MANILA, Philippines (WOMENSENEWS)–Inside the Malacanang Palace that morning, President Benigno Aquino welcomed visiting Japanese Emperor Akihito.
Outside, Narcisa Claveria, 85, dressed in a fuchsia pink traditional Filipina dress, stood on the frontline of a small group of protesters. She had walked about a quarter mile under the scorching Manila heat in the late morning to get there. It was tiring for an 85-year-old woman like her, but she was determined.
"My message to the emperor is for Japan to recognize us. They already acknowledged the Korean comfort women, what about us?" Claveria says, speaking in a slow, rustic voice. "Until now, there is no justice yet."
The emperor’s visit was on Jan. 26, less than a month after Japan agreed to provide $8.3 million in government funds to support a South Korean foundation that aids comfort women.
Eighty-nine-year-old Hilaria Bustamante, in a black traditional Filipina dress, was also at the protests. She says it was tiring indeed to get there that morning and stand for more than an hour outside the palace.
Another in the group of five women is Estelita Dy, 85. "It shouldn’t be just the Koreans," she says. "Justice should be for all and not just for one group."
These elderly Filipinas who all battled the heat that day are euphemistically called comfort women, because they gave "comfort" to Japanese soldiers stationed in foreign countries.
More accurately, the women are among the hundreds of thousands of women who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese during the war. For years they have been seeking justice for the sufferings they experienced at the hands of the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II.
At the protest, the women listed three demands: an apology, compensation from Japan and recognition from the Philippine government that the comfort women system existed in the Philippines during World War II.
"Those are the three demands, no more, no less," says Rechilda Extremadura, executive director of Lila Pilipina or the League of Filipino Women, an organization supporting the comfort women.
As they stood outside the presidential palace the women weren’t just sending a message to the emperor. They were also a reminder to their own government. Unlike South Korea, the Philippine government has not recognized the sex slavery system behind the words "comfort women." Nor has the government raised the issue with Japan, its largest trade partner and a major source of aid.
Claveria, Bustamante and the others want the same apology from Japan that it has given to South Korea.
But they want something more: no conditions.
Japan’s deal with South Korean comfort women stipulates that both sides refrain from criticizing each other on the issue in the international community.
"If they received the compensation, they cannot speak about this issue anymore," says Extremadura. "Or they should remain at home and be silent forever until they pass away. I hope this will not happen in the Philippines."
These former Filipina comfort women are part of the estimated 100,000 to 250,000 Asian women between the ages of 13 and 15 who were abducted by the Japanese Army. While most came from South Korea, others are from China and the Philippines. In the Philippines, it is estimated that more than 1,000 girls and young women were forced into sexual slavery. (At least one Chinese research center places a very high estimate on the numbers of Chinese women forced into the system.)
The organization Lila Pilipina started in 1992 with 174 members. But many have died in recent years and their number has dwindled to around 70. Only five to eight women are strong enough to attend their monthly gatherings and protest actions, says Extremadura.
For seven decades these grandmothers, or lolas as they are called in the local language, have been waiting for an apology and financial compensation from the Japanese government for what they suffered.
Japan’s formal apology last month to their Korean counterparts has so far done little for them. No mention of the matter came from the Presidential Palace after the emperor’s visit.
Local and foreign media, however, have been covering the issue extensively.
Filipino historian Ricardo Jose, a professor at the University of the Philippines, says the case of the Filipina comfort women is also significant.
"The comfort women issue was raised in South Korea much earlier than us. But the Philippine case is just as serious," he said in a recent interview on the sidelines of a press conference. "Violence against one woman is violence against all women. It’s very frustrating."
Acknowledged, No Apology
A Japanese official acknowledged the system of comfort women in 1993, but it fell far short of an official apology, Jose says.
The Kono Statement came from Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono, who acknowledged that "the recruitment of the comfort women was conducted mainly by private recruiters who acted in response to the request of the military."
Later, a compensation fund for comfort women was set up, but not by Japan. Private donors paid for it.
Few former Filipina comfort women consider the apology official and many rejected payments because these did not come from Tokyo.
Jose says that documents would show the Philippine government that the comfort stations existed and how they were run as a business. "They had office hours and the officers of the Japanese would come at certain times. It was extremely organized. It was such a sexual slavery scandal. It broke out in the 1990s."
During his three-day visit to the Philippines, the Japanese emperor did not mention the victims of sexual slavery but he expressed remorse for the atrocities of the Japanese military during WWII.
It’s as if the sex slavery never occurred, Extremadura laments. But she and the other women are living proof it did.
Filipina survivor Maria Rosa Luna Henson, known as Lola Rosa, died in 1997. She was the first Filipina comfort woman to come out in public in 1992 and tell her story. In 1943, soldiers raped Lola Rosa from morning to evening for three months.
Lola Rose called on others to do the same and hundreds of other women followed her example.
Claveria was forced into sexual slavery when she was 13 and was kept in a Japanese garrison near their village in Abra in the northern Philippines. She was only able to escape a year later in 1944.
Dy, who is from Negros Occidental in the southern Philippines, was abducted by Japanese soldiers while selling vegetables inside a market in her community. She, too, was kept in a garrison and raped repeatedly for three weeks.
Bustamante, a young 16-year-old during the war, was kidnapped and also forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese for 15 months.
Every comfort woman still remembers vividly the nightmares of the 1940s. The Japanese government cannot deny it, says Extremadura.
They wished it didn’t happen but it did, the women say.
Dy even remembers the time. "Every 6 p.m., the men would come and rape me," she says, almost in a whisper as she fights back tears.