Looking Back

1672 Manila, according to Kyuzayemon Kawabuchi

/ 05:10 AM December 07, 2018

“Ruson” is the name early Japanese sources used for Spanish Philippines, literally referring to the island of Luzon. When some Japanese speak, they sometimes pronounce “L” as “R,” which reminds me of a light moment during the dark days of martial law when a Japanese allegedly remarked on how Ferdinand Marcos so loved his people. “Marcos, he robs you very much,” he said.

One of the earliest Japanese maps of the world, the Bankoku Jinbutsu Zu, made in Nagasaki in 1645, is fascinating not for its obsolete geography, but for the table showing couples from around the world in their native costumes. Those from “Amerika” are depicted half-naked with oversize leaves or feathers in their hair, while those from the Philippines, labeled “Ruson,” are in Western garb: the man with hat and short trousers exposing the legs, the woman in a gown with a veil or cape that covers her head and back all the way to her feet. Both of them carry Japanese features.


The couple from “Ruson” depicted on the 1645 Nagasaki map complements the notes and observations of Kyuzayemon Kawabuchi, who was in Manila in 1672 and noted that Manila men dressed like Dutchmen in Japan, though the Manila trousers “look a little more dignified.” It is curious that he described Manila men wearing swords on their waist, hanging from their right and left sides. Kawabuchi, for some reason, described the women of Manila in more detail:

“Women’s jackets are just the same as those of men; but women wear skirts instead of trousers. Plaited at the waist, the skirt expands downward. It looks very fine. Women wear beautiful scarfs, which are made of embroidered pieces of calico. This also looks particularly beautiful. Women in Manila do their hair just as Japanese women do, but their coiffure is a little higher. They also wear artificial flowers in their hair. Golden hair is prized most. Every woman wishes for it. Women look fair, but their eyes are blue like those of Dutch women.”


From the above description, of blonde hair and blue eyes, he is not describing native women. As a Japanese trader or tourist in Manila, he made the rounds of the different structures inside Intramuros and encountered mostly Europeans and Hispanized Pinoys, leading him to conclude that “the people of Manila never squat on the floor, but sit on chairs as the Dutch do. Rich people use chairs, with cushions, well-stuffed with cotton like pillows. At dinner they take food placed on a long table covered with a piece of calico cloth.”

Other travel accounts of the islands, including some 19th-century watercolors, show Pinoys squatting on the ground at cockfights, or eating at low tables or “dulang” without chairs. That his observations were limited to the people inside Intramuros and not the ordinary people in the city or the countryside is clear from what he said they ate: “beef, chicken, pork, venison, fish and game just as Dutchmen.” The staple food of the Manila people is bread, but “poor people do not take bread but instead eat rice. Only rich people eat bread.”

He documented a locust invasion in May 1672, where these critters rained on Manila “like snowfall.” Afterwards, people gathered the locusts and roasted them for eating. He also remarked that bananas were plentiful and available all year round, classified into three kinds and taken as dessert. Odd that he said melon and watermelon were available throughout the year.

Kawabuchi didn’t see children’s toys, because he wasn’t looking hard enough. He described children in their early teens being taught how to write without paper; instead they used their fingers to draw and write on sand placed in containers. I presume this is the ancestor of today’s tablet, or the magic slate of my childhood. Sand is placed in a shallow box, then you shake the sand to level it and make it a blank space on which you can write with your fingers. To erase, you smoothen out the sand with your palm or shake the container.

Using primary sources in the classroom to supplement the textbook engages students to see the world through another person’s eyes. Without pictures, the reader is dealt the proverbial thousand words, the biased or self-referential impressions of a foreigner centuries before our time. History teaches us to validate texts, put them in context and analyze for content and intention—the tools we need to handle fake news in our world today.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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