A professional lecturer at the Asian Center of the University of the Philippines-Diliman has adopted an interesting tack in historiography through the art of two Japanese soldiers stationed in the Philippines during World War II.
𝐊𝐚𝐫𝐥 Ian 𝐔𝐲 𝐂𝐡𝐞𝐧𝐠 𝐂𝐡𝐮𝐚’s lecture The Afterlives of Art: Problematizing the Anti-War Message proposes the creation of a space where the post-World War II generations of Filipinos and Japanese can ponder and appreciate the suffering both sides experienced during the conflict to eschew war as a solution to the problems besetting their respective countries without perpetuating the concepts of Antagonist and Victim in the Philosophy of Violence.
“History is about lived spaces, and the lived space was not just about [the] text. The lived space can be about art; the lived space can be about materials; the lived space can be anything and everything that was there,” Chua explained during the same lecture held August 30 at the University of the Philippines-Visayas in Iloilo City (Bautista, 2023),
In his lecture delivered to International Studies students of Xavier University-Ateneo de Cagayan on October 17, 2023, Chua analyzed the visual art of a Japanese soldier’s drawings in the picture postcards (e-hagaki) he sent back to his wife in Japan, and the illustrations in the picture diary (e-nikki) of an engineer posted in Negros island during World War II.
The first were released under the title Senjo kara Tsuma e no E-tegami (Picture letters to my wife from the warzone), edited by Kinuko Takazawa and published by Kodansha in 1998.
The work is a compilation of picture postcards sent by Michio Maeda (1944-1945) to his wife. Maeda was a trained Nihonga artist and, drafted as a soldier, was sent to the Philippines in 1944. He wrote 728 letters to his wife during his time serving in the Japanese imperial forces, with 132 sent from the Philippines, though only thirty-nine letters were included in the book. Maeda died in the Philippines on 5 August 1945, a day before the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
The second work is a diary written by Shinichi Komatsu (1911-1973) entitled Ryojin ni Nikki (Prisoner’s Diary), initially privately published, but commercially released in 1975 by Chikuma Shobo.
Komatsu was an engineer sent to the Philippines in 1944 as a civilian employee by the Japanese Imperial Army to manage butanol production. He was able to write a total of 11 notebooks for his diary, which contained 60 illustrations.
“Remember these are memoirs of the soldiers so they’re meant for personal use. But the moment they were allowed to be commercially published by their families, they are now consumed by the public,” Chua notes.
“What this does in its afterlife is it helps the Japanese regret the war, and it has evolved to become a part of Japan’s Peace Literature which teaches them about the horrors of war, although their definition of the horrors of war is confined to their personal suffering. While happy that Japan is no longer wanting to wage war, it’s at the cost of them forgetting their own acts in the war, which leaves you with a bad taste as a Southeast Asian or Filipino,” he stressed.
It seems that the publishers’ initial purpose was to humanize the individuals, by presenting their lives and sufferings in their own words and though their pictures. The works, however, are problematic, as the anti-war message they have come to represent is attached to the sufferings of Japanese nationals, but leaves out the suffering inflicted by the Japanese on the Filipinos, Chua added.
Problematizing the Anti-War Message
Chua notes how this tack in existing Japanese World War II historiography has presented a dilemma to the present generation of Filipinos dealing with Japanese visitors to the Philippines.
“If I was a Japanese national and told you I am a peace loving person, it becomes a problem to us Filipinos who are the beneficiaries of these nice ODA projects that we’re getting, would I just shut up and forget about our own history? This becomes a problem in our Philippine space where our histories write about how evil the Japanese occupiers during World War II were to us, and presents us with this ethical problem whether to relive the past or just move on and ignore it.”
To stop the Cycle of Violence
However, Chua told the attending students they can deal with this dilemma without causing any unwarranted or inappropriate embarrassment or bitterness for both parties.
“To end the cycle of violence, to remove the concept of aggressor and victim, and look at the inherent problem which gave rise to the violence in the first place, we need to retell our story on how our beginnings and ends with them, especially of how Japan is now part of our picture. And understand there’s always multiple sides to historical events,” he said.
Thus, he suggests how in case a Japanese visits Xavier University, they could tell him how it was a Japanese garrison during the Japanese occupation where many Filipinos were incarcerated, tortured and died. In presenting such facts to the visiting Japanese who are often not familiar with what happened in the Philippines during World War II, such knowledge would not be coming from the concept of hate, but rather to balance the narrative of what also happened here, as it becomes a means to uncover and convey local narratives that may offer a different and more nuanced perspective of our history.
The Philippines suffered great loss of life and tremendous physical destruction by the time the war was over. An estimated 527,000 Filipinos, both military and civilians, were killed from all causes; of these between 131,000 and 164,000 were killed in seventy-two events. (Gruhl, 2007/Chambers, 1999)
“It’s a matter-of-fact concept vs. what we’re currently doing when we immediately compromise with the Japanese we encounter. Not to embarrass them or breed hate, but invite them also to partake in our war memory, just like our tourists do when they visit Nagasaki and Hiroshima when they go to Japan. So we should look for that balance when we engage them in our conversations, about what really happened during World War II,” Chua offered.
“End the cycle of violence by not emphasizing either the Filipino or Japanese victimhood, but rather how we are able to now converse in an everyday setting, to sit down and talk about the war with no personal baggage, without hating or embarrassing each other.”
“That’s where our role is: to not only make them aware, but not make them uncomfortable to not talk to us about it, so that message has to be within that space.”
About the Lecturer
Karl lan Uy Cheng Chua, Ph.D. is a Professorial Lecturer of the Asian Center, University of the Philippines Diliman, and serves as a member of the editorial board of East Asian Journal of Popular Culture, Comics Studies: Aesthetics, Histories, and Practices and Social Science Diliman.
He recently concluded a Visiting Professorship with the Graduate School of Social Sciences, Hitotsubashi University. He finished his Masters in Japanese Studies from the National University of Singapore, and his Doctorate in Social Sciences from Hitotsubashi University.
He was formerly an Assistant Professor of the Department of History, Ateneo de Manila University and former Director of the Japanese Studies Program. He is also a country representative for the Steering Committee of the Japanese Studies Association of Southeast Asia (JSA-ASEAN). He has written on Boys Manga during Showa Period Japan, and Philippine komiks.
He authored Covid-19 and Popular Culture in Southeast Asia Digital Responses to the Pandemic for Kyoto University Center for Southeast Asian Studies Covid Chronicles series, and Japanese Representation in Philippine Media as a section for The Palgrave Handbook of Ethnicity. He has been an Asia Public Intellectual Junior Fellow, and is currently a Japan Foundation Japanese Studies Fellow.