Memories of an Empire

Himeji-jo Castle, Japan. Himeji-jo Castle and cherry blossom.

(This article was first published in print in issue 11-12 of the Philippine Collegian on 05 September 2012.)

A throng of people have gathered at the UP Film Institute, waiting in eager anticipation for the opening of the Eiga Sai Japanese film festival early this July. Since 1998, Eiga Sai has made contemporary and critically-acclaimed Japanese films more accessible to the Filipino audience, enabling them to partake of Japan’s cinematic sensibilities.

Eiga Sai is just one of the myriad festivities meant to celebrate and foster the long-standing connections between the Philippines and Japan.

A friendship of cultures

This year marks the Philippines’ 56 years of diplomatic friendship with Japan. On July 23, 1956, the Peace Treaty and Reparation Agreement between the Philippines and Japan was ratified, normalizing the diplomatic relations between the two nations. Thus, July 23 has been designated as the Philippines-Japan Friendship Day, in commemoration of the two nations’ re-established diplomatic relations after the second World War.

In 2006, due to the Japanese government’s enthusiasm to share their culture with the Philippines beyond the event’s golden jubilee, the event grew into the Philippines-Japan Friendship Month. The month-long celebrations feature an array of festivities including a J-pop anime singing contest, cosplay competitions, art exhibits, and concerts sponsored by the Japanese Embassy.

More recently, world-renowned Filipino historian Ambeth Ocampo delivered a lecture entitled “Before the Japayuki” as part of the “History Comes Alive” series. Equipped with what he calls his trove of “useless information,” Ocampo weaved a narrative of early cultural connections between Japan and the Philippines. These connections could be drawn from trivial knowledge like Tansan being a brand of carbonated Japanese drinks sold in Manila in the early 1900s and that the traditional Filipino dessert halo-halo had its roots in the Japanese kakigori.

The large number of attendees of the film festival and the lecture proves that Filipinos harbor a keen interest towards traditional and popular Japanese culture. This interest is fostered by the Japanese government’s willingness to open their culture to the world, offering programs and classes to teach people their language, cuisine, religion, visual arts, and theatre forms.

In contrast to the Japanese government’s efforts to produce and propagate culture, the Philippines seemingly remain passive consumers of foreign cultural products. The lack of similar festivities celebrating Filipino culture in Japan during this time seems to denote a rather unequal friendship, with the other perceived as the cultural superior.

The Japanese government maximizes the potential of their culture as a means of strengthening diplomatic relations, making their traditional and popular cultural products easily accessible to the world. Through these cultural products, Japanese aesthetics and sensibilities penetrate the global market, providing a new kind of power for Japan.

Marketing Japan

Japan is widely recognized as the Asian capital of ‘cool’, with the rise of their otakufan culture and the mass-commercialization of animemanga, and other various novelty products. These popular cultural products pave the way for consumers to explore more traditional aspects of Japanese culture.

Attraction to Japan’s offbeat image, as projected through its popular and traditional cultural products, could easily translate to an attraction to Japanese foreign policy, thereby stabilizing diplomatic relations. Even with its lack of military might and dwindling economic status since the early 90’s, Japan has afforded a “soft power” empire status due to its cultural appeal.

“Soft power” according to Joseph Nye, an American political scientist from Harvard, is a country’s ability to attract and co-opt another nation to alter its behaviour in their favour. In contrast, “hard power” relies on money and military aggression as a means of persuasion.  A state’s “soft power” relies heavily on, but is not limited to, its culture, political values, and foreign policy. As Nye emphasizes, the potency of a nation’s “soft power” sources relies on its “cultural and ideological appeal”.

Unlike Japan, the Philippines has yet to fully cultivate its “soft power” sources. As much as Filipino hospitality and industriousness are lauded overseas, these same traits also serve as a testament to passivity, aiming to please foreign masters and embrace their cultures. And with the lack of basic national industries, the country has yet to garner economic support to cultivate its cultural industries.

As such, Japan’s “soft power” could only do so much to alleviate its economic status and improve its reputation in the international community. However, the shadow of its past imperial ambitions and wartime atrocities continue to create tension with its nearest neighbours, such as China, South Korea, and even the Philippines.

A Violent History

As cultural institutions continue with their festivities, certain universities like UP and the Ateneo take part in celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Liga ng mga Lolang Pilipina (Lila Pilipina) and their continued struggle against wars of aggression, militarization, and gender violence in warfare.

Lila Pilipina is a group comprised of surviving Filipina “comfort women” during the Japanese occupation. “Comfort women” refer to the thousands of girls and women taken by the Japanese Imperial Army during the war, and were coerced into systematic rape and enslavement. Most of these women come from South Korea, China, Indonesia, Taiwan, and the Philippines.

These advocates, despite their old age, deteriorating health, and diminishing resources, continue their struggle for rightful reparations and an apology from the Japanese government, lest the atrocities of the war be completely forgotten.

In March 2007, former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe proclaimed that there was not enough evidence to support the claim that there were over 200,000 “comfort women” coerced into sex slave camps during the war. The proclamation, while prompting backlash from the international community, also intensified the movements of surviving “comfort women” in China, South Korea, and the Philippines.

The Japanese occupation of the Philippines lasted from 1942 to 1945, which some argue is a relatively short period of time compared to the centuries-old friendship that the two nations held prior to the war. However, the seeming benevolence of Philippines-Japan relations before and after the war shrouds other violent personal histories, such as injustices done to Filipino workers in Japan and Jap-Pinoy offspring who remain unrecognized by their Japanese fathers.

As Ocampo asserts in his lecture, history is about connections. Cultural exchange should always be embraced, for it establishes connections between nations. However, cultural fascination and dominance should not render our nations’ tumultuous histories irrelevant. The mutual recognition that atrocities have been committed during the war will not necessarily demonize or victimize a nation, but will only help in making established connections deeper and stronger.

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