MANILA - President Rodrigo Duterte said the "comfort woman" statue along Roxas Boulevard is a symbol of freedom of expression, which relatives of comfort women and living comfort women are entitled to use.
"That is a constitutional right which I cannot stop. It’s prohibitive for me to do that,” Duterte told Mindanews in an interview on Friday, Jan. 12, which was published Tuesday, Jan. 16.
Duterte said this is what he told Japanese Minister of Internal Affairs and Communication Seiko Noda during her courtesy call on Jan. 9.
He said that he “cannot stop the relatives or even the comfort women still living from [exercising] their freedom to express [or] what they are expressing through the statue."
Duterte said Japan did not ask for the statue to be removed but expressed regret.
"It's regrettable for this kind of statue to suddenly appear," Noda earlier told reporters.
The President has left the decision of removing or keeping the statue to Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada, "Bahala siya." (It's up to him.)
Last month, the Department of Foreign Affairs formally asked officials of Manila City Hall and the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) to provide background information on the actual process before the statue was erected, given the sensitive issue it tackles.
City Administrator Jojo Alcovendaz earlier said they did not have a hand in the statue's installation.
The NHCP, a government agency, on Dec. 8 unveiled the statue on a promenade along Manila Bay.
A plaque of the 2-meter-high bronze statue depicting a blindfolded woman says it was erected in memory of Filipinas who were forced to work in Japanese military brothels during the Japanese occupation of the country during World War II.
It followed the erection of similar statues in South Korea, China and as far away as Australia.
Just last month, Japanese city Osaka cut its "sister city" ties with San Francisco, which has also erected a sculpture in memory of comfort women in one of its parks.
An estimated 1,000 Filipino women served as comfort women during the 1941-1945 occupation.
Duterte, meanwhile, thanked Japan for its continued assistance and cited it as “the largest contributor of aid” to the Philippines.
“Lahat makita mo. Puro JICA (Japanese International Cooperation Agency) such as airports," he said.