Typhoon opens new chapter in Philippines-Japan relations

Notion of Japanese military being welcomed on its return was unthinkable, until now

(From right), Lt-Cmdr K Suzuki with Shoji Otake, Japanese consul on Cebu  and Gsugomu Nakagawa, minister at the Japanese Embassy in Manila. Photograph: Peter Murtagh/The Irish Times

(From right), Lt-Cmdr K Suzuki with Shoji Otake, Japanese consul on Cebu and Gsugomu Nakagawa, minister at the Japanese Embassy in Manila. Photograph: Peter Murtagh/The Irish Times

 

A small and not insignificant moment in history was passed this weekend at the Philippines Air Force base adjoining Cebu Airport on Cebu Island in the central Philippines.

Shortly before lunch on Friday, the door to the Incident Command Post was opened by a Philippines Military Policeman who ushered in naval office lieutenant commander K Suzuki of the Japanese Defence Forces.

Lt-Cmdr Suzuki thereby became the first Japanese military officer to engage with his Philippine counterparts since his country’s former imperial army was defeated there in June 1945, the redoubtable US general Douglas MacArthur having returned the previous October as he promised he would when leaving in March 1942.

Unlike the charismatic, corn cob pipe smoking American general, the Japanese did not return following their December 1941 bombing and invasion of the Philippines in the wake of their attack on Pearl Harbor.

While the name of MacArthur has remained a familiar one in the central Philippines where he is revered, with several villages and areas named after him, no Japanese military have been back, at least on official duty, since the end of the second World War.

The notion of Japanese military working in partnership with the Philippine military, and of being welcomed in such a role, would have been unthinkable - until now.

The Japanese wartime invasion, occupation and temporary rule in Leyte and Samar provinces of the central Philippines, where Typhoon Haiyan, or Yolanda as it is known here, did its worst, does not bring back happy memories for those who were alive then.

Occupying soldiers conducted themselves in the callous and brutish manner that attended their war behaviour throughout Asia.

“We were hiding in holes dug under for floor of our homes,” Eulalia Macaya (74) told the Philippine Daily Inquirer. “The Japanese soldiers were patrolling but we couldn’t see much of them. We could only see their boots. We were so afraid.”

Another veteran of that period, Beatrice Bisquera (91), recalled hiding in the mountains, something not possible now, she suggested, since the typhoon had stripped the hills. “Now, there’s nowhere to hide,” she daid.

When he entered the Incident Command Post room, Lt-Cmdr Suzuki had the weight of such history on his shoulders. After the door was closed, he doubtless bowed to his new colleagues in the traditional manner, laying that history to rest while simultaneously opening a new chapter.

Underscoring the significance of the moment, Lt-Cmdr Suzuki was accompanied by two Japanese diplomats, Gsugomu Nakagawa, minister at the Japanese Embassy in Manila, and Shoji Otake, his country’s consul in Cebu, the second city in the Philippines, both of whom entered the room with him.

For most of two weeks since the typhoon struck, key figures in the multi-national civil and military disaster relief operation sat opposite each other on either side of a dining room table, discussing and planning meticulously how to get help to the stricken victims of Yolanda. The walls are covered in large scale maps showing in detail the areas of destruction and where help is needed.

Throughout the day, every day from dawn to dust and often well into the late hours, Filipino, American, Australian, Korean, Indonesian, French, German and Swedish officers, together with key aid and logistic personnel who were often civilian, sat on either side of the table, working out what do to and how to do it.

What Lt-Cmdr Suzuki brought to the table was more than 1,000 Japanese soldiers who will do whatever the co-ordinating team decides needs to be done to help victims of the typhoon.

Part of that involved a Japanese air force C130 Hercules transport plane ferrying typhoon refugees, US Marines, aid agency officials and others between Manila and Tacloban, where Japanese non-governmental organisation relief workers are already helping. In addition to its military assistance, the Japanese government has also given over $50 million (€36.8 million) in direct aid and grant aid.

Japan’s role complements that of most other countries in the region. Highly visible and significant contributions have come from Korea and Indonesia, both of which have sent C130 transport planes. Several Korean NGOs are also active.

The Taiwanese government has to date sent no fewer than 18 cargo planes containing 130 tons of relief aid worth some $2.7 million (€1.9 million) and a Taiwanese NGO, the Tzu-Chi Foundation, is funding a work-for-money programme in Tecloban in which some 6,400 people are participating.

Relations between the Philippines and Taiwan have been poor since May when a Philippines gunboat fired on a Taiwanese fishing boat, killing a Taiwanese fisherman. Despite this, however, aid had been forthcoming from Taipei.

The contrast with Beijing has not gone unnoticed here and is hardly accidental from Taiwan’s point of view. China, which disputes land claimed and occupied by the Philippines, gave a paltry €100,000 initially to disaster relief.

Last Monday, Beijing said Manila had finally given “permission” for China to send a medical team and hospital ship to the Philippines and the Chinese Red Cross pledged its own $100,000 (€73,764) in relief aid.

Japan’s involvement has been praised by Manila. “World War II was so long ago,” said Lt Jim Alagao, spokesman for the Philippines Armed Forces. “If we still harbour bad feelings against the Japanese, it is a question for our grandfathers to answer.”

At the end the new era meeting in Philippines Air Force base Incident Command Post, Lt-Cdr Suzuki and his diplomat colleagues exited to the mess room adjoining it. There, they bowed formally to their new colleagues and to each other. Outside, they were happy to pose for a photograph for The Irish Times.

Joji Tomioka, a Japanese doctor helping to co-ordinate a medical relief team out in the disaster zone, said: “We cannot forget the past but we must learn from history so that we will not do the same thing again.”

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