by Carlos S. Salazar
Content Warning: This article contains triggering information regarding rape, torture, and death, including its effects on victims such as depression and suicide.
Last September, Filipino-American influencer Bella Poarch began rising to fame through her video content on TikTok and Twitter. Not long after, people came forward with information allegedly exposing her problematic actions in the past. What shocked the online community the most however, was her tattoos which referenced the Japanese Rising Sun. In drawing this symbol to her skin, she had unwittingly dug up the ugly scars of Japan’s history: the time where several Asian nations including Korea, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines were abused, tortured, and massacred in the name of imperialism.
Koreans were among the first to be informed, prompting them to react violently across several social media platforms and voice their distraught against Poarch. The issue only became more alarming as Koreans started making derogatory and racist comments about the influencer’s Filipino heritage — sparking the big controversy between Filipinos and Koreans,causing the hashtag #CancelKorea to trend globally. With Poarch mocking the response of Korean netizens, the situation became more aggressive and more offensive exchanges ensued.
Months since then, more people have been trying to reconcile the animosity between Filipinos and Koreans. No one really talks about the issue anymore, and Bella Poarch still has her career intact. Eventually, a large part of the people online left without talking about Japan’s silence on its war crimes. This goes to show how “cancelling” Korea never called for any real change to begin with. We failed to acknowledge the deeper issues in the middle of our dispute.
What did we miss then?
At its very root, Koreans were right to call out Poarch’s actions. Using a symbol of abuse as an aesthetic is impertinent and insulting. However, they failed to make their point by specifically targeting her Filipino heritage instead of treating her mistakes as solely of her own doing. It was as if they were saying, “She did this because she is Filipino.” rather than, “She did this because she is misinformed.” As a result, Koreans ended up cornering Poarch and demeaning her experiences instead of trying to reach out and explain to her why what she did was uncalled for.
It was inevitable that Filipinos would react in the same level of anger. Majority of Filipinos are impoverished and uneducated, and our country is still behind in national development — but this doesn’t mean it is suddenly alright to call us slaves and imbeciles. The reason why these problems are happening in the first place is because corruption is present in every nook and cranny of the government, and throughout the years our ruling bodies has proven to be incompetent and antagonistic towards education, science, and the state itself. Even considering that we’re still handling the load of shaping our nation and reclaiming our power and freedom after centuries of abuse and erasure we’ve faced from colonialism, it was gravely unreasonable to speak so repulsively about Filipinos as if to place the blame on the individual. Despite our many failures over the years, many of us still believe in change and progress. We fight for it everyday.
So, in the desire to defend our home countries, both Filipinos and Koreans left out the need to create a space for discussion and education — and nothing truly fruitful came out of it. But even with every moment that each Filipino and Korean fell short in trying to resolve this dispute, we’re still only talking about Korea or the Philippines — and not about where the problem really starts.
Being a militaristic state, Japan had constantly warred with neighboring nations such as China and Korea. Despite these wars having ended, Japan still sought control over their enemy states. The situation only became more rampant in the Meiji Period, where Japan’s motivations to expand their territory and accumulate more wealth and power were reinstated by the shogunate. It was later a victory for the Japanese: they had successfully annexed Korea and China as part of their territory. It was not long after that the red sun began to cast its light over Asia and Japan continued its siege over other states, such as Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia and the Philippines. They had consolidated their position as an imperialistic power.
Japan’s conquest was powered by cultural erasure and dehumanization, bereaving people of their willpower. They imposed their ideals and principles into social institutions and turned pre-established systems upside down. If you had the privilege of being in the Japanese’s favor, you would be able to experience education and business, albeit based on Japanese customs and beliefs. Otherwise, you would have been commodified: people were brought from their tribes into mines, farms, and factories where they were forced into labor. Girls of any age were coerced into becoming “comfort women” or sexual slaves to the Japanese soldiers and government officials. Any attempts of escape resulted in torture, murder, or full-pledged massacre.
During the end of the Second World War in 1945, Japan surrendered and retracted their dominion over their conquered territories. The Allied forces assumed jurisdiction over post-war matters, part of the agenda being the demilitarization of Japan and the enforcement of a new constitution that called for peace. This post-war constitution prompted Japan’s government structure to change from autocratic to democratic and for the nation to renounce their right to wage war. Since then, the government of Japan has repeatedly expressed remorse and guilt to the nations that suffered under their imperial rule. Countless peace declarations and agreements were proclaimed, and monetary compensation was provided to the litigations filed against them.
Yet from the violent reactions of Koreans, clearly these things haven’t worked out. How come?
While the red sun had left the horizon long ago, the harshness of its light still lingers. Movements and protests against Japan’s imperialist era are still very much alive. Several administrations have come and gone in Japan’s government, and yet none of them have quelled the voices of former prisoners-of-war, comfort women, and slave-laborers who still rally for justice. This continues to happen because Japan is stubborn and ineffective in responding to calls for reparations, and war criminals still get to walk free as they are enshrined and protected by law.
After the end of World War 2, a joint agreement was signed between the nations involved concerning the fate of those who committed acts of crime during the war. They established legal precedents and wrote to the law that all perpetrators and enablers of the crimes against humanity should not go about unpunished. Decades after, the Ministry of Justice in Japan overturned this law, and decreed that war criminals were to be treated in the same way as an ordinary criminal was treated. This memorandum then became a law giving war criminals and their families the same benefits as war veterans, contradicting the purpose of their rehabilitation.
Japan constantly insists that they are only honoring the souls of those who gave their lives for the country. However, they were recently exposed secretly planning to relocate war criminals to shrines without the public knowledge, skipping all the judicial processes needed for the act to be passed. Former Prime Ministers even held publicized visits to the Yasukuni Shrine where they offered their respects to the veterans, including war criminals, housed there. All signs point towards the notion that in the first place, the intention was never driven by nobility and respect but rather to validate and justify the crimes Japan committed in the wartime.
It seems that whatever is done, the grief and rage of the survivors and their families still fall on deaf ears. Critics of the Japanese government even say that “[the] Japanese have never seriously faced up to the realities of the devastating abuse Japan brought to neighboring nations and their people.” True enough — although Japan isn’t actively trying to rewrite the gruesome details of their history, they still try to do so at a social level. By appealing to the sympathy of people, the existence of war criminals is overlooked and treated as normal. This can be commonly observed in former imperialist nations like the USA, Spain, and the United Kingdom, who twist the narratives of war criminals and make it seem like they represent the former glory of their countries. If that doesn’t work, they boast their socio-economic progress and political power, letting their atrocities drown beneath the illusion of greatness. Everyday, they bask in the light of a sunless sky, hiding who they really are.
But the light that shines over isn’t true. Inside it peeks the colors of blood, drifting freely around us. It flows with a rage that has not yet rested.
Scars of imperialism aren’t just found inflicted on our skin and bones. The wounds bleed deeper into our conscience and take root in our community. These will still live on as long as there are still people who defend and support the perpetrators and frame them in a better light. They tell stories of how the occupants must be revered for their gifts of government, religion, and education, as if this praise will finally make them recognized. Whether they are aware or not about the blood that smears their words, sentiments like theirs will try to bury the narratives of those who perished. We say that truth will prevail in the end, but what of it now? Forms of imperialism still exist today. Settlements are still being created and ancestral lands are still being stolen in other parts of the world such as in Hawaii and Tibet.
The world has changed greatly since then, but as we learn more about our history, we realize that there are still dangers around us that we have to overcome. We can’t let the memory of pain and suffering be forgotten. We can’t let people get away with this abuse any longer.
In the end, the #CancelKorea situation called for our attention towards the animosity between Asian nations, and the long history of our suffering. It wasn’t just some big phenomenon on social media, but rather a manifestation of the divisiveness among nations that cost us our progress. It’s definitely not the best avenue we can base our future discussions on, but for the few of us who have the opportunity to read into the situation, this is also a great opportunity to reflect about it.
With our shared experiences of imperialistic abuse from the past, we can form an alliance with fellow Asian nations directed towards progress and equity. This gives us a larger platform to act, with this network of support. Now is the time that we redefine what justice means to all the victims and their families and what honor means to the criminals being protected and the systems that glorify them. Koreans, Filipinos, and various Asians must continue speaking loud and clear to Japan to demand humanitarian action. This is not our only fight too; we have to face the fact that we should do the same for the USA and Spain.
Knowing how deep the scars have bled, we must bear in mind that we still have a long way to go before we can overcome our own trauma. Seeing how colonization has beaten down our society time and time again, we must take a step forward in upholding our nation and being a part in rebuilding it. We, the youth, must act as bearers of the Filipino spirit for the years to come.
We will wash away the stains of our radiant pearl — and bring it home.