Class and the politics of memory in post-war Asia

Over the last few decades in Asia, August has been dominated by the anniversary of the tragic nuclear devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, on the 6th and 9th days of the month. This year, however, being the 70th anniversary of the ending of the Second World War, people have recalled the havoc that war brought to so many in the region and discussed the ways that the protracted, bitter conflict, which arguably began with Japan’s invasion of China in 1937, left its mark not only on the post-war relations between Japan and the different countries in the region but on the relations among social classes within these countries.

In the occupied countries, social classes related to the Japanese in different ways, and the class factor might help explain why the current Philippine government, headed by the grandson of a despised collaborator, has become one of the most enthusiastic backers of the aggressive effort to dismantle Japan’s “Peace Constitution” by the grandson of a Class A war criminal.

For me, August this year began with the death of one of my favorite cousins, Rizalina (“Cheng”) Cardenas.  She passed away at 100 years of age, 67 years after her husband left their house in Manila in January 1942 to serve as a medical doctor in the Filipino-American army that retreated to the Bataan Peninsula in the face of the onslaught of invading Japanese forces. 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 that 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 surrender to the Japanese.  During the one-week-long “Bataan Death March” alone, the Japanese killed 18,000 of their 72,000 Filipino and American prisoners, or a mortality rate of 25 percent in seven days!  

My cousin was left with three young children to raise alone, a situation that was not unusual for so many women during what came to be known as the “Japanese Occupation.”  

Brutal occupation

The Japanese military regime was unrelentingly brutal.  Innocent people suspected of aiding the guerrillas were routinely tortured and executed. My uncle, Buenaventura Bello, was bayoneted and left for dead when he refused a Japanese officer’s order to take down the American flag at his school in Vigan. My father, Jess, 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, attractive women, 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 1990’s but this figure is probably only a fraction of those who were actually forced into sexual service, many others preferring to keep silent owing to the shame that attaches to the experience.

Perhaps overshadowing the Bataan Death March as a war crime was the indiscriminate killing spree that Japanese naval infantrymen unleashed in Manila as World War II drew to a close. Joan Orendain has rightfully asserted that the “Rape of Manila” rivaled the better known “Rape of Nanking” in its brutality, with “100,000 burned, bayoneted, bombed, shelled and shrapneled dead in the span of 28 days.” Unborn babies “ripped from their mothers’ womb provided sport: thrown up in the air and caught, impaled on bayonet tips.” Rape was rampant and “after the dirty deed was done, nipples were sliced off, and bodies bayoneted open from the neck down.”

Japanese atrocities fueled the guerrilla resistance, making huge swathes of the rural areas dangerous and off-limits to imperial troops, many of them conscripts from Korea, and by the end of the war, there was vengeful, popular clamor to bring Japan’s Filipino collaborators to trial, especially those who had served in the puppet regime known as the “Second Philippine Republic.”

Abe’s ‘apology’ criticized and praised

With this record of atrocities, one would have expected that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s August 14, 2015, remarks on the anniversary of the end of the Second World War would elicit the same reaction in the Philippines that it did in China and Korea. 

While Abe admitted to Japan’s having caused "immeasurable damage and suffering" to the peoples of East Asia, he also asserted that "We must not let our children, grandchildren and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize.”

To the Chinese, this came across as a double-faced statement. "Japan should have made an explicit statement on the nature of the war of militarism and aggression and its responsibility for the war,” said the Chinese Foreign Ministry. Abe should have “made a sincere apology to the people of victim countries, and made a clean break with the past of militarist aggression, rather than being evasive on this major issue of principle." 

The ruling Seanuri Party in South Korea, for its part, criticized the Abe statement as having “room for improvement because it did not directly mention remorse and apology for Japan’s past history of aggression, but only expressed them in a roundabout way in the past tense.” 

Meanwhile, the main opposition party, the New Politics Alliance for Democracy, said Abe’s statement was “deeply disappointing for lacking sincere remorse and apology.”

In both countries, seven decades after the war, education, memorial events, and the arts and literature have ensured that hatred and suspicion of Japan continue to boil just beneath the surface.

No such critical response to the Abe statement came from the Philippines. 

On the contrary, remarks by top Philippine officials were positive, with the presidential palace issuing a statement that was 180 degrees removed from the Korean and Chinese statements:  “Japan has acted with compassion and in accordance with international law, and has more actively and positively engaged with the region and the world after the war.”

Contrasting trajectories

The different responses, observers say, stem from the unique political and economic  trajectories of the three countries. Three considerations are important:

First, for China and Korea, the anti-Japanese struggle was a central element in the forging of the nationalist identity, or what Ben Anderson famously termed their “imagined community.” The Chinese Communist Party has projected itself as having been the central figure in the victorious “patriotic war” against Japan, though many historians are of the opinion that it was the Communists’ rivals, the Nationalists, that did most of the fighting and dying. Both Korean states see themselves as emerging from the anti-colonial struggle against Japan, which annexed and colonized the peninsula from 1910 to 1945. 

For the Philippines, in contrast, the official narrative puts as its centerpiece the forging of the nation via the elite-led revolution against Spain in the late 19th century, with the American annexation of the country painted in largely positive terms and the Second World War depicted as a violent but brief episode on the way to independence.

Second, the three countries have had contrasting economic relationships with contemporary Japan. For China and Korea, Japan has not just been a former military overlord but a contemporary economic power with which they have had a bitter rivalry. Trade and investment relations with the Japanese have been seen as a necessary evil to acquire the needed resources and technology to beat them. 

In the case of the Philippines, in contrast, Japan was never seen as an economic competitor but a source of development aid, investment, and jobs. Japan’s image as a wartime enemy was transformed beginning in the late sixties and seventies, when Japanese corporate investments produced local jobs for many and the remittances that migrant workers in Japan’s entertainment and sex industries sent back to their families supported not only survival but social mobility.

Elite collaboration, lower class resistance 

But perhaps the main factor explaining the different attitudes toward Japan is the class factor.

In Korea, the politics of remembrance was boosted by the destruction of the pre-war landed elite that collaborated with the Japanese by the Korean civil war of 1950-53 and the subsequent land reform. In the Philippines, in contrast, the politics of forgetting was facilitated by the post-war whitewashing of the elite’s role during the Occupation.

There is a reason why the war against Japan has played such a minor role in the country’s elite-driven official narrative of freedom and independence. From serving as the pillar of US colonial rule, most of the elite swiftly switched sides and collaborated with the Japanese, and this led to their being widely despised by the people. A complex kind of class war ensued, in which the national and local elites worked closely with the Japanese while the masses for the most part hated the Japanese and waited for the Americans to “return,” as promised by Gen Douglas MacArthur. 

Scores of guerrilla groups formed, the best known and most effective being the Communist-led Hukbalahap, which chased away the hated landlords in Central Luzon at the same time that it fought the Japanese alongside the Americans as partners in the anti-fascist struggle.  But aside from the “Huks,” there were other, less ideological outfits that were headed by lower-class or middle-class figures, like the charismatic Marcos Villa Agustin, or “Marking,” a former bus driver whose units operated from the Sierra Madre mountain range in Luzon to terrorize not only Japanese soldiers but also local elites.

War shattered the old social structure and created a more fluid system where individuals from the lower classes could rise to positions of power and influence. Temporarily, it turned out.

The end of the war saw impassioned calls from the resistance to try the elite collaborators as traitors. Among the most hated servitors of Japan was Manuel Roxas, the director of the Rice Procurement Agency, who is described in an authoritative study as having “organized the extraction of rice from peasant farmers to supply the Japanese military” and “was thus the collaborator most clearly identified in the minds of peasants with the betrayal and abuses suffered during the Occupation.” 

However, the returning Gen MacArthur intervened to get his pre-war friend Roxas released from jail, an act that anticipated Washington’s move toward a policy of rehabilitating the reviled elite in order to contain the Communist-led guerrilla forces that threatened large parts of the main island of Luzon. 

Laundered and provided international respectability by Washington, Roxas bribed, intimidated, and terrorized his way to victory during the presidential elections of 1946.  Shortly before his unexpected death in 1948, Roxas completed the rehabilitation of his class when he issued the infamous Proclamation No. 51, which granted amnesty to accused collaborators.  Reflecting the acute class enmities triggered by the experience of the Occupation, one of the reasons cited for the decree was the fact that  “the question of collaboration has divided the people of the Philippines since liberation in a manner which threatens the unity of the nation at a time when the public welfare requires that said unity be safeguarded and preserved…”

The first decades of the post-war era was thus marked by a contradiction in the popular mind between the memory of legendary resistance to the Japanese from Bataan to the liberation of Manila and the reality of continuing domination of national politics by a largely collaborationist elite whitewashed by Washington in the name of the anti-communist struggle with the dawning of the Cold War.  Unlike the Chinese and South Korean governments, the Filipino political elite soft-pedalled war damage claims against Japan; made sure to extend a warm welcome to Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, a “class A” war criminal who, like Roxas had been rehabilitated by Washington, when he visited the Philippines in a “reconciliation” journey in the late fifties; and did little to help Filipino comfort women in their struggles for an apology and restitution from Tokyo.

Contrasting reactions to collective defense

With the Philippine elite encouraging a politics of forgetting and the Korean and Chinese governments institutionalizing a politics of remembrance, it is not surprising that the three governments have had contradictory responses to Abe’s drive to subvert Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, the so-called “Peace Clause” that prohibits Japan from engaging in offensive warfare, in order to promote his strategy of “Collective Defense,” which would deploy Japanese troops in offensive operations outside Japan. 

China and Korea have sternly condemned Collective Defense, seeing it as part and parcel of a comprehensive right-wing program to deny Japanese war crimes, refuse restitution to Japan’s sex slaves, bring back old-style Japanese nationalism, and erode the pacifism that still is the dominant sentiment among the Japanese people.  

Despite prodding from President Obama, who has tried to put in place a US-led alliance contain China, the Koreans have refused closer military ties with the Japanese, with Korean President Park Geun-hye going to great lengths to avoid a bilateral meeting with Abe.  According to analyst T.J. Pempel, “Because of the ideological wrapping paper Abe has placed around collective self-defense…President Park Geun-hye does not want anything to do with Abe. She is very animated by Abe’s challenges to …the comfort women issue.”

Philippine President Benigno Aquino III’s reaction to Abe’s Collective Defense strategy could not have been more different. 

While acknowledging that “[t]here's been some debate on the Japanese government's plan to revisit certain interpretations of its constitution," Aquino asserted during his state visit to Japan in late June 2014 that “nations of good will can only benefit if the Japanese government is empowered to assist others, and is allowed to come to the aid of those in need, especially in the area of collective self-defense.” He added that he did  “not view with alarm any proposal to revisit the Japanese constitution, if the Japanese people so desire, especially if this enhances Japan’s ability to address its international obligations, and brings us closer to the attainment of our shared goals of peace, stability, and mutual prosperity.”

This was, at the very least, inappropriate meddling in Japanese domestic politics, one that some analysts say, was calculated to influence Japanese public opinion to swing in favor of Abe’s reinterpretation of the Constitution at a time that the majority of Japanese had come out against it. A poll released at around the time of the Aquino visit found 56 percent against collective self-defense and only 28 percent in favor.  On July 1, 2014, fortified by support from the visiting Aquino, Abe gutted Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, resorting to a cabinet decision to reinterpret the article, skirting parliamentary approval and the requirement for a referendum on a change to the Constitution.

The drastic endorsement of a move opposed by the majority of Japanese as well as Japan’s neighbors is difficult to explain as stemming solely from the Philippine government’s desire to gain an ally in its territorial disputes with China in the West Philippine Sea. 

Other countries in East and Southeast Asia, even those directly threatened by China’s moves, have been careful not to endorse Tokyo’s new doctrine of power projection beyond Japan, Vietnam, being a prime example. Like Korea’s Park, most are wary that the Abe doctrine is intended not so much to assist allies against China’s moves but to support the Japanese leader’s strategic aim of developing a nuclear weapons capability, exercising a more aggressive posture, and rewriting history.

Aquino and his grandfather

There is one element that has, however, not been adequately examined but which is likely to have played a role in Aquino’s endorsement, and that is his class memory. 

Aquino comes from a class whose experience of the Second World War was very different from that of ordinary Filipinos. Aquino is better known as the son of two icons in the struggle against the Marcos dictatorship, Cory and Ninoy Aquino. But he is also the grandson of Benigno Simeon Aquino Sr, who is chiefly remembered as the Japanese-designated Speaker of the National Assembly of the puppet regime and, earlier, Director General of the Kalibapi, which was formed by the Japanese to serve as the country’s only political party during the Occupation. 

So hated was the Kalibapi and an adjunct organization Makapili, which denounced guerrillas and their supporters, that possibly the only reason Aquino Sr. escaped death at the hands of the partisans was his being in Japan in the closing months of the war. Brought back to the Philippines one year after the cessation of hostilities, he was arraigned on charges of treason at the People’s Court before being released on bail. However, he died before he could take advantage of his friend Manuel Roxas’ general amnesty for local quislings like him.

Did psycho-biographical factors play a role in Aquino’s unquestioning endorsement of Abe’s effort to reinterpret Article 9 in an aggressive fashion? It is inconceivable that one whose parents or grandparents suffered under the Japanese Occupation would have provided such enthusiastic support for Abe’s quest to project Japanese military power.  

True, Filipinos have generally become more positive towards Japan, but few would cross the line that Aquino did, to rubber-stamp Japan’s return to an offensive military strategy.

So one is left with the question: was it more than coincidence that Japan’s new dangerous course would be launched by the joining of hands of Aquino, the grandson of a despised collaborator, and Abe, the grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, the class A war criminal who went on to become a prime minister of post-war Japan. –


Walden Bello is former representative in the House of Representatives of the Philippines. Rappler is publishing this piece with the permission of Telesur.