Hibiya Park is a tranquil oasis in the frenetic, beating heart of Tokyo, analogous to our Luneta or Central Park in New York City, a place well-loved by Tokyoites and tourists alike.
On June 18, in a solemn ceremony to be attended by a number of prominent Japanese government officials and a handful of Filipino guests, a metal marker will be unveiled in a place of honor within its green and leafy sanctuary.
It will bear the face of a Filipino president forgotten by most of his countrymen, and misunderstood by those who do remember.
Sixty years after his death, Elpidio Quirino—the sixth president of the Philippines—will be honored for one shining moment in his political career, when he chose peace and forgiveness over bitterness and rancor, and political expediency.
On July 6, 1953, while he lay on a hospital bed in Baltimore, Maryland, awaiting surgery for bleeding ulcers, Quirino signed a controversial statement that he probably knew would end his political career. It was a presidential pardon for the last remaining Japanese prisoners of war, held in Bilibid Prison since 1945 as war criminals.
“I should be the last one to pardon them as the Japanese killed my wife and three children and five other members of the family,” he wrote.
“I am doing this because I do not want my children and my people to inherit from me hate for people who might yet be our friends for the permanent interest of the country.”
“I am happy to have been able to make this spontaneous decision as head of a Christian nation. My fervent hope is that the benevolent feeling which has inspired me will strike a responsive chord in others as act of faith to humanity. Love of fellow creatures will always be the supreme law among men and nations and the basis of world peace.”
As might be expected, Quirino’s decision was extremely unpopular.
Eight years had passed since the end of the war, but the memories of Japanese atrocities were still raw in the minds of the survivors.
Quirino himself had suffered a grievous loss during the last desperate days of the war, when retreating Japanese soldiers massacred hundreds of civilians in the ruined streets of Manila. Among the dead were his wife Alicia Syquia, his son Armando and daughters Norma and Fe. In all, 18 of Quirino’s family members were murdered in the final days of the war.
But that failed to shield Quirino from the brunt of his countrymen’s disapproval.
Actually, Quirino’s decision wasn’t as spontaneous as he made it out to be.
Pleas for clemency
The Japanese prisoners had long been on his mind. Numerous pleas for clemency had been arriving at his desk since 1949, some from religious leaders in Japan, some from peace advocates.
One of the most eloquent came from Kano Kanrai, a former soldier-turned-artist, who wrote: “The atrocious deeds carried out during the war, from a humanitarian perspective, cannot be forgiven. However, my wish is that you forgive what is difficult to forgive…
“I hope you will forgive all under the names of the beloved children that were so cruelly taken from you. Surely your beloved children, who were killed, are wishing for a peaceful world.”
His political enemies had also made the Japanese prisoners of war an issue, accusing him of holding them hostage for war reparations from Japan, which might have been another factor he considered.
Perhaps Quirino was simply looking further into the future than most of his contemporaries. He had long embraced the idea that alliances among the Asian nations—Japan included—would be critical in building the postwar world.
Even so, his decision came as a shock to his family.
Eventually, however, Quirino managed to persuade them of the soundness of his decision. His son Tomas recalled, many years later:
“He said, ‘I know it will be hard for you to take, but I’m thinking of forgiving the Japanese, because we are neighbors, and neighbors must learn to talk to each other, live together, trade and help each other… Forget your hatred, because if you persist it will harden your heart that it might even be imparted to your children’.”
He also told his daughter Victoria: “Our country had nothing to gain from the continued suffering of the vanquished by the victors.”
The rest of Quirino’s countrymen would be less understanding.
The pardon amounted to an act of political suicide, at a time when he could ill afford it.
The American Central Intelligence Agency was actively working to unseat him, alarmed at his peace overtures to the communist Huks, and his less-than-slavish attitude toward US military presence in the country. They were, in fact, already grooming his defense secretary, Ramon Magsaysay, to take his place in Malacañang.
He also suffered from an image problem. Despite his humble origins as a barrio schoolteacher, he was seen as elite, perhaps because of his impeccable manners, his elegant language and his wardrobe of tailored suits.
As an old-fashioned gentleman-politician, he was an easy target for mudslingers. Rumors that he lived like a king in Malacañang, and pissed in a golden chamber pot—later proven to be nothing more than black propaganda—went unchallenged, and in fact persist to this day.
Perhaps he also knew that his time was short. In 1953, Quirino was a very sick man, suffering from heart problems and bleeding ulcers.
In any case, he had made up his mind, and signed the pardon, sending more than a hundred Japanese prisoners of war home.
Letters of gratitude
In gratitude, Japanese schoolchildren made a thousand dolls, and sent them to Malacañang as a gesture of friendship. For years afterward, ordinary Japanese citizens, moved by his gesture, wrote awkward but sincere letters of gratitude and admiration: One was addressed to “President Kilino.”
But by that time, Quirino was out of the Palace, having been defeated by Magsaysay in the 1953 presidential elections. Less than three years later, he was dead, having suffered a heart attack at the age of 65.
The story, however, doesn’t end there.
Although Quirino’s act of forgiveness was soon forgotten in his native land, its impact in Japan proved to be more lasting.
“What is beautiful about the Japanese is they have a good sense of historical acknowledgement of the things that happened in the war,” says Ruby Quirino Gonzalez, Quirino’s granddaughter.
“Japan has begun to teach the story the way it was—we were in the war, we behaved atrociously, and for that we should seek forgiveness.”
Together with her cousin, beauty and wellness guru Cory Quirino and her aunt lawyer Aleli Quirino, Gonzalez runs the President Elpidio Quirino Foundation, an organization dedicated to preserving the former president’s memory and legacy, through publications, a web site and periodic commemorations, one of which led directly to the installation of the Quirino marker in Hibiya Park.
Apparently, the Japanese have not forgotten Quirino’s grand gesture of peace and friendship, because when Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko visited the Philippines last January, they made a point of meeting Quirino’s descendants.
“What an honor that was,” recalls Gonzales of their momentous audience with the Japanese imperial family. “Most Japanese have not met their emperor. Ang feeling, para kang ikakasal—you’re so happy but you’re so nervous. When we were in their presence, you could tell they were the emperor and empress, because the tones were hushed.”
“The empress stretched out her hand, cupped my hand in both of hers and very softly, in perfect English, said ‘President Quirino was a great man and we must never forget him.’ I was tongue-tied and tears started to roll down my cheek,” recalled Cory Quirino.
“It was like we were suspended in time. We felt that our grandfather was with us because we hoped he had lived to hear the emperor of Japan say that to him. In the absence of his physical presence, it was us. We just felt so touched.”
There had been some talk of a commemorative marker for Quirino, perhaps in Yokohama, near the marker honoring Gen.Artemio Ricarte.
But it was the Japanese who suggested Hibiya Park in Tokyo, because of Quirino’s critical role in rebuilding the friendship between the two nations. The only other Filipino so honored is JoséRizal, whose bust in Hibiya Park commemorates his time in Japan.
The Quirino marker is doubly significant because it comes at a time when Japan and the Philippines are strengthening ties in response to their territorial dispute with China.
But for Gonzalez, Quirino’s message of peace and healing is more timeless.
In the words of historian Ambeth Ocampo: “Here was someone who chose not to be imprisoned by the past but liberated himself from history to make the country move forward.”