The issue of "comfort women" has long been a contentious one for Japan. The country occupied the Philippines during World War II but today it is a big supplier of aid and financial support.
A statue honoring women forced to work as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during World War II was removed from a waterfront promenade in the Filipino capital, Manila, sparking outrage from rights groups.
The bronze statue of a blindfolded Filipina was removed Friday night. The memorial, which stood alongside Manila Bay, was unveiled in December.
Manila City Hall issued a statement saying the statue would be returned once drainage work was completed. But officials gave no time frame for the monument's return, sparking alarm among activists who fear the Japanese government pressured the Philippines to remove the memorial.
"What happened is that we kneeled down to the Japanese... That's why it's shameful, so shameful," said Teresita Ang See, who is a co-founding president of a Chinese-Filipino group.
Seiko Noda, Japan's minister for internal affairs and communication, expressed regret over the monument back in January. Japan's Kyodo News agency reported that the Japanese Embassy in Manila confirmed that the Philippine government had notified the embassy of its plans to remove the statue.
The emotional issue of "comfort women" has clouded the Philippines' relations with Japan, which now provides Manila with considerable amounts of aid and financial support.
Still, Michael Charleston "Xiao" Chua, a professor at De La Salle University in Manila, implored the public to fight for the statue's return, which he called a symbol of national dignity.
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The monument memorializes the plight of Filipinas who were sexually abused during Japan's occupation of the Philippines from 1942 to 1945. It was erected with private donations from Chinese-Filipino groups as well as individuals.
Historians say as many as 200,000 women from across Asia were forced to provide sex to Japanese combat soldiers during the war. Many of the victims were Koreans.
Japanese nationalists insist that the so-called "comfort women" were not sex slaves because they chose to serve as prostitutes. They claim Japan is being unfairly criticized for a practice they say is common in countries at war. Historians say Japan is living in denial about its past.
Through a private fund in 1995 Japan paid 2 million yen ($18,000) each to about 280 women in the Philippines, South Korea and Taiwan. But many victims want the Japanese government to issue a full apology and provide official government compensation.
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Last year Osaka ended a 60-year sister-city relationship with San Francisco after Korean, Filipino and Chinese communities in California succeeded in getting a memorial to "comfort women" built in the US city.
Asked about the statue's removal on Sunday, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte claimed he knew little about it but urged Filipinos not to "insult" Japan.
He said: "It is not the policy of (the) government to antagonize other nations."
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bik/rc (AP, AFP)