Looking Back

Japan in 17th-century Philippine history

Veteran journalists once advised younger ones like me to take a break from column deadlines when travelling abroad. Those were the days when journalists used a manual typewriter, an age before the computer and the Internet.

Columnists today continue to write no matter where they are because they can always transmit their copy to Manila via e-mail. With texting and Viber, editorial assistants can push columnists into meeting their deadlines. Many readers assume I am in Manila all the time and have not noticed that for close to two years, this column was written from Tokyo, with Philippine material taken from the Sophia University Library. Those who know I have been away presume that I now speak Nihongo like a native and are surprised that while I can read Katakana and Hiragana, I do not understand the words I am reading aloud. What little of Kanji or the Chinese characters I recognize are limited to toilet signs.


Learning Nihongo was difficult because I lectured in English and my office was close to the Hispanic department, so at lunch the Spanish professors invited me to their regular table where I improved my Spanish but not my Nihongo. Tokyo also made me explore beyond 19th-century Philippines, my area of expertise, into an earlier period where Japan’s relations with Mexico and Spain always had Manila or the Philippines as a footnote.

For example, Rodrigo de Vivero, governor-general of the Spanish Philippines, was shipwrecked in Japan on his return voyage from Manila to Acapulco, and his rescue by fishermen in Onjuku in 1609 is now considered as marking the beginning of Japan-Mexico relations. The Hasekura mission that left Sendai in 1613 and travelled to Mexico, Madrid, and Rome had a final layover in Manila before it returned to Japan in 1620. It may have been a failed mission, but that voyage now marks the beginning of Japan-Spain relations. In 2015, if things go as planned, the Philippines and Japan will celebrate the 400th anniversary of the exile of the Christian Daimyo Justus Takayama Ukon to Manila during the persecution of Christians in Japan. These events may be known to Filipino historians but are not taught or even referenced in textbook history that has many gaps, especially in the 17th-18th centuries, despite voluminous archival sources waiting to be mined.


Intercultural dialogue between Japan and the Philippines can also be seen in artifacts rather than dusty books and archival documents. At the annual reception hosted by the Sophia University Jesuits for faculty, students and friends last December, I wandered from the buffet table to explore the rooms in the oldest building on campus known as the Kulturheim. In one of the ground-floor rooms is a small chapel with a reliquary that contains what appears to be a bone fragment from St. Francis Xavier’s corpse.

However, it was not that morbid relic that caught my attention because what dominated the room was a large ivory crucifix of a type now known as Hispano-Philippine ivory. Raw elephant tusks were sent to Manila from China to be worked on and carved into religious images by Chinese artisans or native Filipino artisans trained by the Chinese. The images were then shipped off under the Manila-Acapulco galleon trade, ending up in cathedrals and churches in Mexico and Spain. How this particular ivory crucifix ended up in Tokyo promises to be an engaging story that I will leave for a future column.

When you survey the existing literature on the relations between the Philippines and Japan, you will find that much of it deals with the Japanese occupation and events after World War II. My wanderings in an earlier historical period in search of De Vivero, Hasekura, and Takayama Ukon brought me to the Manila-Acapulco galleon trade and the beginnings of what we now know and call globalization.

One cannot imagine, when looking at the ports of Manila and Acapulco today, that these were once important trading hubs. Acapulco has become a resort city, while Manila is best remembered in the past tense. Through these two ports moved spices from Asia, and silk and other luxury goods from China. Silver from Spanish America were shipped through Manila and onward to China, which had an insatiable thirst for the precious metal. The port of Manila used to receive Spanish soldiers, missionaries, government officials and clerks, traders and other types of people from Mexico to work in the far-flung colony.

History remains boring if it cannot be related to our times and our lives. Remember that Spanish missionaries arrived in a steady stream to our shores beginning in the 16th century, to spread the Gospel, convert the “indios,” and build the structures from which grew towns, cities and provinces in Luzon, the Visayas and parts of Mindanao under Spanish control.

Today we export sailors, nurses, and other skilled labor to all parts of the globe, but it is significant that in the 21st century, Filipino priests, religious, nuns, and laypeople are paying it forward by reevangelizing Europe and other parts of the world where church pews are sparsely filled or even empty on Sundays. Manila was the point of origin for Rodrigo de Vivero in 1609. It was also the last stop for Takayama Ukon in 1615 and Hasekura before he returned to Japan in 1620. Why aren’t these names, their stories, in our textbook history?

* * *


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: Ambeth R. Ocampo, History, Japan, journalists, Looking Back, opinion, Philippine history, Veteran journalists
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.