Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 13, August 2006

Introduction to the Markova Interview

Ronald Klein

  1. In July, 2005, Walter Dempster, Jr., a/k/a Walterina Markova, was run over by several bicycles in Manila and died on the way to the hospital. He was the last surviving comfort gay from World War II
  2. I met Walter several years ago while doing research on Philippine war literature. The movie, Markova: Comfort Gay[1] had come out a few years earlier and was winning awards at film festivals around the world. (It was, however, rejected for inclusion at the Tokyo Film Festival.) Although not exactly part of war literature, my curiosity was piqued, and on my next trip to Manila, I managed to borrow a copy of the film—and then meet and interview Markova himself.
  3. When I first heard about him, I wasn't sure what a comfort gay was. Of course, I knew of the extensive comfort women system employed throughout the Japanese Empire during the war. And also, obviously, many prostitutes, including men, operated on a free-lance basis to comfort soldiers outside of the comfort stations. But Markova's story was neither. He and his friends were not installed in the government-regulated comfort houses, but were kept virtual prisoners in various barracks and raped several times a day for several months.
  4. Walterina Markova was a cross-dressing exotic dancer, who had the misfortune of seducing the wrong Japanese officer after one of his performances at a club during the war. He and four of his friends were dragged off to one of the army barracks where they were serially raped several times a day, in between doing housekeeping chores. After a month or so, they were taken to another barracks for the same treatment. They eventually escaped by jumping off a truck that was taking them out of the city at midnight, probably for execution or to a new barracks, still wearing the original dresses they wore at the time of their seizure. When the war ended, Markova continued his former life, picking up American GIs, who were much more understanding and generous. When he gave up dancing and cross-dressing, he became a makeup artist for the film industry and then for Filipina entertainers en route to Japan.
  5. In my interview with him, he mentioned how he was moved by Rosa Henson and the others, who were brave enough to come out with their stories as comfort women. Their example gave him the courage to tell his story, too. By then, all of his band of comfort gays were dead, and he was the sole survivor.
  6. His story was brought to the attention of Rudolfo Quizon, a/k/a Dolphy, one of the Philippines' most famous and endearing character actors, who decided to produce a film about his life and star in it. Two of Dolphy's sons, Eric and Jeffrey, played the younger Markova in different phases of his life. Markova: Comfort Gay has spent several years traveling around the film festival circuit, gay and straight, often winning awards for its director or stars.
  7. As a film, Markova operates on several levels. First, it portrays teenage Walter's coming out story as a bakla. Second, it dramatizes the circumstances of the Japanese rapes. Third, it portrays an openly gay man in a very human, sympathetic way, for over 50 years of his life. And fourth, it uses Markova's open sexual orientation as an example of Philippine socio-sexual identity. As Neil Garcia's explains in his review of the film, "His experience forces us to look at … how the life of the glamorously dressed bakla is emblematic of the life of a society that has been repeatedly colonized, repeatedly violated by various foreign powers."[2]
  8. It is important to separate Markova-the-movie and its award-winning reception and Markova-the-man and the fact of his being a comfort gay. Going back 63 years to wartime Manila, neither prostitution (male or female) nor cross-dressing was unusual. But when the Japanese entered Manila in 1942, it did not take them long to establish comfort stations to tend to the sexual needs of their soldiers and officers, as they had done in China in the 1930s. By 1943, there were seventeen comfort stations, staffed by more than one thousand women in Manila alone, plus other stations throughout all the other Japanese-held islands.[3]
  9. According to George Hicks, author of The Comfort Women, "Despite the availability of local prostitutes, the Japanese, always wary of the danger of espionage, especially when there was an active guerrilla resistance, appeared to have imported their comfort women."[4] But, although most of these comfort women were imported from Korea, China or Japan, there were other Filipinas who were abducted from their homes and incarcerated in official or unofficial comfort stations. In fact, some of these "women" were as young as ten years old. Among these was fourteen-year old Maria Rosa Henson, who was seized from her home and confined in a rice mill for months where she was raped ten to twenty times a day, along with several other young girls.[5]
  10. The nature and extent of the comfort system was a well-kept secret for decades after the war, despite mention in the War Crimes Trials held in Tokyo from 1946-48. But it wasn't until almost fifty years later, in 1991 that the Manila-based Asian Women Human Rights Council raised the comfort women issue. In 1992 the Japanese government published a report on the comfort station system, prompting the formation of the Task Force on Filipina Comfort Women to document participants' testimonies. In October, 1992, Maria Rosa Henson was the first of these women to courageously step forward, publicly presenting a letter to Japanese Prime Minister Miyazawa, initiating a lawsuit seeking acknowledgment, apology and redress. In all, fifty-one Filipinas, a small minority of the actual number, came out of the dark shadows of their pasts to talk about their experiences.[6]
  11. Although the Japanese government has never denied the existence of the comfort system (although some lawmakers have), and P.M. Miyazawa did apologise in 1993, the government did not offer any official compensation. The government's response to the testimonies was to set up a private voluntary fund for private individual contributions, whose proceeds would be distributed to former comfort women. While the fund has fallen short of its target goal, the comfort women have also refused to accept this non-governmental payoff.
  12. In Japan, whenever I mention Markova's story to Japanese friends, I am met with the eye-popping "Ehhhhhh…?" of disbelief. Could this have really happened? Homoeroticism in Japanese warrior culture has been well documented, from Samurai days to Yukio Mishima, but could this account for the organised, ongoing, sequential, daily homosexual rapes as Markova reported it? Now that none of these five comfort men is alive, the truth will be difficult to prove.
  13. The lack of evidence is the dilemma raised by the television reporter interviewing Markova in the film—to accept Markova's story at face value or question its verifiability. It is an awkward moment, where the Markova has just recollected and shared his most horrific memories, only to have them questioned as real. In the film, Markova gets upset and throws the reporter out.
  14. Walter mentioned being on the same television show with Rosa Henson. She, too, was skeptical. "How can you smile and laugh after all that happened to you," she challenged him. For her, the trauma of her comfort years will never heal completely, whereas for Walter they did. He managed to move past his comfort gay past and continue his life, hiding his story but not the shame of who he was.
  15. Other people have expressed skepticism. Donald Richie, author, film critic and Japan expert, wrote to suggest that he thought that Japanese gay soldiers probably comforted themselves privately and would not need Markova's services. Hence heterosexual men raping him would have been an aberration.
  16. Another academic, Richard Thieme, wrote in the National Bureau of Asian Research Japan Forum, "Given that there is no corroboration, no war crimes inquests, and his story didn't come out until something like 40 years later it seems that we may well be dealing with the Asian version of Wilkomirski [reference to the acclaimed 1995 Holocaust novel that was later exposed as a fraud]."[7]
  17. I also consulted with Yuki Tanaka, author of Japan's Comfort Women. He reported that in the course of his extensive research, he had never heard of the existence of official comfort gays or abducted male sex slaves anywhere else.
  18. So how can this anomaly be explained? If there were no other reported instances of this happening elsewhere, then why did it happen in this case? The raping went beyond punishment to revenge the loss of face of the offended officers. Also, heterosexual soldiers had easy access to the numerous comfort stations of Manila and the free-lancers who populated the streets around the barracks, so why would they line up daily for serial homosexual sex with these bakla? It continued for too long to be a one-time aberration; there were repeaters lining up every day, even as the once-attractiveness of the victims or the novelty wore off.
  19. After hearing Markova's story, I can accept it as true, but I continue to wonder about the reasons for his treatment. Thus, the mystery and veracity of Markova's story will remain, until someone braver than me traces the actual regiments involved and directly asks the questions-Really? And Why?
  20. Just before Walter died, I was planning a trip to Manila to make arrangements for bringing him to Japan to tell his story here. Unfortunately, I won't have the chance, and his story will probably be buried with him, embroidered in film and archived in this interview, but consigned as a footnote to history, at best.


    [1] Markova: Comfort Gay, directed by Gil M. Portes, RVQ Productions, Manila, 2000.

    [2] J. Neil C. Garcia, Performing the Self: Occasional Prose, University of the Philippines Press, Quezon City, 2003, p. 105.

    [3] Yuki Tanaka, Japan's Comfort Women: Sexual Slavery and Prostitution During World War II and the US Occupation Routledge, New York, 2002, p. 47.

    [4] George Hicks, The Comfort Women: Sex Slaves of the Japanese Imperial Forces, Heinemann, Singapore, 1995, pp. 201-204.

    [5] Maria Rosa Henson, Comfort Woman: A Filipina's Story of Prostitution and Slavery Under the Japanese Military, Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, MD, 1999, pp. 35-48.

    [6] Hicks, The Comfort Women, p. 85.

    [7] Richard D. Thieme, National Bureau of Asian Research, U.S.-Japan Discussion Forum, July 2, 2005.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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