Turning Japanese

I cannot help but still feel conflicted about the Japanese.

I mean—who wouldn’t be inspired by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who has recently resigned his post due to his failing health, once again raising the “ethical bar”, as it were, for public servants and government officials?

If the Japanese come out on the news these days, they often do inevitably with the hashtags #honor or delicadeza or #dignity. I consider them an honorable people, generally.

The mere mention of Japan also easily calls to mind words like Akira Kurosawa, or bushido, or samurai, or hara-kiri—or haiku. Yet, speaking of the same, we are also reminded of the Pearl Harbor, 1941—or its aftermath, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or kamikaze—or not from here, Hukbalahap or the Bataan Death March.

Speaking of “the Japanese”, who can rid their minds of how our grandparents—and parents—would painfully recall their own ordeals during the tiempo-hapon?

Many years ago, our Lola Soleng (Soledad) who passed in 2012 at 82, would share to us how her family fled their village to hide from the Japanese.

One time she recalled how she, with her sister, Lola Eta (Margarita) and husband Lolo Miling (Emiliano), had to carry their little child Emma, her niece, through the marshes of Catangyanan and Caaluan in Tinambac just to flee the Japanese. The little child Emma was my mother, born in 1940.

Such and other stories from my own folks are a distant memory, but from the way they shared those stories, I am sure they were not really pleasant at all.

From our own lolos or lolas or titos or titas or tito or tiya, each of us probably has a tiempo-hapon story. Every now and then, they might have even admonished us for our allegedly “easy life” these days, daring us to feel the same suffering they had at this period of their lives: “Kun kamo daw, Noy, an nabuhay kan tiempo-hapon, inda ko saindo!” (Had you lived during the Japanese occupation, I don’t know if you could survive it!)

While our folks might have considered tiempo-hapon one of their lowest, to the victims themselves and their families, we are certain it’s a bangungot (nightmare) from which they could not have really recovered.

I cannot forget a story I read about the Agdangan Massacre in Baao, Camarines Sur—it was a magazine article detailing how a number of women and children were bayoneted by the Japanese in that village at the height of their occupation.

In the 2010s, passing the town every time we would have a family reunion in Del Rosario in Iriga, I would look for the marker of the site where it happened. Until now, going to Rinconada and passing by Bgy. Agdangan, I cannot help but picture images from that story I read.

Further on, in teaching feature stories to campus writers and fellow teachers over the years, I would highlight a story of the Ilonggo comfort woman named Mama Rosa, written by Diosa Labiste, an Iloilo-based Inquirer correspondent, with whom I had been acquainted when I stayed in Iloilo in the 2000s.

Whenever I get the chance, I use the material because of its historical significance. I feel relevant when I take this up with my students. I feel am being responsible whenever I get to talk about the Japanese occupation with the younger generation.

But who am I to speak ill of the Japanese? I myself have not experienced hostility or cruelty as did my parents and grandparents—and other Filipinos who lived in the 1940s.

On the contrary, I had been a Salamat Po Kai scholar at the Ateneo de Naga for seven years. Salamat Po Kai (meaning foundation) is a Philippine-Japan partnership in the late 1980s and mid-1990s which paid for the schooling of financially incapable but well-performing students.

Meaning it was through the generosity of the Japanese that I was able to attend high school and college.

Salamat Po Kai is like the more popular “foster-parent program” of the non-government organization Plan International, wherein scholars were asked to write letters regularly to their benefactors not only to thank them but also to update them on their progress in school.

My benefactors were—Tokiwa Kane in the first years of my scholarship; and later, Sachi Yamasaki and Teruko Akiyama, to whom I wrote many times.

In the year of my college graduation, I remember receiving a heartwarming letter from Mrs. Teruko Akiyama, telling me how happy she was that I was finally graduating. She was also happy to tell me that they just welcomed the birth of their first grandchild.

Before this first and only reply from her, I must have written to her many times, telling her about my family and my studies. Her letter came with a picture of her smiling taken at wintertime with the words written at the back: “This photo is a rare snowscape. My name is Teruko Akiyama.” In her letter she also said that she hopes that I would be a priest.

In August 1992, during my freshman year, we Salamat Po Kai scholars hosted our visiting benefactors. With fellow scholars, among them Christopher Abelinde and Engelbert Baloloy and other school officials, I ushered our guests in the school and led them on a tour of Naga and the neighboring towns. The exchange was aimed at both the Filipinos and the Japanese knowing each other’s cultures more.

Though many of them were not fluent in English and some even needed translators, I was wowed by their lightheartedness and friendship.

One of our guests was the motherly Mrs. Honda, a cheerful woman whose eyes almost always disappeared because she was always smiling.

Among others, she engaged us in lively conversations and was excited to know about our country. I suppose no other exchanges followed after that, but I would always remember Mrs. Honda for her friendship and yes, her cheerfulness.

The following year, when I took Asian Literature class under Paz Verdades Santos, I was drawn to the Japanese culture, reading books about Noh theater and Zen Buddhism in the circulation section of the old college library. It was then located at the ground floor of the Burns Hall.

In a secluded portion of the library, I found an untouched series of beautiful books on Japanese culture and literature which I devoured to my heart’s content.

On the immaculate book card I was so thrilled to have signed them out first. Then I thought probably not too many people in Ateneo had been reading about Japan at the time—I was just amazed to have sort of “lived” in it.

For a term paper at the end of the course, I chose to submit a letter posturing as Onin Nagamo, a cultural officer of sorts, not only praising Japanese literature and culture to high heavens but really proposing to adopt their simplicity and philosophy. That project only summed up my appreciation of the Japanese sensibility.

So you see, during that romantic interlude of my literary life, I once relished their culture as much as I love our very own.

Since high school, I have loved haiku (three-line poetry of 5-7-5 syllables) as much as I love the Bikol tigsik (toast).

I feel grateful for the Japanese for their generosity. (I feel sorry that my own country was not the one that funded my high school and college studies.)

But have we as a country really forgiven Japan for their cruelty and atrocities? Can the monetary compensation presented to the comfort women and their families really be called “compensation”?

Since the 1940s, our parents and grandparents’ lives and those of thousands of Filipinos the 1940s have been altered—if not torn apart—by the atrocities and acts of violence committed by the Japanese.

But am I, for one, a scholar of the Japanese government, entitled to forgive them in behalf of the other Filipinos who suffered from their hands? Can I—at the very least—be considered a living proof of their remorse?