MANILA – As the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II nears, one family in the Philippines remembers how their country and Japan re-established friendly ties after a tragedy that reduced parts of the Philippines, including Manila, to rubble and left more than a million Filipinos dead.
For the grandchildren of the late Philippine President Elpidio Quirino, his decision to pardon Japanese war criminals during his last year in office in 1953 was “absolutely” the starting point of the Philippines’ renewed friendship with its former invader that has since evolved into a strong strategic partnership.
Quirino’s move was all the more praiseworthy because he and his family had directly experienced Japanese atrocities during the occupation through 1945.
“He put personal feelings on one side. As president, he had to act in behalf of the nation,” Ruby Gonzalez-Meyer, 61, said of her grandfather, who was president from 1948 to 1953.
“It was a decision that was very difficult for him as an individual. Can you imagine? How does one get over, or how does one forgive such a personal tragedy?” Gonzalez-Meyer said in an interview, recalling the death of Quirino’s wife, Alicia, and three children during the Battle of Manila in 1945.
Quirino, whose 125th birth anniversary on Nov. 16 will be celebrated by his relatives and the government, was a senator when Japan invaded the Philippines in 1941.
When he refused to serve as a puppet governor during the Japanese occupation, he was charged with conspiracy and imprisoned in Manila’s Fort Santiago.
Worse than his personal experience of Japanese brutality while in prison was the loss of his wife, three of his five children and more than a dozen members of his wife’s family as they were fleeing during fighting in Manila between Japan and the returning Americans in February 1945.
Cory Quirino, 62, another grandchild, recounted the story of her father and her grandfather after surviving the war.
“My dad said, ‘Where’s Mama?’ ‘In heaven,’ that’s all he (Elpidio Quirino) said. But he did not cry. He was just very quiet, and he was always quiet for the rest of his life. He had moments in his life when dad finds him in the same kind of silence, sitting in one corner, very solitary, remembering the family.
“But not once did he say anything bad about the Japanese,” Cory Quirino said.
The Quirino grandchildren could not ascertain why the former president did not harbor hatred — or at least manifest it — against the Japanese despite what he went through during the war.
Cory Quirino was only 3½ years old, and Gonzalez-Meyer was a little over 2 when their grandfather died in February 1956.
But based on their parents’ accounts, they knew their grandfather “had such a very big heart” and that “basically he was just a good person.”
They also found him to be “a visionary,” with Cory Quirino saying: “He foresaw that Japan would rise again to greatness, and being a formidable neighbor of the Philippines, he thought that peace was better than war, anger or hostility or hatred.”
In a speech in February 1953 before delegates of the Philippines-Japan Youth Conference, Quirino said: “Personally, were I to consider that my wife and my three children were all killed by Japanese machine guns, I would swallow the Japanese allies now; but I am not living in the world alone.
“I have my remaining children, and their children to follow. I am not going to allow them to inherit feelings of revenge,” he added.
Five months later, in July 1953, Quirino granted executive clemency to 437 war criminals, of whom more than 100 were Japanese while the rest were Filipinos accused of collaborating with the Japanese occupiers.
The decision included the repatriation of the Japanese war criminals in December of that year.
In an undated draft letter archived at the Ayala Museum in Manila’s financial district of Makati, Quirino wrote: “In extending the executive clemency, I had no other desire than to express not merely my humanitarian feelings but the nobility of character of the Filipino people.
“I considered it essential for the preservation of peace and friendship between our two peoples as the cornerstone of our lasting relationship,” he said.
While Quirino’s decision was unpopular domestically at that time because of lingering anti-Japanese sentiment by many war victims, Japan and some groups in the United States welcomed it. Some Japanese even sent letters of gratitude to Quirino.
In a January 1954 statement, John Nevin Sayre of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, hailed Quirino’s decision and encouraged Americans to petition for similar action concerning Japanese war criminals held by countries such as the United States.
Rene Guatlo of the President Elpidio Quirino Foundation said that after the executive clemency, the Philippines received $800 million from the Japanese government as part of reparations.
Gonzalez-Meyer said: “The early forgiveness of Quirino, the act of selfless sacrifice, putting his personal feelings to the side, hastened Filipino-Japanese relations very early. And today, we’re honored to say that Japan is our biggest source of aid.
“I see it now, 70 years later, how special this man was because to this day, we must always remember (history) but we must also forgive,” she added.
Now Quirino’s grandchildren are reaching out, via the President Elpidio Quirino Foundation (which was founded by the Quirino family) to Japanese war criminals who were pardoned.
According to Gonzalez-Meyer, whose mother was Quirino’s middle child, the foundation has already contacted some of the pardoned Japanese war criminals who may still be alive through the Hiroshima Peace Foundation and the Philippine Embassy in Tokyo.
But the foundation is still awaiting replies.
“We would like for them to share their thoughts, their memories, to share how they were treated while they were prisoners in the Philippines, to share their story because it would put to a final circle the events, the cycle of hatred and after that, the forgiveness, as evidenced by Quirino’s pardon,” Gonzalez-Meyer said.
The Quirinos said that, following the example of the former leader, they do not carry any feeling of hatred or grudge against Japan and its people despite the family’s misfortune during the war.
“I can truly say that none of us, his descendants . . . harbored any hatred, and all of us welcome the Japanese from whom we suffered with open arms,” Lila Quirino, a niece of the former leader and currently the president of the foundation, said in a speech.