Looking Back

Rizal in Japan

Budget fares and the relaxing of Visa restrictions have made Japan a destination of choice for Filipino travellers. And with flying time from Manila to Tokyo or Osaka just about three hours long and the exchange rate between the Philippine peso and the Japanese yen favorable, some seasoned Filipino travellers have ditched Hong Kong for Japan because out there, food is cheaper, the cities are cleaner and safer, and the people are friendlier.

All these 21st-century impressions Jose Rizal went through in 1888 when, on his way to Europe from the Philippines, he transited Japan but ended up staying there for six weeks—from Feb. 28 to April 13.


Unfortunately the only thing Filipino students remember about Rizal’s Japanese trip was his relationship with a Japanese lady named Usui Seiko or O-sei San, who is buried in Zoshigaya cemetery in a Tokyo suburb close to Rikkyo University where I am staying at the moment. Rizal’s impressions of Japan and the Japanese are found in letters to his family and to his friend Ferdinand Blumentritt.

In one letter to his family he said: “The Japanese are considered as a godless people. I do not know if this is justified. It would be interesting to study this point. There are very few thieves among the Japanese; it is said that the houses are permanently unlocked, the walls are made of paper, and in the hotels one can, in tranquility, leave his money on the table. The Japanese are very jolly; no fights are seen on the streets and they are very courteous. Their houses are clean. Beggars are very rarely seen. They are very industrious. What a difference between them and the religious and superstitious Chinese! If I could stay here a couple of years, I would study all these and I could do it with more facility than a European because I look like a Japanese, and here like in the Philippines they do not have much trust in the European. I regret very much that I do not speak Japanese.”


In a letter to Blumentritt he remarked sadly: “Here you have your friend Rizal, wonder of the Japanese, since he has a Japanese appearance, and yet does not understand Japanese.”

In Europe he was often mistaken for a Chinese; and in Madrid, Rizal and his Filipino friends would refer to themselves in jest as “inchic.” Rizal once remarked that he would be mistaken for a Chinese or Japanese in Europe but never as a Filipino, making him opine that his country should be better known.

Rizal was a bit of an oddity in Japan. He had Asian features but wore Western clothes and spoke a Western language: “When I go out in the streets shopping and want to buy something, people stare at me and ill-bred boys laugh at me because I speak so strange a language. There are very few people in Tokyo who speak English, but in Yokohama many speak it. Some think I am a Europeanized Japanese who does not want to be taken as such. That often happens with the half-bred Japanese in the Philippines.”

Not one to run away from a challenge, Rizal learned Japanese on his own and in six weeks had enough of a vocabulary to express what he wanted. Preserved in the Lopez Museum and Library is a small notebook of stitched light paper, which measures 11.4 cm x 6.3 cm and contains 60 pages, its cover marked, “Japon 1888.” The notebook is marred with foxing and, on a few pages, the corrosive ink has burned holes into the paper. I’m sure the competent staff in the Lopez conservation laboratory can retard its deterioration and wash it such that it will look almost new.

Rizal used pencil, pen, ink and brush ink on various pages that contain an assortment of data: drawings, in sketches in Japanese style, addresses in Kobe, train routes and schedules (Nikko-Lago de Chuzen Fuji y distrito Hakone; Nagoya-Kioo-Nara Lac Biwa Roka Kugen +Mih[?] Garden Jardin de la Fabrica de armas,), then illegible text in French]; shopping lists; lists of book titles; and many others that require more research.

It’s a pity that Rizal did not stay in Japan longer and write more about the country. But in a letter to his family he left some prophetic words:” I have stayed here longer than I intended, for the country seems to me very interesting and because in the future we shall have much to do and deal with Japan.”

Comments are welcome at [email protected]


Subscribe to Inquirer Opinion Newsletter
Read Next
Don't miss out on the latest news and information.
View comments

Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.

TAGS: History, Japan, Jose Rizal, opinion, Rizal, Tokyo
For feedback, complaints, or inquiries, contact us.

© Copyright 1997-2020 INQUIRER.net | All Rights Reserved

We use cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. By continuing, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. To find out more, please click this link.