Japanese of the old Davao: The other side of the war

THERE is no doubt that many of us who were born after the Second World War only have a vague recollection of what happened to our country and people during that most bloody and destructive armed conflict. 

PERHAPS the only remaining hallowed ground of the Japanese era in Davao – the Eternal Peace monument in Catalunan Grande.

PERHAPS the only remaining hallowed ground of the Japanese era in Davao – the Eternal Peace monument in Catalunan Grande.

     If at all we have gotten some ideas of what transpired during the years when we were under the yoke of the Japanese invaders, we either could have sourced it from the war movies or from narrations made by our parents and other older relatives who were in their youth during those times.

     Such consciousness of the atrocities that were committed by the Japanese occupation forces in the Philippines, and the portrayal by the winning belligerent of the invaders as the devil that has caused the suffering of the country and people, it is just but natural for the post war generation of Filipinos to only have nothing but contempt against the Japanese.

     We, for one, nurtured such disdain. For who would not when we have an uncle who at 14 years of age, was taken away by Japanese soldiers from our father’s family and forced to carry one of several huge steel boxes together with some others and was never heard of again?

     We tried to exorcise our self with that anger which kept bothering us every time we are reminded of the loss of the youngest in our father’s brood. And somehow this desire to get exorcised eventually led us to be lured to come to Davao City, which during the 70s was still bandied in the Visayas as the “Land of Promise” and that only those who ventured to come will have the opportunity to have that promise fulfilled.

     Fresh from college, we came to Davao in the later part of the 70s with all the thoughts that promises and fulfillment were awaiting us, including our expectation that we would not anymore be reminded of the misfortune suffered by one of our close relatives.

     And yes, we found fulfillment in terms of rewarding jobs that we have, later a loving family, and a community that welcomed us as one of their own. But then again, we cannot help but be haunted by the stories of abuses of the Japanese invaders. Elderly members of our Davao community often talked of their own painful experiences during the war –their having abandoned their properties in Davao City’s urban center to escape the Japanese soldiers’ atrocities.

     They told us of their own relatives’ sudden disappearances who were later discovered dead with torture marks or direct shooting hits; of their continuous movement in the city’s forested uplands getting hardly any sleep or meals to hide from the marauding Japanese soldiers.

     However, as we found the opportunity to know more about Davao by reading its history; its march to progress up to the start of the war in the city, and during the early years of its rehabilitation, the gnawing hatred within us against the Japanese was slowly but surely ebbing out in the process.


     One such reading material that has somehow hastened the change in our perspective of the Japanese as the ultimate “bad guys” is that of Architect Michaelangelo Ebro Dakudao. It is his personal narration of the Wartime Diary of his grandfather , the late Dr. Santiago Pamplona Dakudao Sr., a letter of Kenichi Migitaka, and of the sharing of happy memories of the stay in Davao by one Kenji Migitaka which was translated to the English language and sent to the architect’s grandfather long after the war ended.

    As we leafed through the pages of the manuscript reading its contents with utmost interest, we realized that after all, as a people who settled in Davao, the Japanese have actually laid a much bigger component of the foundation of the Davao that it is today — a highly developed, eclectic and electric modern metropolis.

     And like the history books on Davao that we have read, Architect Dakudao’s manuscript also tells us of the same role the waves of Japanese migrants played in transforming the early 1900 Davao from a treacherous jungle frontier to a bustling “Land of Promise.” But the unpublished treatise says they did it not in a “walk in the park” way. Instead they first came to Davao to work for the American-owned plantations and later for Davaoeno-run haciendas which during those times were slowly carved out from the vastness of forest covers, one of which was that of the manuscript owner’s grandfather’s. They were Japan’s OJWs.

      We learned from Architect Dakudao’s narration that the Japanese settlers’ persevering industry, foresight and entrepreneurial leadership, and the support of their government back home eventually allowed them to evolve from being migrant workers to investors and plantation owners and operators of other businesses like department stores, ice plants, soy sauce factories, and even bars and night clubs. So, in only about four decades of settling in Davao starting in 1903 up to 1940 the area’s development was quite remarkable, largely due to the Japanese.

     It was during their establishment of large abaca and other agricultural plantations, and their stewardship of businesses here that Davao was brought to the center of the world’s economic stage.

     Shortly before the war broke out in 1941, according to the Dakudao manuscript, the Japanese migrants were already very much part of Davao society. Their number quadrupled that of the Chinese.  A census in 1939, according to a book on Davao’s history written by the late Ernesto Corcino, showed that there were about 18,000 Japanese migrants in Davao against only 3,595 of the Chinese.

     Ironically, when the war broke out the Davao City that the Japanese migrants have painstakingly helped build became the first casualty. Japanese properties, including plantations, were immediately seized by the Philippine military. Japanese nationals living in Davao, being citizens of the enemy country, were rounded up and placed in concentration camps.

     However, our father-in-law used to tell us there were also a few executives of Japanese companies in Davao who evaded the Philippine military’s initial arrests who immediately donned their soldier’s uniform when the conquerors landed in Davao in 1941.

     Gleaned from the same Dakudao manuscript we were able to figure out the massive devastation of Davao. The city where they settled and built development enclaves became a maze of destruction and abandonment.

     When the war ended, Japanese survivors in Davao were repatriated to their homeland. But there were a few who opted to remain especially those who already have their families in the city upon marriage with local women.

     Today more than seven decades after the war,  Japan made amends to the Philippines for the destruction it has heaped on the country by providing massive reparations, the relations between the two countries have never been much better.

     In Davao, abaca as well as ramie plantations can nowhere be found except for some few markers reminiscent of that glorious era. And the Japanese no longer owns any of the massive Cavendish banana plantations in the Davao Region. But there is no arguing that they are the biggest consumers of this agricultural produce that brings in millions of dollars not just in Davao but in the coffers of the entire country as well.

     The enmity, the hurt and the feeling of contempt against the Japanese that once dominated the Filipino’s psyche, including that of ours, are without doubt now totally drained down the dustbin of forgotten memories.

     In its place a lasting friendship is in bloom. And there is no other better proof of this new relationship level than the visit recently of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the Philippines that was capped with his meeting with President Rodrigo Duterte in Davao City with visits to sites considered hallowed grounds by the Japanese in memory of their compatriots who once made Davao their “furusato” or second homeland.

     And what a covenant of friendship it was with the two leaders eating durian together!

 (The Mindanao Times would gladly accept contributions on stories about Davao’s past. This is in collaboration with the Davao Historical Society – Ed)

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