Looking Back

Forgotten footnote in PH-Japan ties

Last weekend, Sophia University professor Fumi Terada drove us for two hours from Tokyo to the seaside town of Onjuku to enjoy a seafood lunch and search for a forgotten footnote in Philippine-Japan relations. Two pear-shaped academics were obviously out of place on the beach littered with surfers in black wetsuits that emphasized their toned beach bodies, so we skipped that part of town and drove up the mountain overlooking the sea to visit the designated Important Prefectural Monument (ken shitei shiseki), a stark granite obelisk that marks the beginning of Japan’s friendly relations with Mexico and Spain.

On Sept. 30, 1609, the galleon San Francisco, one of three that set sail in Manila for Acapulco, was shipwrecked off Onjuku. Villagers fished out over 300 passengers and crew that included Rodrigo de Vivero y Aberrucia (1564-1636), a Mexican nobleman who served an interim term as 13th governor general of the Philippines from June 1608 to April 1609, when he left Manila as the newly knighted Conde del Valle de Orizaba to assume a new post as governor general of Panama. Don Rodrigo was no stranger to Japan having dealt with unrest in Dilao, the Japanese ghetto outside the walls of Intramuros, through close surveillance, tighter control of trade, and the deportation of unruly Japanese.


According to Onjuku oral tradition, the cold and hungry survivors from the beached galleon were brought to dry land where pearl-diving women resuscitated them and “warmed them with their bare flesh.” This intriguing part of the rescue story was commemorated in 2009 by the installation of “El Abrazo” by Mexican sculptor Rafael Guerrero depicting two naked figures in a tight embrace. One wonders if Filipino seamen sired children there during their stay to mark the beginning of Philippine-Japan relations.

Don Rodrigo spent nine months traveling around Japan as an honored guest and was later received by Tokugawa Ieyasu with whom he discussed the expansion of trade between Japan and Mexico, the mapping of Japanese coasts for use by the Manila Galleons, the expulsion of Dutch traders, and of course the permission to spread Christianity in Japan following the martyrdom of 26 Christians in 1597 led by Franciscan missionaries (four Spanish, one Mexican and an Indian were among those crucified and speared to death in Nagasaki). It is not well known even in the Philippines that the most prominent member in this group of 26 canonized saints memorialized in the Church calendar under “Saint Paul Miki and Companions” was San Pedro Bautista, a Franciscan missionary who served in the Philippines. He established a retreat house outside Intramuros in what is now San Francisco del Monte Church in Quezon City. He also recommended therapeutic use of the hot springs of “Mainit” in Laguna, extolling them as aguas santas (holy waters) and establishing the thermal baths that gave the place its name—Los Baños.


In August 1610, the galleon San Buena Ventura built in Japan under the direction of William Adams, an Englishman who had the ear of Tokugawa Ieyasu, was ready to sail to Mexico with Don Rodrigo, the survivors of the 1609 Onjuku wreck, and 23 Japanese led by the Kyoto trader Tanaka Shosuke, who were the first Japanese on record to cross the Pacific. Luis de Velasco, viceroy of New Spain, received the Japanese with much fanfare and in 1611 sent Sebastián Vizcaíno to Japan to convey his personal thanks for the assistance and hospitality extended to Don Rodrigo and the survivors of the Onjuku shipwreck. At this time, direct trade between Japan and Mexico was proposed but opposed by officials who figured this meant bypassing the Philippines. Many people had a lot to lose if the lucrative galleon trade skipped Manila as a trading and transshipment port.

Looking at the flags of Japan, Mexico and Spain prominently displayed on signage in Onjuku made me wonder, why isn’t the Philippines represented here? Mexico and the Philippines were both part of the Spanish Empire in 1609 so should Onjuku rightfully mark the establishment of Japan-Spain relations? Cultural diplomacy has blurred history somewhat when Mexico initiated the memorial in 1928 as it was a free and independent nation while the Philippines, though independent from Spain, was still a US colony. Our sad Republic is absent from Onjuku today, not even as an obscure footnote in the story.

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, Japan-Philippines relations, Looking Back
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