Looking Back

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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  • kayanatwo


    nobody asked me, but….while we at the subject of old publication and printed matter, maestro what can say or knew about our local press circa 1906, “soberania nacional”and kapangyarihan ng bayan, independent phil. newspaper???

    i chanced up to read a letter of “pedro guevarra”, manager / editor of “soberania nacional” to the secretary of the interior, manila, phil. island, mr. dean worcester. the letter exchanges was about the appalling conditions of dead cholera victims from “asiatic cholera epidemic of 1902-1904 inside the san lazaro hospital.

    the news article that sparks charges and counter charges of libel between the “soberania nacional” editor and mr. worcester was “…Escenas Dolorosas”…..

  • Edgar Lores

    What perhaps surprises one is that the Filipinos never seemed to develop high skills for the making of certain basic products like earthenware, chinaware and paper. And having to import salted and smoked sea food seems like carrying coals to Newcastle. We have adopted a culture of copying but not a culture of manufacturing. Does this useless info show how useless Filipinos are in certain ways?

  • ConnieLee90

    Interesting column!

    For those who like to further their readings on a particular subject bibliographies, generally are a useful guide. Bibliographies also give one an indication of the quality of source materials used and make one determine, more or less the level of scholarly effort put in in producing the outcome.

    Trade between the Philippines & Japan could be traced all the way back before the arrival of the Spaniards. When the Spaniards came they found Japanese settlements in parts of Manila, in Lingayen, & elsewhere. The Japanese traded or bartered their goods for Philippine pottery, gold, and pearls. What was most interesting was the good demand for Philippine jars, particularly, the prized jars made in Luzon. Apart from its perceived “spiritual & medicinal properties”, the vessel was said to enhance the flavor of tea in accordance with Japanese taste. Even Lord Hideyoshi had had in his possession a Luzon jar.

  • Maglalawis

    i read this article starting from the bottom and it made sense. thank you sensei ambeth!

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