Davaoeños and Japanese: The ties that bind

“KEEP your friends close, but keep your enemies even closer.”

PHOTOS of contemporary Japanese Dabawenyo families in pre-war Davao. (Courtesy of Nikkei Jin Kai Museum)

PHOTOS of contemporary Japanese Dabawenyo families in pre-war Davao. (Courtesy of Nikkei Jin Kai Museum)

This statement has been often quoted in movies, in written articles, in establishing premises of presentations, and even in lectures and related forums.

     At first glance obedience to such a philosophic admonition seemingly does not make any sense at all. How can one make his enemies closer without putting himself in harm’s way? But a deeper introspection of the saying makes one understand that it is perhaps the noblest way of healing some deep-seated animosities between persons and between and among nations.

     In this aspect the perfect cases for study is the Philippine-Japan government relations, and the Filipinos-Japanese reciprocal socio-cultural connections.

     It is in the second case that the interests of Davaoeños and the local government of Davao City may be focused. And the reason is simple. At the turn of the 1900s Davao was host to a number of Japanese. At the time of the outbreak of the Second World War there were already an estimated 19 thousand Japanese residing in Davao City and a robust community of Japanese was blending well with the local residents.

     The first batch of Japanese came as “OJWs” (that country’s version of the Philippines’ OFWs now), who worked with large American-, Spanish- and Filipino-owned coconut and abaca plantations. However, in later years, some of the more enterprising among them, bought out the American, Spanish, and even Lebanese owners.

Shattered friendship

     According to two books on the history of Davao written by the late Ernesto I. Corcino, and retired Education supervisor Gloria P. Dabbay, respectively, the Japanese somehow had the “Midas Touch.” They succeeded in all the ventures they went into.

     The Japanese went on to organize business and socio-civic organizations and later on put up schools for their sons and daughters. Some Japanese who were born in Davao, and the Nikkei Jins, or those who were born of Japanese and Filipina parents, even studied in local public schools like the Davao Central Elementary School (now Kapitan Tomas Monteverde Elementary School) and the Davao City High School. A different level of friendship between the Japanese and the Davaoeños bloomed. This friendship and the sharing of social and cultural values were largely regarded as vital influences in laying the foundation of the city’s development up until these days.

     But the Second World War shattered that friendship nurtured for four decades. The Japanese in Davao who were friends to almost everyone in the place, suddenly became the dreaded enemies. Yes, there were some who, because of long association with the locals, did not cut their personal ties with their Filipino friends or associates. And some Davaoeños did the same. An account in the diary of the late Dr. Santiago P. Dacudao Sr. revealed that there were Japanese and Davaoeños who remained “connected” although clandestinely, for obvious reason.

     That war indeed, was the great “divider” of people. It purveyed the Davaoeños’ and the Japanese’s hatred with each other.

     After the war, all surviving Japanese were repatriated to their homeland, except those who opted to remain in the country by becoming stragglers. Some left hesitantly because Davao had become their second homeland and others have families that would be left behind. They married local women mostly of the Bagobo tribe.

     But whatever, as a consequence of the war the Japanese became the enemy of the Davaoenos, their erstwhile friends. Rapprochement talks were long and difficult, and terms of reparations to the damage the war caused had to be worked out on a win-win proposition by both the Philippines and Japanese governments.

 Time heals but slowly

     Meanwhile, time heals slowly but surely. Specifically for the Davaoeños, they took off bringing the city to its new development level from the foundation jointly laid by the pre-war Japanese migrants and the then local political and business leaders. And perhaps the biggest concession they got from the “enemy” country was the recognition by its government of the Japanese-descended Filipinos many of whom are from the city.

     During the Presidency of the late Ferdinand Marcos, the Japanese who were repatriated after the war were allowed to revisit the Philippines. Former Japanese residents of Davao City, mostly from Okinawa, flew in for their sentimental journey in the place where they spent their childhood days; where their parents worked and became active members of the local society; where some of their kin died and were buried.

     That first visit made the Japanese realize that the war their country brought on the Philippines had effectively caused the near total loss of the culture they have shared with the Davaoeños. They also noticed the seeming mistrust and hesitant welcome showed by their former friends of forty long years. Somehow, they entertained the feeling that the local people whose forebears opened up Davao for them still think they were back not as sentimental visitors but still as “conquerors.” But they want to make up for all the hurt and destruction their country’s war had brought on Davao. As the Japanese former migrants and their immediate relatives continued their sentimental pilgrimage over the years after their first re-visit they longed to re-establish their friendship with the Davaoeños to its pre-war level — or even better.

     They also wanted to preserve the cultural heritage they have established in over four decades of their stay in the city. They carried this out with the establishment of the Philippine-Japan Historical Museum in Calinan Central area in 1994. The museum is now the show window of the cultural and historical heritage of the Japanese and the Filipinos who lived in the city before, during, and immediately after the war prior to their repatriation.

A journey back in time to move forward

     The Tokyo Musashino Lions Club through the initiative of one of its members Mr. Tatsuo Uchida, donated the building. Another major donor was Rev. Masataka Ajiro, one of the advocates of the Philippine Nikkei Jin Kai, Inc. Other officers of the donor Lions Club were Kobayashi Norikazu, Hyuuga Hiromi, Toyoguchi Hitoshi and Toyoguchi Takashi.

     Inside the museum are various memoirs of war-displaced Japanese descendants, still documentations of the life and society in Japanese- Davaoeño communities, Japanese businesses — all remnants of the “harmony and friendship that was nurtured in sweat and blood of the early immigrants.”

     Over and above the cultural heritage preservation efforts, Japan has opened its doors to recognized Japanese-descended Filipinos all over the country for them to go to Japan where they are given preferential opportunities for employment.

     For the Davaoeños meanwhile, they realized that holding on to the animosities of the past brought about by the war was a manifestation of one’s inability to move on. And they know it was regressive to development.

     Thus, instead of getting back at the “conquerors” by denying them of some major dietary luxuries, they pursued the production of agricultural crops and other products that the Japanese painstakingly developed during their pre-war stay in the city. A few years after the end of the war they pampered the Japanese with their favorite fruits — bananas and pineapple — as well as round logs and finished lumber products. Japan has become Davao’s biggest overseas export market. And the Davaoeños are among the Filipinos who are part of the growing consumers of Japanese products ranging from electronic gadgets to automobiles.

     And believe on this: one of only a handful of Catholic missionary priests in Japan is from Davao — Fr. Senador Lomandas, MSP, a native of Wao, Lanao del Sur who studied his priesthood at St. Francis Seminary. He is assigned in Okinawa, the origin of most pre-war Japanese migrants in the city.

     Today, more than ever, the Davaoeños’ friendship with the Japanese has never been much stronger. It is sealed with the reminiscences of the glorious 4 decades of Japanese- Davaoeño collaborative interactions, and bonded by a well-balanced trade relation between the Davao and Japanese businessmen.

     Yes, the Japanese were once the Davaoeños’ closest of friends and co-workers in city’s development until the war made them perhaps the unwilling enemies to each other. And this time, as friends again with so many things – past and present – they can share and value together. As friends the Japanese must be kept close, and as enemies once, it is best if they are kept even closer.

     And there is no doubt the Japanese exactly think of this same philosophical advice as their pre-war friends, their enemies once, and friends again — the  Davaoeños.

     Yes indeed, for both Davaoeños and Japanese there are special ties that bind.

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