SAN PEDRO CITY, Philippines - The statue of a young woman seated with her fists clenched on her lap has been removed following a protest from the Japanese Embassy in Manila, which considered it a memorial to comfort women, the sex slaves forced to serve Japanese invading forces in World War II.
The statue drew controversy that prompted Malacañang to issue a statement in its defence, amid condemnation of the Japanese government by a group of former comfort women and their supporters for demanding that Filipinos forget Japan's war crimes.
"The statue subject of this current issue was commissioned using private funds and was built inside private property," presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo said in a statement late on Monday night.
"This, therefore, forms part of freedom of expression and the government cannot simply delimit or restrain the exercise of such right without a tenable purpose-the aforesaid right being protected by our Constitution," he added.
The 1-meter-tall bronze statue was unveiled during a small, quiet ceremony on Dec. 28 at the entrance of Mary Mother of Mercy, a shelter for the elderly and abandoned at Barangay San Antonio in San Pedro, Laguna.
A nun, who requested anonymity for lack of authority to speak to the media, told the Inquirer the shelter had been run for more than two decades by the Sisters of St. Francis Xavier but was owned by a female Filipino philanthropist from this city. She declined to identify her.
A small group of Koreans and some Filipinos attended the unveiling ceremonies. Among those present was the mayor of Gwacheon City, according to a copy of an invitation to the programme, the nun said.
"Then [foreign] media started coming in, asking all these questions. There were also some people from the Malacañang media and the Japanese Embassy," the nun said.
The statue was of a young, short-haired woman sitting on a chair with her fists resting on her lap. There was a bird perched on her left shoulder and an empty bronze chair to her right.
"According to some of the Filipinos [present during the unveiling], it was that of a 19-year-old Korean girl abused during the war. The empty chair, was just for people who wanted to have their photos taken [with the statue]," she said.
"It was mysterious. We were also wondering what it was all about," the nun said.
On Dec. 30, a group of workers came back and removed the entire sculpture, leaving only an empty concrete platform.
Earlier that day, the Japanese Embassy issued a statement expressing disappointment over the statue, according to the Daily Manila Shimbun.
"We believe that the establishment of a comfort woman statue in other countries, including this case, is extremely disappointing, not compatible with the Japanese government," the Manila Shimbun quoted the embassy statement as saying.
The Manila Shimbun cited the inscription beside the statue, which said it was "a monument of peace and women empowerment."
A similar statue, which various groups had interpreted as a recollection of the wartime comfort women, was set up in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul a few years ago, according to the newspaper.
"It didn't look like [a statue of a] comfort woman to me. It was different from that one they built on Roxas [Boulevard] with the blindfolds," the nun said.
Lila Pilipina, a group of former comfort women and advocates, on Tuesday assailed the Japanese government. "Today, it demands that we totally forget its war crimes and demands as well that we remain silent as it reestablishes itself militarily as a junior partner of US expansionism in the Asia-Pacific region," the group said.