Making useless information useful
Someone once asked why I always open a book starting from the back rather than the title page. He presumed that I picked up this odd habit from many extended stays in Japan, where people start reading from what appears to us as the back or end of the book. I start from the back of a book to check out: bibliography, notes, and appendices (if any) before making time for the main body of a book. This odd habit I picked up from three decades in academic life. While most readers skip footnotes and ignore endnotes as irritating intrusions into text or narrative, I get my thrills from these.
Looking back on my early education, I think I became a historian because of Shakespeare. In high school we had to read one Shakespeare play per year and we discuss it in literature class. We used the Folger editions that had Shakespeare text on the left page and a barrage of notes to help explain the ancient text to a modern reader on the facing or right page. I read all these obscure notes and references, thus developing a lifelong love for utterly useless information. Later in life I learned to string these stray bits and pieces together to move a narrative forward and engage readers.
The world is not what it used to be because we have lost our appreciation for useless information. Discrete facts are useless in themselves but when one masters the art of finding connections between these and a task or problem one is working on, the useless becomes relevant and thus useful.
I recently reopened the standard work by Josefa M. Saniel, “Japan and the Philippines 1868-1898” (first published in 1962), in the light of the Japanese prime minister’s recent visit to Manila and a realization that our relations with that country go way beyond the official opening of diplomatic ties after World War II. Saniel details the relationship in the closing years of the 19th century when the Philippines was still a Spanish colony, but her introduction made reference to an even earlier time—the 16th and 17th centuries—when Manila was the main trading port for goods and people. Manila was the jump-off point for Spanish missionaries who sought to spread Catholicism in Japan and got martyred in the process. One of their companions, Lorenzo Ruiz of Binondo, was martyred in Nagasaki in 1637 and was later canonized as the first Filipino saint. What caught my attention when I reopened Saniel’s work was not the main text that I had read before; rather, I was drawn to the appendices.
In the light of ongoing reform at the Bureau of Customs, I read through a comparative table of import tariffs for 1874 and 1890 focusing on the goods Japan exported to the Philippines. Compared to the cars, electronics, and second-hand items that are brought in today, the following were exported from Japan: fans (of high and low quality); cotton fillet, wick and bandages; cotton corduroy (net, woven, knitted); silk (woven, knitted, velvet or mixed); earthenware and chinaware (elaborate and common, ordinary kinds); raw and manufactured wax; grocery goods (sausages, cookies, candies, preserved fruits, canned milk, powdered mustard [wasabi?], rubber, rubber tubes, pickled goods, etc); salted and smoked goods (fish and shellfish); and noodles (soba and udon).
There were also: matches, vegetables, clothing ornaments made of cotton or silk; sacks made of straw; all kinds of tea; silver goods with pearls or other precious stones, fans with silver framework, and silver coin purses; glass and glasswork including mirrors, bottles, cups, tubes, and bowls; furniture; etc.
There were so many items of paper or made from paper listed: paper for copying or printing; manufactured goods from paper (notebooks, rolling paper for tobacco, paper for name cards, envelopes, writing or painting); paper for walls, colored paper, paper for bas relief rubbings; wrapping paper including Japanese paper and filter paper; and umbrellas of silk, paper, or other materials. These made me remember the thin, colored paper used in Christmas lanterns or faroles that we know today as “papel de hapon” or Japanese paper.
The trade and cultural exchange between the Philippines and Japan runs deep. In prewar Manila, Tansan was a popular brand of fizzy water (“tansan” in Japanese refers to carbonated mineral water). It was sold with the distinct metal bottle caps that have since been called tansan by Filipinos. Our halo-halo traces its roots to Japan’s shaved ice—kakigori—and the twist here is that some Japanese convenience stores or combini sell Pinoy-inspired haro-haro during the summer. Pinoy tourists often miss this treat because the promotional posters are in Katakana, and they mistake the Japanese characters for Western letters and misread it as “IloIlo.”
What is the difference between Japanese kakigori and Pinoy halo-halo? The Japanese put the condiments on top of the ice, the Pinoys put these under the ice with the exception of the leche flan and milk.
The list of Japanese goods exported to the Philippines makes for interesting reading if you are appreciative of useless information. What would be more interesting, though, is for a historian to dig up trade records in Japanese archives and tell us what goods the Philippines exported to Japan.
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