On January 8, 1942, while Filipino and American forces battled against the Japanese Imperial Army and President Quezon and General Douglas MacArthur were holed up in Corregidor, a select group of Filipino leaders presented themselves to General Masaharu Homma and formally surrendered to Japanese rule. Within a few hours of occupying Manila, high-ranking Japanese military men had set out to gain the support of the nation’s political elite. They promised emancipation from American oppression and independence, touting the slogan “Philippines for the Filipinos” under the so-called Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.
The occupation made the nation’s elite nervous. US failure to hold the Philippines had left them in shock. One of their own had been seized by the Kempeitai, the Japanese military police, and interrogated. Whether they were moved by cowardice and fear, or a sincere wish to protect the citizenry and prevent further destruction and bloodshed, Filipino public officials, eventually numbering about 30 men, including Jorge Vargas, Quezon’s secretary, and former congressman and Speaker José Yulo, collectively decided that capitulation was the best option. They pledged their allegiance to the new order with such promptness that even the Japanese were surprised. Before the end of the month, the Japanese had secured the cooperation and active collaboration of the country’s most prominent politicians.
Jovito Salonga despaired. As he watched a new government come into being, the enforcement of martial law in occupied areas, and escalating abuses and atrocities committed against his people, he couldn’t help but wonder “whether these national leaders were willing tools of the Japanese or whether they were acting under duress.”
Salonga was 22 years old at the time and already showing his mettle. He had secretly been tuning into short-wave radio broadcasts of BBC Australia, which was a capital crime, and circulating the news with his own commentaries. He was arrested, imprisoned for 10 months, and endured harsh beatings. Still very much a political outsider but astute enough to follow developments, he noticed how, among the elite members of the new government, Benigno S. Aquino (1894-1947), was emerging as a major player in the Japanese regime.
The Japanese had abolished all political parties and created in their stead a single non-partisan party called the KALIBAPI (an abbreviation of the Tagalog Kapisanan sa Paglilingkod sa Bagong Pilipinas – Association for Service in the New Philippines). Aquino impressed the Japanese high command with his charisma and vocal enthusiasm for the new order. He was appointed head of the KALIBAPI and quickly became one of the most influential supporters of the regime and an outspoken pro-Japanese propagandist.
Aquino was relentless in his efforts to persuade his countrymen to collaborate with the Imperial Forces. With Vargas, he created a junior KALIBAPI similar to the Hitlerjugend, the youth organization of the Nazi Party in Germany. Aquino even echoed ideas of racial purity. “I believe,” he said, “[that]our Supreme Creator… made us Malays – Orientals and not Europeans or Anglo-Saxons. In essence and spirit, we are Orientals.” He pounded on the message that Filipinos should reject the US and the West. “A Philippines perpetually dependent on the whims and fancies of the West cannot stand. A Philippines…tied to the apron strings of America is artificial, unnatural, illogical, and untenable.” A confidential report on Aquino compiled by the US military secret service described him as “an old cacique aristocrat,” the son of a wealthy landowner in Tarlac, and a “charter member” of the oligarchy.
There were always degrees of collaboration. Some oligarchs in government posts got away with doing very little. Jose Yulo kept a low profile and his involvement to a minimum. Some managed to quietly slip out of view and were allowed to go into retirement. That there was no shortage of others keen to fill the vacated positions showed how coercion was not the most pressing motivation to collaborate. José P. Laurel, who accepted the offer of the presidency, together with many other elite politicians, believed that only men of their class could steer the nation in crisis and so understood their survival as vital. Collaboration, to these men, was a pragmatic issue. None had confidence in the intelligence and capabilities of the average Filipino.
Only one important member of the political elite refused outright to cooperate with the Japanese. Left behind by Quezon, who escaped to Australia, Chief Justice José Abad Santos was captured in the Visayas and idealistically chose martyrdom. His peers did not regard him as a hero nor considered his defiance and sacrifice as heroic. Collaboration, they reasoned, ensured personal survival as well as that of the status quo. In line with this logic, Abad Santos’ patriotic convictions were seen as a betrayal of his class and his death treated as an embarrassment.
Four decades later, Salonga found himself the legal counsel of Aquino’s son, Benigno ‘Ninoy’ Aquino Jr. Writing in his memoirs, he could wryly reflect on how the lines of elite descent were successfully preserved. Elites have always been inclined to behave with monstrous arrogance and self-interest. They are remarkably skilled at political accommodation and making sure that their intricate web of loyalties and allegiances always work in their favor.
More than most, perhaps, Aquino Sr. was guided by personal ambition and enjoyed power. Few embraced their wartime role under Japanese fascism with quite so much relish.