Rechilda Extremadura protesting in Manila. Photo courtesy of pinoweekly.org
While Japan has officially apologized to South Korea for enlisting women as sex slaves during World War II, Filipina victims remain unacknowledged in their struggle for justice.
"What's the difference between a Japanese soldier raping a Korean or Filipina woman? None," Rechilda Extremadura says down the telephone. "If the Japanese government could do something for the women in Korea, why can't they do the same for us? The pain and scars we suffered are the same."
Extremadura is the executive director of the LILA Filipina, an organization for women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military in occupied territories before and during World War II. Better known as "comfort women"—a translation of ianfu, the Japanese euphemism for "prostitutes"—most of the estimated 200,000 sex slaves came from Korea. But according to historians, around 1,000 girls and women in the Philippines were also enslaved.
At the end of January, Japanese Emperor Akihito paid a visit to the Philippines in a rare overseas "peace tour" that marked the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Manila and Tokyo. Extremadura is one of approximately 70 Filipina survivors—now in their 80s—still alive today, and determined to bring back attention to those suffered abuse from Japanese soldiers.
"We demanded three things from the visit: an apology by the emperor to the victims and their families, compensation from the Japanese government, and most importantly, historical inclusion," she tells Broadly. "We don't want to be left being unacknowledged by the Japanese government. Us comfort women will settle for nothing less."
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The women protested in the streets of Manila, displaying placards with words such as, "We were raped" and "We want justice", as well as photographs of those deceased. But unfortunately for them, nothing came of the visit. "Emperor Akihito did not mention us at all," Extremadura laments. "But it is also the fault of our own president, Benigno Aquino. He should have made more effort for talks to take place."
Comfort women protesting last week in Manila. Photo courtesy of Gabriela Women's Network
Victims and survivors in the Philippines are placing more pressure on both governments after South Korea achieved a breakthrough deal in December last year, when Japan agreed to contribute $8.3 million to a new South Korean foundation set up to help survivors. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offered an indirect apology "to all of the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences and suffered physical and psychological wounds as comfort women." Korean officials said it accepted the issue was resolved "finally and irreversibly", adding that it would not raise it at the United Nations or in other international forums.
But the deal was not welcomed by Korean survivors. Coinciding with the protest in Manila, two South Korean women visited Tokyo last week to say they had not been consulted prior, and demanded the Japanese Prime Minister to offer a face-to-face apology and provide official compensation. "This deal has made us look like fools," Kang told reporters. "It was agreed without consulting us. How can they agree by pushing us aside? I'm furious."
The whole thing is an ongoing political game. It's not about us anymore.
To add further complication to the long-running dispute, Japanese foreign minister Fumio Kishida said just two weeks ago that women forced to work in the Japanese military should not be called sex slaves. "The term sex slaves doesn't match the facts, and the Japanese government believes it should not be used," Kishida said, adding that the South Korean government confirmed the formal term used is "victims of the comfort women issue of the Japanese military."
It's this kind of behaviour that leaves victims questioning whether the December agreement was sincere. "The South Korean victims are unsure because they feel like they're not being acknowledged and omitted from Japanese history," Extremadura says. "But in the wider struggle for comfort women across Asia, a deal is a deal. The whole thing is an ongoing political game. It's not about us anymore."
A map showing the locations of Japanese military comfort stations in WW2. Screenshot courtesy of Fight for Justice Japan
December's deal was not the first time Japan attempted to resolve the ongoing dispute with Korea. In 1993, Japan's then-chief cabinet secretary, Yohei Kono, acknowledged and apologized for the first time. However, the government refused to directly compensate the women, saying that all claims were settled in a 1965 treaty that restored diplomatic ties. Instead, the privately-run Asian Women's Fund was set up in 1995, but it disbanded in 2007 as women continued to refuse the money unless it came directly from the Japanese government.
But the focus in attempting to fix rows with Korea has left the Japanese government offering no official apology or compensation to women from other countries including the Philippines, as well as China and Taiwan. But Extremadura says that the Philippines' diplomatic interests with Japan are getting in the way of pushing for any deal relating to war-time issues; Japan is a top source of foreign aid and investment in the country, and trade between the two counties hit nearly $20 billion in 2014.
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"The Philippines government know about us—so if they're not mentioning anything, this is a deliberate move by our President," she sighs. "Aquino needs to be tougher like the Koreans and take up any opportunity to push stronger for our demands and for any progress on the issue."
Despite the ongoing ordeal, Rechilda doesn't show any sign of weakness in her voice. "We are in for a very steep fight, and only a few of us remain to continue," she says. "We can only solve this through dialogue and harmony. We want to hear directly from the government leaders.
"Many have died without the taste of justice. We are now very old, time is running out. Until there is a deal, we are fighting two battles; our own and the enemy."
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