeal, forgotten in history.