After only five months standing along Roxas Boulevard, the Comfort Women Statue built to pronounce a national statement against the atrocities of the Japanese was withdrawn from public eyes.
The two-meter-high statue was removed along with two other monuments in the same stretch. It was supervised by the local government of the City of Manila and removed by the Department of Public Work and Highways (DPWH). Several news reports explain that a project dedicated to improve the drainage system in the area left officials no other choice.
However, the public is not convinced of the government’s statements and insists that the monument depicting an important, yet horrific part of history should have been respected instead.
Understanding the upheaval
The statue was commissioned by the Tulay Foundation to remind the society of a grim past and represent comfort women who suffered during the Second World War. Its withdrawal was not the only reason that ignited a controversy, but the fact that it was done covertly.
Described “like a thief in the night” by rights groups such as Gabriela, the statue was removed at around 10 pm and later publicly announced in the morning. Like many others, professor Michael Chua of the History Department condemns the government’s action towards the monument. “[They should have] announced it before it is removed, but they know that it would become an issue,” he said. He further explained that the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) told officials not to take down the statue because it is part of the heritage law to maintain the monument until coordinating with proper agencies. “They removed it covertly because they know that they are doing something wrong,” he said.
More than just a statue
Those responsible for taking down the statue did not only remove what seems to be a lifeless piece of metal, but also removed representation. Gelene Peñalosam (I, ISE-ADV) said that “the removal of the statue is like throwing away the legacy left by the women who were kidnapped and continuously raped during the Japanese occupation. It is also somehow removing and forgetting their part in recording our nation’s history.”
Lila Pilipina (League of Filipino Women), an organization of World War II comfort women, collaborated with Tulay Foundation in creating the comfort women statue to commemorate the pain of its members. A total of 174 comfort women came out of hiding since the early 1990s.
The comfort women were silent for years and have only been vocal during the 1990s. Chua explains that finding war records of comfort women is problematic for historians, thus, bringing up these cases during crime war trials past World War II proves challenging. “Being a comfort woman is a special case wherein girls were taken out from their houses, brought to places where the Japanese can regularly have sex with them. So it’s not rape once. They are really sex slaves. So, there was no record,” he said.
“You will understand why they did not come forward during the time [war crime trials] were happening,” he added. When comfort women came out in the 1990s headed by Lola Rosa, others followed—until the recent comfort women statue that was unfortunately removed.
Strains Philippine-Japan ties
The tragedy of comfort women in the Philippines has long been around, yet this is still seen as a sensitive issue. However, in Korea and China this is not the case. Although both countries have their own version of the comfort women statue, they refuse to remove the statues. Despite this, trading relations with Japan were maintained.
Therefore, many believe that the emergence of Japan as one of the strongest bilateral relationships in the recent years might have caused the “unannounced” removal of the comfort woman statue. Chua, therefore, believes that “It is our view, even if the Japanese are saying that there is no truth to the [existence of comfort women in Philippines].”
The removal sparked protests from different organizations but to no avail. Decisions to keep the statue on private property were made. With that, the controversial statue is now kept at Jonas Roces’, the sculptor behind the comfort women statue, studio in Antipolo City. As an epitome of grief and rage, Roces and Tulay Foundation believe that this should not be the end of the controversy thus, they continue to watch out for alternatives.
For Chua, this controversy serves as “a reminder of the situation of Filipinos that we have to make our country strong so that we will not easily bow to such pressures.”