This September marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Yet even seven full decades since Japan’s formal surrender on September 2, 1945, fallout over the bitter conflict continues to shape the politics of the countries that fell under Japanese imperial rule.
The war left its mark not only on relations between Japan and its neighbors, but also on class politics within these countries. How each country handled its collaborator classes, in turn, has had a considerable impact on how they’ve responded to the current Japanese government’s push to revise the country’s “peace constitution” into irrelevance.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the Philippines, where postwar US authorities helped rehabilitate erstwhile collaborators with the Japanese occupation in the name of fighting communism. Generations later, it’s led to the grandson of a despised Philippine collaborator endorsing the remilitarization of his country’s former occupiers—by the grandson of a war criminal, no less.
History certainly works in mysterious ways.
Horrors of the Occupation
One month before this year’s anniversary, one of my favorite cousins passed away at 100 years of age. During the war, her husband left their house in Manila to serve as a medical doctor in the Filipino-American army, which retreated to the Bataan Peninsula as invading Japanese forces advanced. She never heard from him again.
It was only three years later, after Manila was liberated by General Douglas MacArthur’s troops and Filipino guerrillas, that she learned her husband had been summarily executed, along with three other doctors, while trying to escape from a prisoner-of-war camp. Many of his comrades suffered the same fate upon their surrender to the Japanese. During the weeklong Bataan Death March alone, the Japanese killed 18,000 of their 72,000 Filipino and American prisoners—a mortality rate of 25 percent in just seven days.
My cousin was left with three young children to raise alone, a situation shared by many women during the Japanese occupation.
The Japanese military regime in the Philippines was unrelentingly brutal. Innocent people suspected of aiding the guerrillas were routinely tortured and executed. My uncle was bayoneted and left for dead when he refused a Japanese officer’s order to take down the American flag at his school. My father was beaten with a baseball bat in Fort Santiago, the Spanish-era fortress in Manila that the Japanese converted into a prison and torture center. He was lucky to survive.
Young women and girls, some as young as 11 or 12, were rounded up to serve as sex slaves for Japanese troops. Nobody knows for certain how many Filipinas were forced into sexual slavery, but historians estimate that up to 200,000 women from the Philippines, Korea, China, and other countries occupied by the Japanese suffered this fate. Some 400 of these “comfort women” have surfaced in the Philippines since the 1990s, but this figure is probably only a fraction of those who were actually forced into sexual service. Many others preferred to keep silent.