By EVE MATTA and REB ABANADOR
SAN PEDRO CITY, Laguna – The bob-haired girl wearing a hanbok sits on a chair. Another chair, an empty one, stands beside her. The bronze statue of this South Korean girl is a remarkable piece of work, made mesmerizing by the unoccupied chair and the bird perched on her left shoulder.
These enigmatic elements notwithstanding, there was nothing ambiguous about the one-meter tall statue, called “Statue of Peace,” that sat for two days inside a home for the elderly in this city after its installation on December 28. The inscription said it was “a monument of peace and women empowerment” that “gives recognition, respect, equal protection and empowerment to women of yesterday, today and future.”
It was, in fact, a tribute to the many so-called “comfort women” in Asia, among them Koreans and Filipinos who were used as sex slaves by the Japanese military during World War II. Similar statues had been installed in many parts of the world; one was unveiled in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul in August 2018, stirring controversy.
On December 30, two days after San Pedro City officials and the sculptors themselves unveiled the statue, the city removed the girl from the compound of the Mary Mother of Mercy, a shelter for the elderly and the abandoned in barangay San Antonio. Officials called her a “nuisance” that “tarnished” San Pedro City’s relationship with Japan.
They insisted that no government fund was used for the statue and also maintained that the installation was a private affair regardless of the attendance by officials at the event. Hence, they said, the city could take action. It did, and promptly threw her into a warehouse. “We haven’t decided if we will ship the statue back,” San Pedro City Mayor Lourdes Cataquiz told reporters, according to the Daily Manila Shimbun.
Many saw the removal of the statue as testament to the San Pedro government’s obsequiousness to Japan, which had complained about the girl, and insulting to the Filipino women who suffered Japanese atrocities. Lila Pilipina, an organization of Filipino women raped by Japanese soldiers, was outraged and slammed Japan for the removal.
The plight of “comfort women” is well-documented and has been a major irritant in the diplomatic relations between Japan and other countries. Tokyo has resisted pressure to make a public apology and has taken attempts to frustrate public expression of condemnation for the sexual slavery its soldiers perpetrated during the war.
Last year, the Philippine government removed a statue for “comfort women” put up along Roxas Boulevard in Manila, also after the Japanese government complained. According to experts, more than 400,000 women were turned into sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during World War II. An estimated 1,000 of these are Filipinos. Many of the women were actually teenagers raped and violated repeatedly by the soldiers. A red house in Pampanga sits as a monument to their suffering that Japan, in complicity with governments such as the Philippines, continues to deny and whitewash.
Japan provides considerable financial help to the Philippines, for years leading as the top source of Tokyo’s so-called official development assistance – or loans and debts — that allowed the country to build infrastructure, among others. A number of Japanese companies have factories and offices in Laguna, including San Pedro City.
The Korean girl statue was the first one made by a South Korean couple that found its way to the Philippines. In its official statement, the San Pedro city government said the statue was “offered” by a church group, Salt and Light International World Missions Inc., and the South Korean city of Jecheon as a symbol of “peace and true friendship of all nations.” Officials claimed they did not know the statue was of a “comfort woman,” even though identical statues had been built in many parts of the world in recent years.
Aside from Mayor Cataquiz, the December 28 ceremony unveiling the statue was also attended by her husband, former city mayor Calixto Cataquiz, who was also the city’s “foreign affairs coordinator,” and officials of Jecheon City, which reportedly funded the project. The Korean Yonhap News Agency reported Mr. Cataquiz’s visit to Jecheon in September 2017 when talks about having the statue erected here were first discussed.
City administrator Filemon Sibulo denied to the Daily Manila Shimbun that pressure from the Japanese embassy prompted the removal. “Nobody from the Japanese Embassy or Malacanang contacted us,” Sibulo was quoted as saying. “It was the initiative of the mayor to remove (the statue) because we do not want any controversy and we treasure our good relations with the Japanese people.”
Mayor Cataquiz, the Daily Manila Shimbun said, “did not know a statue resembling the one in San Pedro had been built as a symbol of protest by South Korea about the comfort women issue.” She urged critics to “move on.”
But supporters of the “comfort women” find that hard to accept. Sharon Silva, executive director of Lila Pilipina, pointed out in a statement that these violated women continue to demand justice from Japan. “While many expensive and sprawling Japanese memorials are being set up in different parts of the Philippines that honor the kamikaze bombers who murdered thousands of Filipinos, we are enraged that simple shrines for our suffering comfort women are being denied and made bargaining chips for financial development aid,” she said. (Laguna Now)