Corregidor Island, Japanese-Style

Manila isn’t the most friendly place for tourists, with no easy way to get around and a lack of historical and cultural atmosphere (thanks, World War 2!). However, Corregidor Island is an exception. Previously a fishing village with a few military installations under the Spaniards, the Americans then converted the island into a full-fledged fortress, and when the Pacific war broke out, delayed the Japanese southward advance for months before finally getting ousted, and then pompously took it back a couple of years later.

Today the island is the fiefdom of monopolistic tour operator Sun Cruises, which runs ferries, day and night tours, a hotel, and other amenities on the island for the prices you’d expect from a monopoly.

Perhaps the cosmic Japanese spirit has never quite gotten over the Americans getting back at them, however, as Nihon has staged amphibious assaults on the island for decades, in the form of Japanese tourists.

Here’s a somewhat unrelated but parallel story: from September to December 2011 I studied Japanese in Osaka and lived with a host family.

Last month I found myself scratching my head on where to take my elderly, toddlers-before-the-war host parents for their two-day stay in Manila. Before they left Osaka, a Filipino friend of theirs advised them that the Philippines was a wonderful tourist destination, but skip Manila. I wish they took her advice.

So I decided to take them to Corregidor, and never mind the possibility that some very sensitive topics regarding bad-guys-Japanese would be broached. In any case, my host parents weren’t exactly the most stellar at speaking and understanding English.

Incidentally, taking them on Carlos Celdran’s angsty, in-joke filled tour of Fort Santiago was a bit of a mistake.

Joining us that Sunday was an intensely talkative, cigar-smoking, hobby-historian Japanese businessman friend of my father’s, Shibamura-san, who I hoped would be willing to translate for my host parents. My Japanese skills have bottomed out in a year of unuse, and I already found it challenging to keep up a conversation with my host parents even when I was in Japan learning Japanese from breathing Japanese air. Shibamura-san was willing to go along given that he had always wanted to go to Corregidor but absolutely hated waking up early in the morning to catch the single 8 am ferry to the island.

As it turns out, Shibamura-san could fully enjoy himself. For those who’ve been to Corregidor, this post is about how Japanese are toured around the island. For all visitors, Sun Cruises prepares tour tramvias; there’s a tramvia specifically for Japanese tourists, with a Japanese speaking tour guide and, as I would find out, a Japanese way of putting things as well. The existence of a separate Japanese-language tour was something I only found out when we landed. To the chagrin of my poor sister, my dad decided it’d be best not just for me, but for my entire family to accompany my host parents and Shibamura on the Japanese bus.

Our tour guide, Anna, was Pinay through and through, but spoke Japanese like she was born with it. Or maybe she didn’t, I don’t know, because only a native Japanese could tell the difference. She took her charges that day – which included, aside from our guests, a company of rowdy Japanese old men who all knew each other – on a tour of an island that their grandparents’ acquaintances blew to shit seventy years ago.

That’s a statue of Gen. Douglas MacArthur there. Honestly, the irony in this picture is just…

First stop was that statue above, next to a dock from where MacArthur ran away to Australia.

Second stop, where I’m sure we spent about half an hour longer than every other tour group, was the Japanese war memorial, including markers representing the gravesite of all the Japanese dead, and a statue of the Bodhisattva Guanyin/Kannon (I think) meant as a commemoration of peace.

Then the rest was a pretty standard tour of Corregidor – the ruins of barracks and big guns. Points of specifically Japanese interest were cited, however, such as rooms where Japanese commanders had stayed when they took over Corregidor. Knowing that my family and I were completely out of the loop, Anna helpfully gave us a Tagalog spiel as well at each site.

What was noticeable was that, according to tour guide Anna, it was SOP for her to not mention anything related to Japanese atrocities in the Philippines. Military incidents were par for the course – from the bombing runs over Corregidor to the number of deaths on both sides to Gen. Wainwright’s surrender. Special mention to a rather large piece of artillery that was the site of a photo of a bunch of Japanese soldiers doing banzai poses. Bataan Death March, game lang.


But any mention of summary imprisonment, torture and execution, of massacres, and the like – such as when Japanese soldiers executed the entire diplomatic and consular staff of China, or when they would compete to see who could bayonet the most people, or when they would barge into houses to spear babies and force rural villagers to dig their own graves – was anathema, forbidden, out of the question. Aside from the obvious awkwardness this would raise, Anna put it like this: “Tapos na e, hindi na kailangang sabihin.” (It’s over and done with, no need to bring it up.) No exploration of the Japanese political context at the time, either, which other guides would sometimes bring up as background flavor. 

One could argue that the way the Japanese dealt with Filipinos was, strictly speaking, a different topic from the purely miltary Corregidor. Accordingly, the Corregidor museum, next to the ruins of a bombed-out movie theater, is all Corregidor as well – all pictures and replicas of people in uniform. It was perfectly possible for a Japanese tourist to enter and leave Corregidor without ever knowing the full story of the war.

On my part, I tried to get it across to my host parents, who told me that they hadn’t even learned in school that Japan had invaded the Philippines (and every other Southeast Asian country). And Shibamura-san was no idiot, so he might have mentioned it somewhere in his rapidfire Japanese. My host mom’s grandfather, she told me, was assigned to the Philippines and never came back; she has no memory of him. I told her that my mother’s uncle was taken away to parts unknown by the Japanese as well. I hope we understood each other.

I wonder at the wisdom behind Anna’s words, as well. It’s common knowledge that Japanese history as taught in Japanese schools, up to today, is a bit of a whitewash. But I wonder for what purpose we would desire that ordinary Japanese today know about what happened with them and us (and many other peoples) back in the 30’s and 40’s, that ‘the truth’ be made known to them. For understanding, or for vengeance?

My host father, through the barrel of a gun



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