Ninety-year-old Hilaria Bustamante casts a tearful gaze at a wall plastered with photos of departed fellow sex slaves, vowing to demand justice during a historic visit to the Philippines by Japan’s emperor starting Tuesday.
Unbowed despite painful arthritis, the oldest known living Filipina “comfort woman” said she would join street protests to continue an unsuccessful campaign that has lasted more than 70 years.
“Many of us have died without seeing justice, but we will fight until our last breath,” Bustamante told AFP in a voice trembling with anger at a shelter in Manila for the now elderly women, run by advocacy group Lila Pilipina.
“We want to tell Emperor Akihito: pay your debts. We are holding you accountable for the sufferings of the comfort women during the war.”
Up to 200,000 women in Asia, many of them South Koreans but also from China, the Philippines and what is now Indonesia, are estimated to have been forced to provide sex to Japanese soldiers during World War II.
Only 70 known Filipina victims are still alive, according to Lila Pilipina.
Japanese leaders and senior officials have over the decades offered apologies and compensation money to the Filipina victims, albeit deliberately sourced from the private sector rather than the government.
The women have deemed these efforts insincere, demanding instead an apology that comes with reparations directly from the Japanese government, as well as inclusion of the comfort women’s plight in its official history books.
Seoul struck a landmark deal with Tokyo last month for a one-billion-yen ($8.3 million) payment and a “heartfelt apology” for the South Korean comfort women.
A similar deal for the Filipina victims is not on the agenda.
Despite intense lobbying from the women, the Philippine government has not initiated similar negotiations with Japan.
Philippine foreign affairs spokesman Charles Jose told AFP the matter would not be raised during Akihito’s visit, the first ever by a reigning Japanese emperor.
The Philippines and Japan have become close allies since the war, and Akihito’s five-day visit is to celebrate 60 years of renewed diplomatic relations.
Japan is the Philippines’ biggest source of foreign investment and aid. The Philippines has in recent years also increasingly looked to Japan for military help to counter Chinese expansion in the South China Sea.
But for the comfort women, glossing over the war crimes is impossible.
“It’s a nightmare that never ends. We walk with heavy hearts and we don’t know who to turn to for help,” Estelita Dy, 85, told AFP, as she tearfully recalled the day she was brought to a military brothel.
Dy said she was aged just 14 and buying food in a market after a long day of digging at a construction site when a truckload of Japanese soldiers started rounding up suspected spies.
Dy said she tried to run away but tripped and fell to the ground. A Japanese soldier grabbed her by the hair and threw her to the back of the truck, she said.
Dy said she stayed in the brothel for three weeks.
“Every time I was raped. I would just close my eyes, cry and pray that it will be all over soon,” she said, fidgeting with her fingers to relieve anxiety.
A Filipino spy working for the Japanese helped her escape, she said.
Dy, who later married and had two children, blames her weak hearing on having her face banged on a table by a Japanese solider who then raped her.
Dy, who worked as a rice cake and soda vendor, said she was lucky her family accepted her fate.
Many others, she said, were condemned and driven out of their homes by conservative parents.
At Lila Pilipina’s rundown office in Manila’s suburbs, the former sex slaves came to depend on the refuge where they found comfort in shared suffering.
The now-faded walls are painted purple, the colour of the local feminist movement.
The women there affectionately call each other “lola”, the Filipino word for grandmother.
“Calling each other ‘lola’ shows that they are bonded by the same struggle,” said Rechilda Extremadura, who runs Lila Pilipina.
“They come here to cry their hearts out. They yearn for the familiar touch of someone who understands exactly what they’re going through.”
Bustamante, one of only 10 Filipina comfort women physically able to join the rallies planned for this week, said her fellow women gave her the strength to continue fighting for justice.
“This is an uncertain fight, but we will not stop,” she said.