A series of portraits of former comfort women hang on the office wall of Lila Pilipina, an organization that gathers survivors of wartime sexual slavery, in Manila. (Shallah Montero/For The Washington Post)
MANILA — Rosa Henson, a survivor of wartime sexual slavery at the hands of Japanese forces, went public in 1992 with her story. She had no idea what would follow.
Almost 1,000 women across the Philippines stepped forward after her with their own accounts of abuse by the Imperial Japanese Army. The women spoke out despite sometimes uncomfortable public scrutiny and even shaming from their own families.
The sad history of Asian women forced to become sexual chattel during World War II — so-called “comfort women” — is most often associated with South Korea, where protests and demands for Japanese reparations have gone on for decades.
But there were more women in other countries occupied by Japan. In the Philippines, they were abducted between 1942 and 1945, then systematically raped by hundreds of men, according to survivors’ accounts.
One organization advocating for survivors, Lila Pilipina, documented almost 200 cases in the Philippines. Now, only eight members are left. The youngest is 89.
The survivors blame their own government for a lack of support. Japan is one of the Philippines’ top investors and donors. It is a sought-after destination for workers from the Philippines.
“It’s easy to understand [why Japan] does what it does,” said Sharon Silva, director of Lila Pilipina. “But for the Philippine government, it’s incomprehensible.”
Advocates worry their fight is not only being forgotten, but actively erased. Two statues honoring comfort women were taken down in the past year.
The first statue was removed during road construction, but some government officials also said its presence hurt ties with Japan. The Japanese Embassy had also complained about the second statue, which was later taken down.
The plight of survivors is a testament to how deeply sexual violence is embedded in wartime history.
It also underscores the power of women speaking up together.
“The struggle is not yet over,” Silva said.
But more than 70 years after the war — still with no formal apology or compensation — time is running out for them. Here are two of their stories:
When Narcisa Claveria, “Isang” to her friends, first heard Rosa Henson on the radio, she was struck by her bravery. Her testimony dug up a dark memory.
“If I would always hide what happened to me, there would be a knot in my chest,” said Claveria. “I couldn’t accept that.”
She was around 12 years old when Japanese soldiers arrived. After her father was unable to answer their questions, he was tied facedown to the post of the house. “They skinned him like a water buffalo,” she said.
Her mother was raped. Two brothers were forced into labor. Two more siblings were killed.
She and her remaining sisters, Emeteria and Osmeña, were taken to the garrisons. The last thing she heard was her father screaming. As they were dragged away, their house went up in flames, she said.
Claveria was separated as she nursed an injury. One day, a soldier named Tarasaki told her to wash up, she recalled. He gave her a change of clothes. That night, he raped her, she recalled.
When she saw Emeteria again, her skin bore cigarette burns. They and other girls were abused almost every night, usually in front of each other, for three months.
By the time they escaped, Emeteria was no longer herself. They never saw Osmeña again.
“I can’t count on the Philippine government,” said Claveria. “But I’ll keep fighting . . . until I die.”
Estelita Dy was doing the laundry when she heard Henson on the radio in 1992. Her first reaction was embarrassment.
“I said, ‘She should have kept quiet,’” Dy recalled. But a year later, her views began to change.
“In 1993, I was still thinking about it,” Dy said. “Maybe Rosa was right.”
She visited the address mentioned on air and realized how many women were coming out with stories of abuse during the Japanese occupation.
Dy was 12 when, on a visit to the market, she saw Japanese soldiers beheading suspected guerrillas and dumping their bodies into a well. After trying to run away, she found herself hauled into a truck with other local women.
She was raped on her first night at the garrison, she said. When she fought back, the soldier grabbed her by the ears and knocked her unconscious. An interpreter took pity on her and warned her not to resist — or she could be killed.
“So every time I was raped, I would just close my eyes and cry,” she said.
She stayed there for three weeks, and escaped when American forces took the area.
After the statues were taken down, Dy said the women “can’t count on” President Rodrigo Duterte.
“He’s a lap dog to the Japanese,” she said. “We only want justice for the damage done to us.”
By Regine Cabato, The Washington Post