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Remembering the Asian Holocaust – part 1 November 16, 2015

Posted by Alex Sawit in In My Opinion.
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By Alex Sawit

November 16, 2015



[ This is Part 1 of a two-part series. To read the next, go to Part 2. ]



   Ordinarily, a wine blog should not serve as a venue for matters unrelated to the subject of wine. Yet wine is ultimately the ally of honesty and truth, as expressed through the timeless saying, “in vino veritas” (“in drinking wine, truth emerges”). So when the world presents an occasion of such gravity that it gives dispensation to voice ourselves regardless of venue, we owe it to honestly speak the truth for all to hear.

   Seventy years ago, on September 2, 1945, government and military representatives of the Emperor of Japan signed the instrument of Japan’s surrender to Allied Forces, bringing a formal end to hostilities in the Second World War.

   This December 7 – the day on which we remember the Japanese surprise attack that plunged Asia into that world war – we owe it to further reflect on the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender and give remembrance to the victims of Japanese wartime occupation, not least of all to the millions who perished from the atrocities committed against them. It is only through such memorial by both the people of Japan and the peoples of Asia that genuine forgiveness and lasting reconciliation are achieved, giving our nations hope that those who faithfully remember the past need not be condemned to repeat it.

   – the Editor



Aftermath of the Massacre of Manila in 1945.



   Being a Filipino who grew up in the Philippines decades after the end of the Second World War, I was taught from a young age that the Asian Holocaust was a monstrous act of evil that could only have been perpetrated by the most evil of monsters.

   I remember this through the stories told by my mother’s side of the family, who lived in Manila during the Japanese occupation. Sometimes, they told me about the outpouring of joy during liberation as my mother, aunts and uncles, and grandparents welcomed our American allies. Endearingly, grandma always giggled whenever she reminded me about how my mom had the chutzpah as a little kid to greet smiling American G.I.s marching in front of cheering crowds on the street, asking them, “Hi Joe! Want a pam-pam, Joe?” (my giggling grandma told me that the surprised American actually responded, saying, “Sure! Where??!!”).

   Most of the time, however, they told me how they were very fortunate when so many families lost their lives during the occupation. In these unhappy stories, the message was clear: the Japanese were monsters of brutality to the Filipinos.

   The Japanese, they told me, behaved as if they were having fun and games with a people whom they regarded as inferior to their own race. One story told of how sword wielding officers would amuse themselves by beheading civilians on the street to sow terror among the locals. Another story told of how soldiers would grab babies from the arms of Filipina mothers outdoors and toss them high in the air, and as the infants fell the soldiers would impale them on the bayonets of their rifles in a gleeful game of catch (accounts about Japanese infantrymen killing babies exactly in this way are found as far away as China; I have also watched archival Japanese propaganda footage demonstrating how an Imperial soldier with fixed bayonet should properly impale a child in the air). And if they felt that a community needed to be taught a lesson in colonial domestication, the Japanese would simply round up locals and massacre them by machine gun and bayonet, treating Filipinos no differently from uncooperative livestock being culled.

   From their stories, I understood why many Filipinos hated the Japanese for so long after the war. And as I grew up and read the war stories of neighboring countries, I further understood why many other Asians seethed with anti-Japanese feelings that linger to this day. Yet on my own, I also understood the power of forgiveness in the pursuit of lasting reconciliation. I do not believe in giving hatred a chance to forever chart the course of nations, which is why I easily and sincerely befriended post-war generations of Japanese and welcomed them to our country. At some point, people need to realize that we must all strive to move forward together in real friendship.

   Moving forward does not excuse us, however, from our obligation to the truth. For if we forget the past, in doing so we forsake its lessons, which the people of Asia have paid for in tears and blood. There will always be ambitious powers in this world, so ultimately I understand that if we are to prevent any power from reviving such tragedies tomorrow, then we must vigilantly remember the lessons of yesterday, when our countries were reaped as killing fields by the Empire of Japan.

   We must never forget the Asian Holocaust.

   When the word “holocaust” is mentioned, most people immediately think of the Holocaust of Europe, in which six million Jews and millions of non-Jewish civilians were exterminated under the wartime rule of Nazi Germany. So searing was that experience on the conscience of the West that it is now indelible in Western media, to be told always so that the world may never forget. This narrative has been repeated so successfully, however, that today many Asians think that the holocaust experience was only a European one, as if Asia’s experience was not comparable.

   Here in the Philippines, where locals are heavily influenced by Western media, this is especially the case among younger generations, who are too removed by time to comprehend what was once committed against their countrymen. I am reminded of the astonishment voiced by a distinguished Filipino professor not too long ago, regarding the disbelieving attitude of today’s youth, when he confronted them about how the Japanese massacred at least 70,000 men, women, and children in the city of Manila in 1945. To put it into perspective, this conservative estimate for the Massacre of Manila begs for comparison with the approximately 75,000 killed in the atomic bombing of Nagasaki – an event which the Western media annually commemorates with greater sympathy, influencing young Filipinos to the point of imagining Japan as the innocent victim of the war.

   “One of my students in a history class,” lamented Prof. Bernard Karganilla of the University of the Philippines, about this mass-murder of the people of Manila, “adamantly refused to believe that such barbarities were ever committed by the Japanese.”

   Although the Asian Holocaust as a term of reference is only now seeing increasing dissemination, its historical basis is undeniable. In numbers and brutality, the wartime atrocities of the Empire of Japan constitute a crime against humanity that parallels what Nazi Germany comitted in Europe. Most Western researchers estimate that over 10 million civilians were murdered from the continental mainland to Southeast Asia; some Asian researchers place the death toll up to 20 million or higher. Whatever the figure, internationally respected historians unanimously agree that these were sanctioned atrocities, condoned or permitted outright by the Imperial Throne and frequently organized as wholesale actions in which human beings were enslaved, tortured or exterminated.


Screenshot of Japanese propaganda film footage, showing two Imperial soldiers
re-enacting how to bayonet a Chinese baby thrown in the air.


   Beginning with its invasion of China in 1937, the Japanese Empire indulged in an ideology of racial supremacy over the people it conquered, in which non-Japanese were regarded as commodities that either were useful or needed to be disposed of (especially the Chinese, whom the Japanese derogatorily called chankoro to label them as subhuman slaves; such racist entitlement paralleled that of the Nazis, Japan’s wartime accomplices, who saw the Jews as “slaves and fertilizer”). What started with the Rape of Nanking thereafter exploded across Asia as an account of man’s inhumanity to man: the Sook Ching ethnic cleansing in Singapore and the rest of Malaya…the medical torture and live human biological experiments by Unit 731…the Three Alls Policy – “Kill All, Burn All, Loot All” – of genocide in China…the sexual enslavement of the Comfort Women…the list of atrocities goes on.

   I regret that it is not possible in one reading to do justice to all the stories. But being a Filipino, it is the Massacre of Manila that to me most painfully reveals the apathy for human life with which the holocaust in Asia was carried out.

   With U.S. forces battling their way into the Philippine capital at the start of February 1945, the Japanese proceeded to execute the civilian population of Manila – a spiteful course of action, designed to prevent the Filipinos from becoming a strategic resource of aid and comfort for their American liberators (some historians who disagree with the conservative estimate of the death toll suggest that, excluding the many who died as collateral damage during the monthlong battle for the city, the massacres alone killed anywhere from 100,000 to 500,000 people). Through eyewitness testimonies of survivors, captured military documents, and the accounts of prisoners of war and their collaborators, we know that the Japanese were systematic: setting fire to residential neighborhoods and slaughtering the families as they ran out of their blazing homes, massing locals into execution sites to be promptly bayoneted or decapitated, herding the populace into large enclosures to be locked in, doused with gasoline, and burned alive. One massacre order, a copy of which was captured during the fighting, gave these instructions:


    “When Filipinos are to be killed, they must be gathered into one place and disposed of with the consideration that ammunition and manpower must not be used to excess. Because the disposal of dead bodies is a troublesome task, they should be gathered into houses which are scheduled to be burned or demolished [editor’s note: the latter refers to entombing live victims in buildings rigged with explosives]. They should also be thrown into the river.”

    order issued to Japanese battalions inside Manila, February 1945


   Given the multitude of stories on record about what the Japanese did in Manila, I will make it suffice to tell you about only one of the them – the story of one photograph, taken by a cameraman with U.S. forces after the massacres were finally stopped. It always breaks my heart to look at this. In the scene, three motionless Filipino civilians are lying in the rubble of their war torn city – all of them bayoneted by the Japanese. In the center is a young female, her face unseen because she is crouched protectively beside a little girl of about two or three years old. The woman, whom the photographer presumed to be the little girl’s mother, clearly bears her bayonet wound, outlined by the vivid cut in her clothing from the sharpness of the stabbing blade. On the far left, another victim is visible only by an outstretched left hand on the ground, with the rest of the victim out of frame.



   It is the face of the little girl that most haunts me. To look at her is to find fleeting refuge from the desolation and failure of mercy that is everywhere around her. Her face is so quieting, so freed from pain, so beautiful with the promise of a life that has been robbed from her. I look at her and think that, had she lived, she would now be the same age as my mother. She seems so lifelike, as if she were only napping as little children do when they’ve tired themselves after too much playing and getting dirty outdoors. And if I look a little longer, I can fool myself into asking, “Maybe they made a mistake. Maybe she’s just asleep. She isn’t dead. She can’t be…”

   Of course she is, I angrily tell myself.

   I don’t know how any Filipino can look at this beautiful little one and not see the sheer absence of compassion that was utterly delivered to her short life. I don’t know how any Filipino can see the woman crumpled in front and not feel that she must have used her own body as a shield while trying desperately to save her child, or look at the outstretched hand and not feel that here was a human being who did not deserve the perverted honor of an Imperial bayonet. I don’t know how any Filipino after this would not think of shaming young Filipinos into realizing that the Massacre of Manila deserves their obligation more than the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, to which they feel more connected to in solidarity with Western media sympathies. Indeed, it is the Western media who needs to be shamed into remembering that all this was merely one small chapter of evil in the Asian Holocaust.

   Looking at that photograph, I cannot help but revisit what my family told me, that the Japanese were surely evil monsters. How else could they have murdered so many innocent Filipinos with such heartless efficiency? Yet I know now that this was not true.

   No, it was not monsters who murdered my countrymen. As inconvenient as it might be, the simple truth is that the vast majority of those who carried out atrocities in the Philippines and across Asia were no different from their victims before they were sent to war. From farmers to fishermen, shopkeepers to street vendors, craftsmen to artisans, these were ordinary people – normal human beings who were set loose in violently abnormal circumstances. It is this everyday normality about the killers that ought to be disturbing to any of us, because it makes them so uncomfortably familiar to all of us.

   One of the stories that moved me to that realization was the courage of Jintaro Ishida, a Japanese war veteran whose remorse led him to became a voice of conscience in Japan. After retiring as a schoolteacher in 1988, Ishida sought to atone for his countrymen and implored them to honestly face the heinousness of their nation’s wartime past. He traveled repeatedly to the Philippines to conduct detailed investigations as he searched for massacre sites and interviewed survivors, and he eventually published books about the massacres in the hope of overcoming many in the Japanese public who continue to deny that the Asian Holocaust ever happened.

   Ishida also tracked down the Japanese war veterans who massacred Filipino civilians. One of them confessed this to him: “In the beginning, we could not kill even a man. But we managed to kill him. Then we hesitated to kill a woman. But we managed to kill her, too. Then we could kill children. We came to think as if we were just killing insects.”

   But while Ishida never participated in any atrocities during the war, the Filipino survivors he encountered always asked him the same question: Why were the Japanese so cruel?

   “Many people asked me this,” a heavy-hearted Ishida told the New York Times in 2001. “They asked me why the Japanese killed men, women and children…why didn’t they let these people escape? I had no answer for them. This made them angry. “That’s not a good enough answer. Why can’t you answer the question?” “

   It was only later when he returned to Japan, to interview and confront those war veterans who were guilty of these horrific crimes, that he understood what the answer was. Face to face with his fellow veterans, Ishida realized that they were just ordinary men like him – that in every one of them, what he was really seeing was himself.

   “During the war, I (was assigned for military service on the home front and) never went to the Philippines,” Ishida said, trying with difficulty to explain why he felt so personally accountable. “But if I had been assigned there, I would have been one of the Japanese soldiers who took part in the massacres. So it was hard for me to continue with the interviews (of guilty veterans). It was a horrible experience for me.”

   It is a disquieting moment in any individual’s self-discovery to realize that one need look no further than oneself to see where evil may come from – not from those monsters we conveniently blame outside of ourselves, but from the ordinary human heart that is within us all. Everything comes down to choice, whether to follow or not to follow that sickly sweet call to set aside one’s conscience. It is up to the individual to choose to do what is good or what is evil. Beyond that, we are all the same.

   Do monsters exist? My answer is yes, they do. And few as they are, they would not have the power to spread their ambitions in this world without the unquestioning obedience of ordinary people to impose them. The real question is, can ordinary people be as extraordinary as the monsters they choose to serve?

   I will answer with the words of the esteemed Jewish-American Holocaust scholar, Michael Berenbaum, who said this about the ordinary German people who operated and maintained the Nazi death camps – Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau, and many more – all without question and in obedience to Hitler.

   “Ordinary people,” said Berenbaum, “are capable of doing extraordinary things…terrible things…evil things.”

   In the end, I feel that I have not undone the stories my family entrusted to me. Rather, I have merely completed them with understanding. As I said, I don’t believe in allowing hatred to forever chart the course of nations, but equally, I believe that we have a duty to valiantly uphold the truth. No matter how painful remembrance may be, the key to safeguarding the people of Asia, together with the rest of the world, from the revival of monstrous evils in the future is for us to always remember what really happened.

   Only by doing so can we ensure our safekeeping of the most important lesson about the Asian Holocaust: that without the collaboration of ordinary people – without a people’s consent to conveniently suspend the conscience of each individual – no holocaust would ever be possible.



[ This is Part 1 of a two-part series. To read the next, go to Part 2. ]







1. harry (moon) JUNG - December 7, 2015

thank you to remind the sad history.
what happened during under japanese period in ww2.
In korea, our people never forget the history under japanese period since 1910 to 1945.
We have to remember the power use good ways to our people or other people when we get the enough

Alexander Sawit - December 7, 2015

Thank you for your comments, Harry. I genuinely believe that remembrance is the key to lasting reconciliation, because only by remembering the lessons of the past can we stay alert in the hope of keeping everyone safe in the future.

Hey, let me know when you’ll be visiting us in the Philippines again. Cheers! 🙂

harry JUNG - December 8, 2015

yes, i am. ofcourse i will. i miss your place

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