Obstacle hindering mutual understanding between Japan and the Philippine on history

Naoko Jin
Founder/President, “Bridge for Peace”

“Bridge for Peace” (BFP) was launched with little fanfare in 2003. It has entered into its 7th year of activities this year. I was a college student when I first went to the Philippines and met some of the victims of WWII. Later, I heard about a former Japanese soldier who was tormented by his own atrocious act during the war. These experiences led me to start a project of bringing video messages from former Japanese soldiers to the Philippines. I wrote about the origin of this project in detail in the essay, “Sixty years after the war--What can young Japanese generation do? in 2005.

Since then, we have recorded wartime experiences of some70 former Japanese soldiers and 50 Filipino people. And we organized showings of these video messages in both Japan and the Philippines. Related to this project is gatherings with former Japanese soldiers to listen to their experiences, where participants’ ages range from teens to 90s. We also held an exhibition of history textbooks used in Asian countries. Through these activities more young people joined our organization, and in last January we obtained a status as a non-profit organization from the government. It is my hope that we will continue to expand our activities while reaching out to a diverse group of people and over many generations.

As we visited the Philippines as often as our limited budget allowed in the last seven years and as we had more exchanges with local people, we were exposed to many things. In this essay, I would like to address one particular issue that has been troubling us. It is our concern over the existence of an obstacle that “hinders mutual understanding between Japan and the Philippine on history”.   

I am speaking of Filipino people’s sensitivity and restraint towards the Japanese people that may be due to the characteristic of the Philippines as a nation of hospitality or to her political and economic background. This is something I was beginning to feel in the past few years as I organized showings of video messages in the Philippines.                                       Ms. Jin with Filipino children

For example, until becoming very close, Filipino people rarely speak critically of Japan for Japanese soldiers’ atrocious actions. One Japanese person who used to work in the Philippines told me that the topic of the past war had never come up during a few years he worked with Filipino people. But he was surprised on one occasion of social drinking when he was suddenly asked how he felt about what Japan did to the Philippines in the past.

Similarly, many of those who attend showings of video messages organized by BFP in the Philippines would say before they actually see the video, “I heard it wasn’t so bad.” But I have seen many times after the showing that these same people, perhaps compelled by many emotions evoked by visual images they just saw, suddenly become talkative.

It is my observation that very few people in the Philippines would openly state their feelings even if they have certain feelings towards Japan’s past conduct. I am certain that not many (Japanese) people who have been to the Philippines for sightseeing had the experience of hearing from or discussing with local people about the war.

Assuming that this is reflection of the reality, there are those who would insist, “As the Filipino people are not harboring ill feelings toward the Japanese people, the issue of the past has been taken care of.” Especially for those who would rather not look at atrocities Japan committed in the past, it is convenient that the Filipino people seldom initiate a conversation about the past when they are with Japanese people  

However, I feel strongly that this is what hinders mutual understanding between Japan and the Philippine on history. Such feeling was deepened when I visited the island of Corregidor in February of 2009 as part of the program of BFP tour.


                       Members of BFP listen to explanation in Japanese on Corregidor

Corregidor Island is where one of the fiercest battles took place during WWII, and many ruins of the bombed buildings are being preserved to pass down the legacy of the cruel war to the future generations. As it was a fitting place to feel the history, we visited there.

Those who tour this island can choose either an English guided tour or a Japanese guided tour. I chose the tour that was guided in Japanese for this occasion, but was totally surprised that it was very different from the English guided tour that I had participated a few years earlier. Explanation given to the tourists in Japanese was carefully scripted so as not to upset the feeling of Japanese tourists. Put differently, it was a tour that would not face the past squarely and would not communicate the truth.

Because I felt upset, I wrote to the travel agent that organized the Corregidor tour after I came back to Japan reporting on the situation, and attached my suggestions.

Here is what I wrote:

Impression on the Corregidor tour

1. Too much sweet talk with Japanese tourists

First of all, I felt that the tour guide did too much sweet talk with Japanese tourists. For example, it was emphasized, “Many buildings that remain on Corregidor were built with Japanese cement.” But that had nothing to do with the wartime history. Yet it was repeated in front of several buildings throughout the tour.

At the beginning, the Japanese tourists were delighted to hear that explanation, but soon they seemed to become weary as it was repeated again and again.  

I was also very surprised when the guide told us in front of a building where flags of the Philippines and the United States were flown, “Why isn’t there Japanese flag? I will report to our headquarters.” Given the history of the Philippines, even a Japanese person could understand why there was no Japanese flag.

I think that this guide was trying to show his respect to us Japanese. But I would rather he trusted Japanese people and explained in such a way that it could help us build a true relationship, instead of just sweet talking. 

2It seemed to us he explained the history distortedly.

Next, we were very much surprised with the way the guide distorted the history. We were shocked by the way he expressed so called the “Bataan Death March” as a “hiking”, where the Japanese made the POWs move on foot. Guides who are able to speak Japanese and explain things in Japanese should know the connotation Japanese people have for the word ‘hiking’, which is used for fun, and totally different from the actual Death March.

In addition, after saying, “Japanese people during the war were bad,” he once concluded his talk by saying,” but America dropped the Atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So the bad one was America.” This explanation could give the participants of the tour an impression as if Japan was not so bad compared to the US.  Then, showing some photos of Japanese Kamikaze pilots, he said, “The Japanese were hungry, but here this one is smiling in this photo. Do you understand why? It’s because they were young,” putting stress on how young Japanese soldiers were. “The Japanese were young, lean and innocent,” he told in a way which gave the impression that the Filipino and American soldiers were not.

Listening to these explanations, we felt embarrassed. We felt this guide was manipulating the listeners and was distorting the history.

3. We felt the explanation was not given in full scale.

Some members of our group had already joined a tour in English. Therefore, it was clear that the content was different from that of the English tour, and there were a lot more, which were not explained in Japanese.

For example, when we passed by a statue of General McArthur, he gave no explanations. He didn’t tell us the point the Japanese landed. The most importantly, what happened in Corregidor Island was not fully told.

Regrettably I have to point out that the guide’s abilities in Japanese language was not good enough. A lot of the Japanese tourists looked puzzled not being able to understand what he was saying, and confused. One of the participants of the tour, while telling us, “I was shocked hearing what was told in the English tour,” also added his comments, “but I was equally shocked by the fact that there were no explanations given in the Japanese tour.” 

Suggestions for Corregidor tour

I’d like to ask you, the tour organizers, to explain the history of the Philippines from the standpoint of Filipino people. I could easily imagine the difficulties you might have in explaining the historical facts straightforwardly to Japanese, who were in the occupational side of your home land, the Philippines. However, as a member of the Japanese generation who were born after WWII, I would like to hear the explanation of the history from the Filipino side. If my suggestions were discarded as something impossible, and the tour would go on in the current manner, as the inevitable consequence, the Japanese participants would believe that the Japanese war had never been so bad.

I believe that Corregidor Island is one of the very important points to know WWII, but I have to say I was quite disappointed because of the poor content of its tour designed for Japanese. I for one have the opinion it is important for us to accept the facts of history, and have a better understanding on what happened among the Philippines, the US and Japan. The facts of the past should never be minimized.  

I sent the above letter to the company that organized the tour. As I’ve written, at the end of my request, our wish for a meeting to communicate each other, I was immediately contacted by them. Basically they accepted what I wanted to say, and replied they “would like to improve the situation”. Through dealing with them on the internet, I could finally meet, in the Philippines, the manager of the tour after five months I wrote to them.

At the table of discussion, again I told him that the suggestions submitted by the BFP never meant insult, but our belief was that “it is better for both sides to explain the history without flattering, in order to build up a new Filipino-Japanese relations founded on mutual trust.” As soon as I finished presentation of BFP, the manager’s first remarks, looking into my eyes, was, “Is it all right to talk frankly to Japanese?” And then, “No, we couldn’t,” emptying his coffee cup.

Of course I understand that a company engaged in tourism would hesitate, in front of Japanese customers, to throw them some expressions that might make them feel uncomfortable. However, I could not admit it would be beneficial for Japanese tourists just keep flattering them. A Filipino friend that also attended the meeting, who represents our Filipino partner group, supported me as she had strongly agreed with my views.

At the end of our talk, the manager promised us about the improvement of the manual for the guides. He also added, “I have some experiences that our Japanese customers pointed out the low quality of Japanese language abilities of our guides, but it’s the first time we received detailed comments on the content of our guide.”

I myself might not have gone so far as making time and sending written suggestions, if I had not been involved in the activity of BFP, and had not visited Corregidor in our group tour. There is an old saying, whenever we had any opinion, “Unless we tell it clearly, we can never understand each other”. The occasion we had this time made me realize again of the importance of repeated procedures like this.

I cannot stop feeling the existence of a lingering obstacle in the history of Philippines and Japan.

“Everything is settled about the things past, as Filipinos have no bad feelings toward Japanese.”

“While there is voiced no questions about the past among Filipinos, why is it necessary to make fuss on it?”

“You had better not do anything to disturb the water, while Filipinos say they have forgiven the past.”

I have often heard such remarks by Japanese. However, as we think of Japanese views as such, it is wrong to blame Filipinos for their not having criticizing the past brutal deeds of the Japanese. If my personal observation of the Filipino people as being a nation of hospitality is true, it is understandable why they have kept silent.

I personally believe it is rather the problem of Japanese attitude of finding relief in the Filipino characteristic situation, being indulged in it and never having tried to know the past. The brutal deeds in the past could never been erased, even though the victims had not mentioned them or they were forgotten according to generation changes. Facing the facts and creating a new history based on them is what is required of Japanese.

It seems we have yet a long way to go until we are able to realize a real communication between the Philippines and Japan. I don’t think we can see any new big change immediately. However, I believe that a talk like we had this time will eventually create next historical stage. I strongly hope that this obstacle that hinders mutual understanding between Japan and the Philippine on history will be dissolved little by little.


        BFP's 5th Year report

To learn  more about Ms. Jin's work through  "Bridge for Peace," read the following article:

  Bridge of sorrows: Videos help heal Japanese-Filipino wounds

The official website for Bridge for Peace (in Japanese) is here.