Solidarity Philippines Australia Network
Of Pain, Courage and Survival
Book Review by Emere Distor
The life of Maria Rosa Henson or "Lola Rosa" classically depicts the cruelty of poverty and powerlessness. Yet, amidst the sadness of it all, Lola Rosa breaths courage. In her autobiography, Lola Rosa, survivor of Japanese war atrocity, leads the readers to visit her life through the book with her own illustrations and vivid descriptions of people and events long gone. Her story begins as the daughter of the landlord’s illiterate mistress, Julia. Rosa’s mother, Julia, is the eldest of the children who began her ‘working’ life as Don Pepe Henson’s housemaid, despite her protestations. The seeming kindness of the landlord to help Julia’s family was not without motive.
A man whose words were command, a man who frequented the nearby church like his toilet, Don Pepe, promised Julia’s family he would recognise the child as his own provided they take her to Pasay to give birth. Don Pepe gave his name to Rosa and kept his promise. Growing up without a father around confused Rosa about her background which later on was discovered by her classmates and teachers. In a period when children born out of wedlock were extremely isolated, Rosa learned early in life to meet challenges and taunts head on and survive. Her only consolation then was to meet her father, not in the big house where his family lived, but, secretly inside his rice granary.
When war was declared on 5 December 1941, Rosa was 14 years old. Her mother’s family all fled to Bulacan to escape the Japanese troops landing in Manila. While gathering wood, Rosa was snatched by three Japanese soldiers and raped. She survived the incident because a farmer brought her home to recover. Two years after, an even more unfortunate incident happened to Rosa while she was passing a Japanese checkpoint with members of the guerilla movement. Thinking that the ammunition hidden in the sacks of grain would be discovered, Rosa silently returned to the checkpoint guard who by that time waved to her companions to proceed. Rosa was captured and become a comfort woman for nine harrowing months.
In telling details, Rosa describes the brutal and inhumane treatment of comfort women: "At two, the soldiers came. My work began, and I lay down as one by one the soldiers raped me. Everyday, anywhere from 12 to over 20 soldiers assaulted me. There were times when there were as many as 30; they came to the garrison in truckloads." The cruelty towards Rosa and the other girls was unending especially in times when the soldiers were not satisfied after raping them. "Once there was a soldier who was in such a hurry to come that he ejaculated even before he had entered me. He was very angry and he grabbed my hand and forced me to fondle his genitals. Another soldier was waiting for his turn outside the room and started banging on the wall. The man had no choice but to leave, but before going out, he hit my breast and pulled my hair."
However, violence and humiliation were everyday occurrences in the garrison for comfort women. Not even captivity nor bouts of malaria dampened the spirit of Rosa to survive, more so to help the resistance against the Japanese. Overhearing Japanese officers planning to burn her village of Pampang to flush out members and supporters of HUKBALAHAP, Rosa risked her life to inform a passing villager. "I was in luck that day because the guards took us downstairs so we could have some sunshine. The field fronted the street, but the Japanese had fenced it off with barbed wire so no one could escape. I walked close to the street and saw an old man pass by. His face looked familiar to me, and I knew he lived in our barrio." There was not a single soul in the village when the troops arrived. The officer readily suspected Rosa who was in the same room during their planning. She was dragged to the garrison, tied and beaten senselessly.
When the Japanese Imperial Army withdrew its troops from the Philippines, Rosa was freed from the garrison and only regained consciousness after two months. Her recovery was as traumatic as her ordeal. "My mother nursed me back to health, spoon-feeding me as if I were a baby. I could neither stand nor walk. I crawled like an infant. I could not focus my eyes well, and everything I saw was blurred." After a remarkable recovery at the age of 18, Rosa met Domingo who later become her husband and father to two daughters. In another twist of fate, Domingo just disappeared one day without a word. It was not until nearly a year when she discovered her husband’s location — in a jungle with the HMB, an armed group fighting the government’s army for land redistribution. The pain of discovery was made more unbearable for two different reasons — Rosa was abducted while buying medicine for their very ill daughter and kept for days by Domingo’s men, and secondly, Domingo already had a new woman.
If one were an ordinary mortal, there is more probability that you’d loose your sanity halfway if you were in Lola Rosa’s shoes, or wooden clogs for that matter. She started life painfully, with only faith in God and love for her mother in her heart. She was stripped of her dignity as a Japanese comfort woman. She was betrayed by her husband who hid under the shield of the resistance movement. She single-handedly raised her family. She mourned, she struggled, she survived.
Lola Rosa started writing her autobiography in 1995, two years after she came out in public to protest against Japanese war atrocities. Her manuscript has already been translated in Japanese by Yuki Shiga-Fugime, a professor of contemporary history at Kyoto University.
Coming out in public as a comfort woman was a most courageous thing to do. Many people are sympathetic but some are sneering and even suspicious. In April 1993, along with other surviving comfort women from the Philippines and other countries, she filed a lawsuit in the Tokyo District Court demanding compensation from the Japanese government. During the visit of the Japanese Prime Minister to the Philippines in 1994, Tomiichi Murayama brought out the idea of a Women’s Centre as a form of compensation. Until now, the Japanese government insists that compensation was already given in the form of reparations to the Philippines government after WW II.
Japanese Comfort Women:
One Woman's Story
The account of Felicidad de Los Reyes
By Anthony Brown
FROM 1928 until the end of World War II, about 200,000 Asian women were forcibly drafted into sexual servitude by the Japanese Imperial Army.
These women, many in their teens, were often either tricked by offers of legitimate employment or abducted by Japanese soldiers and forced into so-called comfort houses. There they were forced to sexually please their captors, sometimes several at a time up to several times a day. To resist, invited beatings, torture and even death.
According to the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, a Swiss-based international women's rights organisation, they generally received little or no medical treatment even if they were injured in the process of rape and torture or became pregnant or infected with venereal disease.
Towards the end of the War, thousands were executed to conceal the existence of the comfort houses. In the Philippines, a human rights group has documented the cases of three survivors who bear the marks of where the Japanese tried to behead them.
About 60,000 comfort women survived the War and approximately one thousand are alive today, the youngest of whom is in her sixties. After decades of hiding what happened, they are now finding the courage to come out and tell their stories.
In the Philippines in 1993, about 150 women came forward when the Task Force on Filipino Comfort Women asked in a series of popular radio programs for comfort women to contact it.
One of these was Felicidad de Los Reyes. This is her story:
Felicidad was born on November 22, 1928 in Masbate, Philippines.
One day in 1943 three truckloads of Japanese soldiers from the garrison compound at the back of her school visited Felicidad's class. Her Japanese teacher had organised the students to perform songs and dances for the visiting soldiers. The Japanese army often introduced Japanese civilian teachers into schools in its conquered territories.
Felicidad, then only 14, was made to sing. The following day her teacher told the class that the soldiers were so impressed with the students' performance that they wanted to reward them. Felicidad was identified as one who was to be given an award and later that day two soldiers arrived to fetch her. They told her that she would be given the gift at the garrison. Thinking that there might be other students there, Felicidad went along. But when she got there, she did not see any of her school friends. Instead the only other women she saw were doing the soldiers' cooking and laundry.
She became worried. She asked to leave. The two guards refused. Instead they took her to a small room in the compound and pushed her in. They told her that her gift was coming.
A few hours later five Japanese soldiers arrived. Three of them were in uniform and two in civilian clothes. One of them jumped onto her catching her by the arms and forcing her down onto the ground. When she struggled, another punched her in the face while another grabbed her legs and held them apart. Then they took it in turns to rape her.
Felicidad had no knowledge about sex. She did not even have her menstruation. So she did not understand what they were doing to her. She begged them to stop. But they just laughed and whenever she struggled or screamed, they would punch and kick her.
Confused and frightened and tired and in pain, she drifted in and out of consciousness. That night three more soldiers came and repeatedly raped her. For the next three days a succession of soldiers abused her.
The continual raping and beatings finally took their toll and on the third day she fell ill. Her body and mind could take it no more. But even though she was obviously sick, the abuse continued. Not even her fever drew pity from her rapists.
Finally on the morning of the fourth day, a Filipino interpreter working for the Japanese visited her. She told him she was very sick and wanted to go home to recover. Feeling sympathy for her, he let her out of the compound.
When she arrived home, her parents who had no idea where she was, cried after learning what had happened. Just the year before an older sister had been taken by the Japanese. She died in a comfort house.
Fearing the soldiers would come looking for her, her father hid her in a nearby village. She stayed there for about a year until the American army arrived.
After the War, Felicidad returned to her home town. But her experiences at the hands of the Japanese soldiers had left deep psychological scars. She found it hard to socialise and could not face going back to school. She felt dirty. She dared not tell anyone outside her parents. She was afraid of how others would view her if they knew the truth. So she buried it inside.
When she was 25 she moved to Manila where she met her husband. Before marrying, Felicidad decided she could not conceal her experiences from the man she was going to marry, so she told him.
They were married in 1956 and had six children and 15 grandchildren. But outside her husband, she told no one else for almost 37 years.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: ANTHONY BROWN is an Irish-born journalist based in Brisbane. Anthony has written several articles on Filipino women's issues for KASAMA. His most recent book "The Boys from Ballymore" is published by Penguin Books Australia Ltd.
IN late June 1995, Felicidad de los Reyes and Nelia Sancho visited Brisbane as part of a national speaking tour entitled Women's Human Rights: Eliminating Violence Against Women in the Home and on the Battlefield. Organised by the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, the tour was funded by a grant from the Office of the Status of Women.
The tour aimed to galvanise public interest and raise public awareness about gender-specific violence in the Asia and Pacific regions, in the belief that breaking the silence is a preliminary for ending the violence against women in the family and in war.
The final event of the Brisbane visit, a public meeting at the Miscellaneous Worker's Union Building in Spring Hill, enabled Felicidad and Nelia to tell their stories to the local communities, show slides, and raise public awareness about the cause of Filipino "comfort women", the activities of Lila Pilipina, and the issues which still need to be addressed. After an opening by Mary Crawford, MP, Nelia and Felicidad - as always during the tour- spoke powerfully and sensitively about the issues to a hushed audience.
Chris Henderson, WILPF Brisbane
Surviving comfort women throughout Asia are now demanding justice from the Japanese Government for what happened to them.
They allege the Japanese Government during the War not only knew what its soldiers were up to, but that the system of sexual slavery was official government policy.
They argue that the authorities systematically planned, ordered, conscripted, established the army brothels and encouraged the abductions of women in countries occupied by the Japanese Imperial Army.
Besides seeking compensation and prosecutions of those responsible, they want the Japanese Government to admit its guilt. To date the Japanese Government has refused all their demands.
KASAMA Vol. 11 No. 3 / July–August–September 1997 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network
Maria Rosa Luna Henson: Woman of Courage
Lola Rosa at home, March 1996 (Photo: PCIJ)
MANILA - Maria Rosa Luna Henson died of a heart attack at the Pasay City hospital on the rain-swept night of August 18, 1997. She was 69.
Mrs. Henson burst into the national consciousness in 1992, when she broke half-a-century's silence to talk about her ordeal as a "comfort woman" in a World War II rape camp. Her example inspired other women to come out with their own stories, belying earlier claims that the Japanese forces did not set up "comfort stations" in the Philippines as they did in Korea, Taiwan and Indonesia.
Lola Rosa was an outspoken, intelligent and courageous woman who overcame great odds to become a champion of justice for the most secret and silent victims of World War II. Her widely read autobiography, Comfort Woman: Slave of Destiny, published by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism in 1996, is a touchingly honest account of her life and times and is the only autobiography ever written by any of the over 200,000 sex slaves kept by the Japanese in Asia. Comfort Woman is a finalist in this year's National Book Award for Best Biography.
Lola Rosa wrote Comfort Woman in her own unsteady hand, on ruled pad paper, using the English she had learned in school. The effort took over a year and entailed a great deal of painful recollection of a life that has seen epic suffering. In Comfort Woman, Lola Rosa wrote of her own mother's rape by the wealthy landlord who was to become her father. She recalled growing up as the hidden, illegitimate daughter of a young mother who could barely read or write. But the young Rosa managed to do well in a Catholic school in Pasay City, and was in seventh grade when the war broke out.
Her ordeal began when she was raped by Japanese soldiers while gathering firewood in what is now Fort Bonifacio. Fearful for her safety, her mother brought her to a village in Pampanga, where Lola Rosa joined the Hukbalahap guerrillas, gathering food and medicine for them, and acting as a courier for messages. While transporting a cartload of guns, she was stopped by a Japanese sentry who forcibly took her to a hospital in Angeles City which had been turned into a garrison. There, at the age of 14, her life as a comfort woman began. For nine months until her rescue by Huk guerrillas, scores of Japanese soldiers raped her everyday.
Lola Rosa told no one but her mother of what had been done to her. Not even the man she later married knew; her children found out only after she had come out into the open in 1992. Abandoned by her husband, she raised three children on her own, working as a laundrywoman, and later as a sweeper in a cigarette factory. She did not go mad only through faith and the sheer effort of will, she said. She also vowed to remember. To her dying day, Lola Rosa had a prodigious memory for dates and events. She once said that for her, remembering was the best revenge.
Lola Rosa's story is one of survival rather than victimhood. In the five years since she went public with her secret, she fought hard for justice for comfort women, joining marches, appearing in Congress, even filing a lawsuit in a Tokyo court. She was independent and outspoken. She also had the courage to break away from the NGOs working on her behalf. When she disagreed with their policies and methods of work, she just opted out. She was the first to accept unofficial compensation from the Japanese, although she was adamant in the belief that they owed her official indemnity as well.
Lola Rosa was buried in the saya with autumn-leaf design that she had made herself and wore to her book-launching last year at the historic Fort Santiago. "Autumn leaves, like me," she said then, with the quiet, self-deprecating humor of a woman who had survived so much so bravely, so triumphantly.
—Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism
Comfort Woman: Slave of Destiny
Publisher: Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, 905 Horizon Condo, Meralco Avenue, Pasig, Metro Manila. Fax# 0011 632 633 5887
Book Review: "Of Pain, Courage and Survival" by Emere Distor, Kasama Vol.10 No.4 Oct/Dec 1996
Further Reading: "Update: Comfort Women", Kasama Vol.11 No.1 Jan/March 1997
"Japanese Comfort Women: One Woman’s Story" by Anthony Brown, Kasama Vol.9 No.4 June/Aug 1995 – the account of Felicidad de Los Reyes.
Library Copy: CPCA Brisbane Branch, 84 Park Road, Woolloongabba 4102
Filipina "Comfort Women"
The following letter was sent by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (Australia) to the Chief Judge of the Tokyo District Court about his judgement in October last year against the claims of the Filipina "comfort women". Reprinted from the Qld. WILPF newsletter, February ‘99
Dear Mr Ichikawa,
Re: Your Judgement on the Case of Filipino "Comfort Women" and Japan’s Military Sexual Slavery During World War II
We write in reference to your recent judgement in the Tokyo District Court concerning compensation for forty–six Filipino "comfort women" who are survivors of Japan’s military sexual slavery during World War II.
We understand that your ruling did not allow the plaintiffs to present testimony of their sexual enslavement experiences. We further understand that your judgement did not recommend the Japanese Government to take any measures to assist these brave women to heal the wounds from their war–time ordeals.
We are informed that your judgement was in part based on the view that there is no international law recognising individual victims’ claims against an occupying state for compensation for harm which that state’s military forces inflict on them. We also understand that your judgement assumed that no customary international law exists which requires the state whose members commit such a crime against humanity to pay compensation.
We regard this decision on your part as failing to take account of recent developments in international law regarding gender crimes in war and the particular application of international law in the field of sexual violence and sexual slavery under armed conflict situations.
We regard your decision as an abdication of the responsibility which the Japanese legal system has to contribute to ensuring that such crimes against humanity are prevented in the future. A judgement such as this one of yours amounts to tacit legal encouragement of policies of organised rape in war as quasi–legitimate tools of an occupying force against the citizens of another state.
We therefore regard this failure on your part and on the part of the Japanese legal system as a lost opportunity to work towards the prevention of further sexual violence in armed conflict situations and the protection of the human rights in armed conflict situations of women and children.
Finally, we are pleased to note that the Filipino "comfort women" have decided to appeal to the Higher Court. It is our sincere hope that there they will be treated more justly.
Cathy Picone and Nikki Mortier,
Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (Australia).