BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Comfort Women Are Old Now, But Still Fighting

Below is my latest story for Womens_eNews:

An offensive comment by the mayor of Osaka has brought the issue of comfort women back to the surface. A survivors' group in the Philippines keeps the women's stories alive and is planning a rally to coincide with President Aquino's State of the Nation address.

Surviving "comfort women" at a monthly meeting in Quezon City.

Credit: Iris C. Gonzales.

QUEZON CITY, Philippines (WOMENSENEWS)--Surviving "comfort women" continue to see each other in monthly gatherings, sharing stories or belting out love songs with the videoke machine.

Recently, they met at the office of Lila Pilipina, a survivors' group in Quezon City. It was the end of May and there was a heavy downpour that morning, but it didn't drown out the sound of the voices of the lolas--grandmothers in Filipino--as they sang their own rendition of love songs from forgotten times.

They shared a bowl of hot soup and a loaf of cheese bread before discussing the next steps in their struggle for justice.

"We can no longer take back what happened to us but my hope is for future generations to not suffer the same thing," said one survivor named Virginia Villarma.

The issue of so-called comfort women isn't usually mentioned by the Japanese government.
Philippine authorities have also been quiet, afraid that the issue may strain economic ties with Japan, which accounted for 18 percent of the Philippine export market in 2011.

However, in early May a Japanese politician brought the issue to the surface when he drew international press attention by saying that sex slaves served a necessary role during the Second World War, particularly to provide relief to Japanese troops.

"For soldiers who risked their lives in circumstances where bullets are flying around like rain and wind, if you want them to get some rest, a comfort women system was necessary. That's clear to anyone," said Toru Hashimoto, mayor of Osaka, Japan.

Hashimoto's words angered the women once part of the comfort system here and in South Korea.

"Such statement is unbecoming of a public official," Lila Pilipina said in a statement. "Japan cannot rewrite history by justifying such wrongful acts and thus exonerate its crimes against women."

The group asked the Philippine government to issue a diplomatic protest. Instead, the Filipino Department of Foreign Affairs reminded Japanese officials to be careful in making comments on the issue of comfort women.

Now, survivors are planning to stage a rally on July 22, coinciding with Philippine President Benigno Aquino's State of the Nation address.

Seeking Apologies

Comfort women have long sought a public, worldwide apology from the Japanese government for the war atrocities committed. They want an apology, too, from Hashimoto, who has since claimed that he was misquoted by the press.

They are also seeking legal compensation from the Japanese government and for the Philippine government to join them in these demands.

"We want the Japanese government to recognize and apologize for its military policy of the use of comfort women during the war," said Richelda Extremadura, executive director of Lila Pilipina, which collects testimonies of Filipina comfort women. "Nobody has the right to use women in furtherance of their objectives."

Lila Pilipina started in 1992 with 174 members. Today only 103 members of the organization are still alive.

They are part of the estimated 100,000 to 250,000 Asian women, many between the ages of 13 and 15, who were abducted by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II to serve as sex slaves.

The army kept them in military brothels where they were repeatedly raped, according to their own testimonies gathered by Lila Pilipina.

For seven decades these lolas have been searching for an apology and financial compensation for what they suffered.

"We will not waver," said Pilar Frias, 87 years old and widely known as Lola Pilar.

Japanese soldiers abducted Lola Pilar in 1943. She was only 16 years old at the time. She was forced to walk with Japanese military men as they roamed far-flung villages in her province in Camarines Sur in search of Filipino guerilla camps. In between the hunt for rebels, the Japanese troops would take turns raping her. She said around 100 soldiers raped her.

Lola Pilar said there are no words for the pain she went through during this time. When she was pregnant with her second child her husband left her when he heard her story.

To her last breath, she vowed, to join her fellow survivors in the quest for justice.

It's not easy. The lolas are old. Their legs are wobbly and they easily get tired.

No Justice Yet

Lila Pilipina's Extremadura said that their arduous and painful struggle hasn't gotten them any justice yet.

"We have exhausted everything," Extremadura said, referring to the legal actions taken by the group.

On April 2, 1983, 18 Filipino comfort women filed a lawsuit at the Tokyo District Court of Japan. They demanded post-war accountability including compensation and reparation.

On Christmas Day of 2003, the Japanese Supreme Court dismissed the lawsuit, arguing that Japan's legal system has limitations in complying with international laws.

The mayor's words have now energized the survivors.

Survivor Villarma can't remember how old she is. Her almond-shaped eyes squint and her wrinkles seem to double as she tries to remember. Her lips, covered with a faded purple lipstick, purse into an embarrassed smile. She says she is 81. Or 82. No, she is 83, she says finally after counting from 1929.

She forgets many things, such as what she did yesterday morning or the morning before that.

But Lola Virginia, as her family and friends call her, will never forget that scorching noon day in 1943 when three Japanese soldiers dragged her from an empty street in Manila, pulled her black wavy hair and forcibly put her in their car, a small sedan. She was 14. They brought her to an abandoned building not far from Manila Bay where she saw many other girls her age locked up in different rooms.

The soldiers beat her for hours until she could no longer scream. In the evening, more Japanese military men came. And it was then when they took turns raping her. She had lost count. The rapes went on every single night for three months until she and the other girls managed to escape.

Maria Rosa Luna Henson, known as Lola Rosa, was the first Filipino comfort woman to come out in public in 1992, a move that gave way for others who suffered the same plight to also tell their stories.

Lola Rosa died in 1997 but her story did not die with her. For three months in 1943, soldiers raped her from morning to evening, she said in a story she has told and retold and which joins other testimonies compiled in the book "Justice and the Comfort Women," published by the University of the Philippines, Manila.

Every comfort woman has a story to tell. Many of them no longer remember their children's ages or how many grandchildren they have. But they still remember the atrocities of war.

Iris Gonzales is a Manila-based journalist and blogger, writing economic, development and humanitarian stories. Some of her work may be read at