Penman No. 341: War and Remembrance

 

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FOR FILIPINOS, February is or should be a month of remembering, beyond the commercial confections of Valentine’s Day.

For people somewhat younger than me, February should recall the euphoria of EDSA 1986, and the forced departure of a dictatorship. For myself, the month marks the anniversary of the 1971 Diliman Commune, when we barricaded the university in symbolic resistance to what soon became the martial-law regime. For my parents’ generation, however, February can only mean the closure of the War in 1945, culminating in the bloody Battle of Manila that may have crushed the Japanese but also left 100,000 Filipinos dead in the most horrible ways and Manila thoroughly devastated.

Having been born nearly a decade after that war, I can only look back on it with both relief and, I must confess, morbid fascination, that curious wondering about what I might have done—or even if I would have survived—had I gone through that ordeal. I’ve written plays about the war, read as many books as I could, and visited war memorials, but never seem to have come around to answering how and why war can bring out both the best and the worst in us, sadly more often the latter.

This was much on my mind last week when I attended a lecture at the Ayala Museum by the American author James M. Scott, who was in town to promote his newest book, Rampage: MacArthur, Yamashita,  and the Battle of Manila(New York: W. W. Norton, 2018, 635 pp.). James had actually been introduced to me by email before his visit by mutual friends, so I was doubly interested in meeting the war historian, whose earlier book Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid That Avenged Pearl Harborwas a 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist.

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Before a packed crowd that included survivors of the war, James brought the audience back to a time when Manila was indeed the Pearl of the Orient and Asia’s most beautiful city, with wide, tree-lined boulevards and a cosmopolitan culture to complement its charms. The war would change all that, over a few dark years of death, suffering and famine. Despite putting up their bravest front, the city’s residents and the thousands of foreigners interned at Sto. Tomas were in desperate need of food, medicines, and, of course, freedom when the Americans—led by the famous but also famously flawed Gen. Douglas MacArthur—landed in Lingayen Gulf and rolled into Manila. In command of the Japanese defenders, Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, the so-called Tiger of Malaya, had ordered Rear Adm. Sanji Iwabuchi to withdraw his forces—an order that Iwabuchi, a once-disgraced officer in need of redemption, had no intention of following (records would later show that the Japanese had made no plans for escape).

The stage was set for one of the most hard-fought and destructive battles of World War II. Instead of withdrawing, Iwabuchi directed his men to hold off the Americans with their guns, their swords, and if necessary their teeth. As the fight moved block by block south of the Pasig, the Japanese turned their retreat into wholesale slaughter; 200 Filipino men were beheaded in one house, women were raped scores of times at the Bayview Hotel, and babies were bayoneted; 41 victims were massacred in La Salle, many at the marble altar. Facing certain defeat, many Japanese committed ritual suicide—77 of them in one place over one night, with singing preceding the explosion of grenades. Iwabuchi slit his own belly. After 29 murderous days, the battle ended. Yamashita, who could have stopped his subordinate had he truly wanted to, was later tried and executed.

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More than 16,000 Japanese soldiers died in the battle, against only about 1,000 Americans. (Contrary to popular belief, Korean conscripts did not figure in the massacres, says Scott.) MacArthur would lament the loss of his family’s Civil War memorabilia and his son’s baby book in his Manila Hotel suite. But as Scott emphasizes, Filipino families paid the dearest price, with over 100,000 civilians dead in one month.

Drawing largely on first-person testimonies recorded soon after the events, the book is a searing account of the horrors of war; it was, says Scott, less a battlefield than a crime scene. A friend who read it told me she had to stop every once in a while to gather herself through her tears. The book takes note of subsequent judgments that the Americans bore as much responsibility for the destruction of Manila as did the Japanese, with their sustained bombardments of entrenched positions, but it’s the persistence of humanity—sustained by such organizations of war survivors as Memorare—that ultimately prevails.

Apart from many private acts of remorse, the Japanese government never formally apologized for their soldiers’ atrocities, and our own government’s recent removal of the comfort women’s statue shows how modern politics can obliterate the past better than a howitzer.

Such is the nature of today’s society—and of a generation obsessed with the present and the future—that many Filipinos can barely remember what happened five years ago, let alone 50, or 70. For some reason, our memories of conflict seem especially faint and fragile. Denial seems easier, revisionism even more attractive, so the despots who sent hundreds if not thousands to their graves and robbed us blind continue to live in mansions and be driven around in armored SUVs.

Meanwhile, we have James Scott’s anguished prose to ponder; I myself fear that if we disregard our liberties, the next Battle of Manila, we might inflict upon ourselves.

Penman No. 295: Writers in Wartime

 

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Penman for Monday, March 26, 2018

 

 

I WAS busy a couple of weeks ago going through my library to see which books I could donate to a sale being conducted by our students to benefit worthwhile projects. I happily gave away about a hundred books and will be ready and willing to unload even more next time. But what inevitably happens when you sort out your effects like this is that long-forgotten objects turn up in the pile.

One such item that emerged from this recent overhaul was a thin journal of no more than 70 pages, the December 1943 issue of Philippine Review, published by the Manila Sinbun-sya and edited by Vicente Albano Pacis, with Angel C. Anden and Jose Luna Castro as associate editors. A little research shows that the Review didn’t last very long—it ran from March 1943 and closed down in December 1944. But during that brief lifetime, it managed to publish such later luminaries as Nick Joaquin, and apparently enjoyed quite a reputation (it was also edited for some time by Francisco “Mang Kiko” Icasiano, whose musings “From My Nipa Hut” graced the prewar Sunday Tribune Magazine).

Indeed, this issue of December 1943 contained not only short stories by Ligaya Victorio Reyes and Estrella Alfon Rivera, essays by Camilo Osias, Luis Montilla, and Federico Mangahas, and a translation of Mi Ultimo Adios by Juan Collas, but also a short commentary on the language of the Constitution by a 22-year-old Jovito R. Salonga, who had just been released from prison for his work in the underground.

It’s a fascinating window on literature in a time of war, what the politics of the moment can do to writers, and what coping strategies they employ. (My thoughts strayed quickly to a recent discussion online about Filipino writers and politics in these times of tokhang.) The issue opens with paid advertisements—mostly from Japanese companies like the Yokohama Specie Bank’s local branch—hailing “The Second Anniversary of the Outbreak of the Greater East Asia War” while at the same time greeting readers a “Merry Christmas!”

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The Reyes and Alfon stories (“Christmas Visit” and “Jingle Bells”) speak of love and loss, acknowledging the sudden shift in the meaning of Christmas from that December of just two years ago to this one; both stories end with their protagonists weeping uncontrollably. The Reyes story can’t help falling back on old tropes, referring to “Gary Cooper.” So for the fictionists, at least, the transition remains sharp and painful, with metaphors to imply the darkening of the times.

Most of the essayists seem to have no such qualms. In his essay on “A Program of Enlightenment,” Camilo Osias (yes, he of the Philippine Readers series, and future Senate President) argues for a new culture “for all Filipinos under an independent Philippines,” one “characterized by a sound eclecticism in the choice of its elements—by the same careful eclecticism which the Japanese have observed in their cultural borrowings…. The cultural activities to be carried out shall emphasize the precedence of State, national, or social interests over those of the individual.”

For his part, the scholar Luis Montilla writes on the theme of “Rizal as an Orientalist,” and suggests that Rizal would have been sympathetic to Japanese motives had he been alive, even implying that this could be because Rizal was partly Japanese. In his footnotes, he quotes Austin Craig’s statement in 1940 that “I am putting the finishing touches to my Rizal genealogy, now being able to show Japanese blood as well as two Spanish and five Chinese ancestors. I have church or court certificates proving everything.”

Montilla concludes: “Having had his attention directed early to the abuses, calumnies, and indignities heaped unjustly upon his people by the white race, Rizal had to be, and was, the embodiment of a true Oriental…. Now, the duly authorized representatives of the great Japanese Empire have repeatedly assured the Filipinos that Japan has come to these shores not to subjugate the natives of the country, much less to absorb them, but to guide them in their regeneration as true Filipinos, and that when they… shall have been so rejuvenated as to be, as a nation, worthy of membership in the family of Oriental nations, they will regain their long lost independence (and fully realize) the supreme efforts put up by Rizal as an Oriental to help educate and re-Orientalize his people for their preservation and dignification as a race….”

Was I reading a display of what might be called cultural collaboration? Not knowing these writers and the circumstances under which they worked, I have to withhold my judgment, keeping in mind as well that there was good reason for many Filipinos—after centuries of white-man rule—to accept the invading Japanese as liberators. But I felt much educated by these articles, which also reminded me of how our printed words define us, rightly or wrongly, long after we’re gone. They just might turn up in a dusty corner of someone’s bookshelf.

Penman No. 287: Mysteries Solved

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Penman for Monday, January 22, 2018

 

AS I’VE been writing and tweeting about recently, my forays into collecting on the Internet have led to all kinds of serendipitous discoveries—people and stories I never knew, places I never visited.

I began telling one such story a couple of weeks ago, when I mentioned coming across letters on eBay written in the 1930s by a young man from Bacolod to sci-fi pioneer Forrest J. Ackerman, then also a precocious teenager in California. We can’t tell how the two of them first made contact, but it likely had to do with the sci-fi magazines both of them were following.

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In a letter dated April 28, 1934 and written in green ink, the Filipino remains deferential to the American, addressing him as “Dear Mr. Ackerman” despite the fact that they were practically the same age and apparently had already been corresponding for some time. “I guess you are pretty anxious for my reply by this time and I am very much sorry that I could not answer your most interesting letter promptly, which I received two or three months ago,” the Pinoy begins. He explains that he’s been busy with schoolwork, then he goes on to rave about the sci-fi magazines and stories he’s been reading.

On another page, the writer talks about movies and their common idol, Marlene Dietrich. “She’s such a charming and exotic personage,” he says. “How did you like her new picture ‘The Scarlet Empress’? I liked Dietrich when I first saw her in ‘Morocco’ with Gary Cooper.” He signs off by sending Ackerman a picture of himself, with “a poor imitation of a Karloff smile,” and jokes that they’ll see each other at “the Far Eastern Olympics” which, of course, never happens.

It’s amusing and a bit astounding to see how up-to-date Filipinos were with American pop culture (as our correspondent was at pains to show) in these prewar days without the Internet, but I had an even bigger surprise in store when a reader who’d met me and Beng before, Sony Ng, wrote me to say that she knew who the writer was.

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I’d read his signature as “J. R. Oyco” but it was actually “J. R. Ayco,” the “J” being “Jess,” who had gone to Ateneo with Sony’s father. “I remember my father borrowing his copy of their yearbook Aegis (Class ’34, if I am not mistaken) and how I enjoyed it very much…. My mother had a friend, Amparo Ayco, whose husband Loth was Jess’ brother, I think. And they are the parents of Dr. Alex Ayco, the doctor of Cory [Aquino],” wrote Sony.

Jess, as it turns out, became an accomplished and quite famous painter in Bacolod. Further research showed that the Manila-born but Bacolod-based Jess studied painting in UP and architecture at UST, had an “avant-garde sensibility,” and won prizes for his works, some of which can be found at the UP Vargas Museum. Critics described him as a “Renaissance man,” being a theater director, performer, and costume and lighting designer at the same time. Sadly, he reportedly died penniless, unwilling to market his work.

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Speaking of painting, I had another mystery on my hands when I picked up a small painting that I saw online—a charming autumnal landscape done in the Western style by a Japanese painter surnamed “Sekido.” That was all I could see from the ad, aside from the irresistible price (for which you could get a throwaway cellphone). A quick run to Caloocan later, the painting—and a mystery—was mine.

Who was “Sekido”? Where was the place depicted? A Google search showed that a Yoshida Sekido (1894-1965) achieved some popularity for his exotic watercolors, but mine was an impressionistic oil, and likely newer; the signature was in Western letters. There was, however, something written in Japanese written at the back of the painting, and I posted an image of it to my international fountain-pen group and to my friends Lita and Fumio Watanabe.

After a day or two I got a tentative response. The painter’s name was Shosaku Sekido, born in 1939, and a member of Hakujitsukai, an association of Japanese artists who had studied abroad. There was nothing further on him online. Only one other word stuck out of the translation: “Kaida,” a place name. I looked it up, and found my quarry, in a series of pictures nearly identical to my painting: popular views of Mt. Ontake in the Kaida Highlands of Nagano Prefecture, Japan.

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Now, I said, to complete the experience, Beng and I will have to go there on our next sortie to Japan—but we’ll have to keep our distance, as Mt. Ontake is an active volcano, whose last eruption in 2014 tragically killed 63 people, including many tourists. The beauty is a beast—the kind of mystery we have few answers for.

(Photo of Forrest Ackerman from Wikipedia; photo of Jess Ayco article from Sun-Star Bacolod; photo of Mt. Ontake from trulyjapan.net)