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Philippine Survivor Recounts Her Struggle As A 'Comfort Woman' For Wartime Japan

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

It's been 75 years since the end of World War II. And in the Philippines, victims are still haunted by an atrocity - the sexual enslavement of women by Japanese forces occupying the country. Some 40 of those women are still alive. NPR's Julie McCarthy has our report on one of those survivors. And a warning - we do have to describe violence and sexual assault to tell this story.

JULIE MCCARTHY: Narcisa Claveria invites us into the family apartment outside Manila, where we arrange ourselves in a small bedroom to escape the noise.

MCCARTHY: Could you move a little bit closer to me? And are you sure you wouldn't be more comfortable on the bed?

NARCISA CLAVERIA: (Speaking Tagalog).

MCCARTHY: NPR has been in settings like this, interviewing some two dozen Philippine women in their 80s and 90s who share a common wartime experience. With little prompting, Claveria pours out her story at the hands of Japanese troops who occupied the Philippines in World War II.

What happened to your village? What did they do?

CLAVERIA: (Speaking Tagalog).

MCCARTHY: Claveria says her family was resting at home from work in the fields on the main island, Luzon, when Japanese troops swarmed their village, moving house to house. It was 1943, with just under two years left in the war. The Japanese were hunting for Philippine guerrillas. Finding one house empty, they rounded on Claveria's father, the village leader.

CLAVERIA: (Speaking Tagalog).

MCCARTHY: "How many children do you have? Eight, he said." But, Claveria recalled, "Only seven of us lined up. My father'd forgotten one daughter was in Manila." The Japanese said he was lying and lashed him to a pillar of the house. There, Claveria said, soldiers began to skin her father alive.

CLAVERIA: (Through interpreter) A Japanese soldier got his bayonet and started peeling my father's skin while saying, tell us the truth - your child is part of the guerrillas with the owners of that empty house.

MCCARTHY: As Claveria pleaded to let her father go, a soldier wrenched her arm. Birdlike, petite, Claveria strokes a badly set bone as she picks up the story of how she followed her mother's screams up the stairs.

CLAVERIA: (Through interpreter) I saw my mother lying down with her skirt up, and there was a Japanese soldier on top of her. I ran. My two youngest siblings took little sticks and started hitting the soldiers. The Japanese soldiers then snatched away the sticks and bayoneted both of them.

MCCARTHY: They died. Claveria believes her parents were killed when the village was torched. Japanese soldiers hauled away two older sisters to a garrison and took Claveria to an infirmary for her injured arm. She does not recall how long she was there recovering, but she remembers a soldier named Terasaki. One day, he told Claveria she smelled, but she refused to take a bath, saying she had no change of clothes. Ordering her to wash, she says he gave her a uniform to put on.

CLAVERIA: (Through interpreter) I was to be taken to the garrison where my two sisters were. Before we reached the garrison, he raped me. I thought that I was going to die because I was in so much pain.

MCCARTHY: Terasaki would be the first of many Japanese soldiers to sexually assault Claveria, who was not even a teenager at the time. She was 12. She said her sister Meteria had been driven half mad by the trauma she'd experienced at the garrison. Claveria was shocked when she caught sight of her there.

CLAVERIA: (Through interpreter) She was burned with cigarette butts and boiled sweet potatoes. When one soldier after the next raped her, she put up a fight, but my sister was not brave. She refused because she was in so much agony from all the abuse.

MCCARTHY: Claveria believes her other kidnapped sister was moved to a different garrison. She was never seen again. Historians have estimated that at least 200,000 women were forced into sexual servitude during World War II, mostly in areas occupied by Japan, prominently Korea. The women were euphemistically called comfort women, and the organized system of comfort stations to supply soldiers sexual gratification ran from Seoul to Singapore. Writer Evelina Galang has documented women captured in the Philippines.

EVELINA GALANG: And these are women as young as 16 years old - really, some of them 8, 10 years old. In the Philippines, historians estimate that there were probably about a thousand women and girls taken and put into military sex slave camps.

MCCARTHY: The women are known affectionately by the Filipino term for grandmother, Lola. The Lolas we spoke to described seeing neighbors tortured and killed. They were held against their will and defiled by Japanese soldiers. Survivors suffered psychological disorders and sexually transmitted diseases. Claveria says she and her sister Meteria were among eight women and girls held in the garrison that occupied their town hall. By day, they were made to cook and clean. By night, they were roused from their sleep to service young soldiers who, Claveria said, numbered between 40 and 50.

CLAVERIA: (Through interpreter) I was in a different room every night. If I refused, they would whip me. They would flay us with horse whips.

MCCARTHY: Claveria says in the approximately 18 months she was violated, her sense of dread never dulled.

CLAVERIA: (Through interpreter) If I could prevent the sun from setting, I would have because whenever night fell, life for us became miserable.

MCCARTHY: Allied bombing of Luzon Island began in January 1945. Seventy-five years on, Claveria cannot recall what month their chance for escape arrived, but she vividly recalled the chaotic scene of Philippine guerrillas overrunning the garrison.

CLAVERIA: (Through interpreter) The guerrillas were scattering the Japanese. We were still locked up inside a room and couldn't get out, and we all shouted for help.

MCCARTHY: The guerrillas freed them, and they found their way home. Home, the two sisters discovered, was a charred ruin. But they reunited with her two brothers, who Claveria said had suffered broken backs as forced laborers for the Japanese. The four shattered siblings slept on banana leaves and ate boiled tree bark. Such was postwar life. Meanwhile, two brothers sensitive to their sisters' trauma try to allay what had become their deep-seated fear of men.

CLAVERIA: (Through interpreter) Whenever we saw men, we wanted our brothers to hide us. My brothers would always say, don't be scared. They are Filipinos. The Japanese have been killed.

MCCARTHY: Claveria was frequently overcome narrating her ordeal but was soothed...

CLAVERIA: (Speaking Tagalog).

MCCARTHY: ...recalling how a man came to their village searching for livestock to buy. The Japanese had killed all of his family's. Claveria's eldest brother gave the man shelter and, as it turned out, a bride. He chaperoned a long courtship between Narcisa and Anacito Claveria, the man she married in 1952. Loss was the thread that bound them.

CLAVERIA: (Through interpreter) My husband also had two sisters who were taken by the Japanese. They said they would pay them, and they would only serve as maids to wash up and iron, but they never came home.

MCCARTHY: Victimized women across the Philippines hid their past to find a husband. Shame shadowed them. Many in this Catholic conservative society were ostracized. A well-worn ridicule was to call the women leftovers from the war. But Claveria says her husband was kind and reassuring.

CLAVERIA: (Through interpreter) He would always say to me, I don't think less of you. You're lucky because you came back alive. Everything the Japanese did to you throw out of your mind.

MCCARTHY: The atrocity of the so-called comfort women was sealed in silence after the war. Claveria carried the secret for nearly 50 years, telling only her husband. Revealing it could be perilous for the women. Angry relatives felt stigmatized. So jolted were Claveria's six children when she summoned the courage to tell them how she'd been victimized, they shunned her.

CLAVERIA: (Through interpreter) They were so embarrassed about me. My children would say, our classmates might say that we are the children of a whore, and they might think that we are the same as you. For a long time, they didn't talk to me.

MCCARTHY: The children reconciled with their mother, who became a member of the Lila Pilipina, or League of Lolas, one survivor group. They followed their Korean counterparts agitating at home to raise awareness of Japan's wartime sexual abuse.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

CLAVERIA: (Shouting in Tagalog)

MCCARTHY: Claveria, who turns 89 in December, protests on their behalf still, as she did at this rally to mark the then-Japanese-Emperor Akihito's visit to Manila in 2016.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

CLAVERIA: (Speaking Tagalog)

MCCARTHY: "Emperor Akihito, we have been abused and forgotten up until now," she said, "and the Lolas won't stop demanding justice until we get it." When the Lolas petitioned a Tokyo court in 1993 to force Japan to admit the atrocity and pay reparations, it ruled that all wartime claims had been settled. Claveria says that was true for infrastructure.

CLAVERIA: (Through interpreter) What about the emotional and mental damage that Japanese soldiers did to the women? All the rape and torture?

MCCARTHY: In Claveria's family alone, four girls, their mother and an aunt were subjected to sexual violence. A succession of Japanese prime ministers have apologized for the affront to Asia's so-called comfort women. But Carol Gluck, Columbia University Japan historian, says the country's powerful right wing has minimized the need for remorse in what's been called apology fatigue.

CAROL GLUCK: The trouble with apology fatigue is that it's contagious - so that other people in Japan say, well, yes, by the way, we have apologized. Why do we need to keep apologizing?

MCCARTHY: In 1995, Tokyo created a fund to pay what it called atonement money. Organizers for the women say some 100 Lolas took the money. Those who declined said it was not from public funds but rather private donors, and therefore Japan had evaded its moral responsibility. But retired Japanese diplomat Kazuhiko Togo said the fund represented the soul-searching of Japan's private citizens to stand on the side of the victims.

KAZUHIKO TOGO: By nature, the very suffering will not go away. And this we Japanese have to recognize and remember.

MCCARTHY: Believing the Japanese citizens were sincere, Claveria took their money but returned the prime minister's letter of apology, saying, without state reparations, it wasn't genuine.

The Philippine government regards Japan's apology and atonement money as resolving any claims. Because Japan is the Philippines' biggest aid donor, advocates for the Lolas say successive Philippine presidents have sacrificed the women to safeguard relations with Japan. Neither the Philippine government nor Japan's embassies in Washington or Manila would comment.

But historian Carol Gluck says the women who brought their brutalization into public view shaped a new body of human rights.

GLUCK: They are a vivid and vicious instance of systematic sexual violence against women, and they became an international icon or sign of sexual violence against women in war.

MCCARTHY: Claveria recalled a granddaughter who sat rapt, listening to details of her wartime suffering and said, "Thank you, grandma, that you lived." The few dozen surviving Lolas will probably not live to see the recognition they seek. For Claveria, there is no forgetting. To the larger question...

MCCARTHY: Do you forgive the Japanese?

CLAVERIA: (Speaking Tagalog)

MCCARTHY: "If I ever had the chance to see those Japanese soldiers," she says, sobbing, "I would chop them up, and it would still not pay for all the pain they caused." Justice, Narcisa Claveria says, would be her reparations bestowed on her grandchildren, whom she expects to carry on her fight.

MCCARTHY: Julie McCarthy, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHIDA SHAHABI'S "PRETTY IN PLUMS")

MCCAMMON: This story series was supported by the Pulitzer Center.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHIDA SHAHABI'S "PRETTY IN PLUMS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: January 31, 2021 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous headline incorrectly said the Philippine survivor was a "comfort woman" in Japan. In fact, she was subjected to sexual servitude by Japan's occupying troops in the Philippines.