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The Unsung Story of How a Japanese Translator Saved Hundreds of Filipino Prisoners From Death and Torture in WWII

She put her life on the line to go against her empire.
IMAGE WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
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In war, mercy breeds mercy as slaughter breeds slaughter. War is never a black and white game between good and evil, no matter how much easier it would be for us if it were. Heroes and villains exist on both sides of the board, defined by their character more than their country. In the days of the Empire of Japan, there were silent protestors who stood against the emperor and Japan’s attempt to conquer half the world.

These were the unsung few like Chiune Sugihara in the West, a Japanese diplomat based in Lithuania who helped 6,000 Jews flee Europe, and in the East, there was Masue “Masay” Masuda-Almazan, a Japanese woman who put her life on the line to save hundreds of Filipino prisoners who were being tortured by her countrymen.

Born to worldly merchant parents, Masuda grew up in Perth, Australia, and Nagasaki, Japan, before moving to Davao, Philippines. Masuda met her husband, Vicente Almazan while working as a teacher at a local school. But her idyllic life in the Philippines came to an abrupt end when World War II broke out and the Japanese invaded the Philippines.

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After moving to Zambales with her husband and her eight children, Vicente was shot dead in his own home in 1942 due to hostilities between Filipino guerillas and her mixed Japanese-Filipino family. One would think this assassination would lead her to hate the people who killed her husband, and if she were a weaker person, this would be the case. Now a widow, Masuda knew that only mercy would end the war killing thousands on both sides of the battlefield.

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Using her multilingual skills in Japanese, English, and Ilocano, she became an interpreter for the Japanese military (Kempeitai) stationed in San Narciso—or so they thought. In truth, Masuda worked to free the Filipino civilians and guerilla fighters being tortured and imprisoned by the empire’s soldiers. She used the language barrier to her advantage, coming up with story after story to prove the prisoners’ innocence and set them free.

Then the Americans came.

While the arrival of the Allied Forces meant freedom for Filipinos, it also put her Japanese-Filipino family in danger of being lumped with Japanese soldiers and sentenced to die. But the Filipinos in her community didn’t forget her tireless efforts saving their lives and helped her family escape to a nearby town.

The years that followed her heroic efforts during World War II are blurry at best, but we do know that the former Buddhist was baptized as a Catholic at St. Sebastian Church in San Narciso, taking on her new Christian name Elizabeth Masue Masuda-Almazan.

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She died due to poor health in 1953, just eight years after the war ended and after she saved hundreds of lives. And while her name is excluded from textbooks, the town of San Nicolas, the province of Zambales, and her descendants will never let her name fade from history. 

Masuda-Almazan is currently a candidate for sainthood, as proposed by the Diocese of Iba in Zambales, and in 2011, “Lola Masay’s” bones were interred at St. Sebastian Church, her final resting place.

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Anri Ichimura
Staff Writer, Esquire Philippines
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