Looking Back

Japan under our skin

Toshinao Urabe, ambassador of Japan, led us through a delicate dinner at his residence recently, which made me realize that the Japanese really eat with their eyes. An elaborate dinner service, fine lacquerware and creative plating of each dish delighted our senses before the food was actually tasted and consumed. This was cultural diplomacy at its best. As they say, one of the best ways into people’s hearts is through the belly.

Ambassador Urabe is no stranger to the Philippines. He has been here as a child, enrolled in Jose Abad Santos Memorial School. As a child he met Emilio Aguinaldo in Kawit; and he has a black and white photo to prove it.


While enjoying the meal, I remembered that Philippine-Japanese relations form a long and complex history that predates the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1946. It predates the horrors of the World War II, where Japanese soldiers were our enemies. When I was looking at old maps in the context of our territorial dispute with China, I came across a 17th-century map made in Nagasaki, with an illustration of a man and a woman in Western garb described as coming from “Ruson” or Luzon.

During the early years of the Spanish conquest, in 1567, just two years after Miguel Lopez de Legazpi claimed the islands for the crown of Spain, he informed Philip II about the Japanese vessels and traders they encountered in Cebu. In 1570, Legazpi sent Martin de Goiti to explore Manila and there the latter came across 20 Japanese residents. Japanese nationals were already in Manila even before the city was established as the capital of the Philippines in June 1571.


In 1582, a Spanish squadron was dispatched by Spanish Governor General Gonzalo Ronquillo de Peñalosa to drive away Japanese “pirates” led by a certain Tay Fusa or Taifuzu who had built a fort in Cagayan, Northern Luzon, and was using it as a base for raiding nearby coastal towns.

There was a Japanese settlement in Agoo, Pangasinan, where a brisk trade in deerskin was underway, with the goods shipped to Japan from this port by Chinese or Japanese traders. Deerskin export was banned in 1598 because the Spanish in Manila thought the Japanese would kill all the deer in the Philippines. Other curious items sourced from the Philippines and sold in Japan were jars that were highly-prized for storing tea. These were known as “Luzon Jars” or “Ruson no-tsubo” described by Antonio de Morga in his “Sucesos de la Islas Filipinas” (Events of the Philippine Islands), which was first published in Mexico in 1609.

Estimates vary depending on the sources, but by the end of the 16th century the highest number of Japanese living in the Philippines on record had reached over a thousand. This is quite curious because if the figure is accurate that means the Japanese far outnumbered the Spaniards in Intramuros. Many Japanese were Christian and probably settled in the Philippines to escape persecution in Japan. Their occupations varied; most were traders, some were craftsmen, others made their living as bodyguards and even mercenaries! They were armed to defend the colony from the Dutch invasion; they were armed to suppress the Chinese and Filipino revolts against Spanish rule. But sometimes, they themselves would revolt as in 1609 or assist the natives in revolt as a certain Juan Gayo, captain of a Japanese ship, was accused of in the unsuccessful Tagalog revolt in 1587. Known as the “Tondo Conspiracy,” it was referred to by the Spanish historian W.E. Retana as the “first separatist conspiracy by Filipinos against Spanish rule.”

As the Chinese and Japanese communities grew, the paranoid Spanish kept them at bay by establishing ghettos outside the walls of Manila or Intramuros. In the late 16th century, the Chinese were contained in a district known as Parian de los Sangleyes while the Japanese were quartered in Parian de los Japoneses in a suburb called Dilao. One source I read—probably inaccurate according to the Spanish historian Carlos Martinez  Shaw—says there were about 3,000 Japanese in Manila, roughly half of them Christian. But their number went into a significant decline such that by 1637 only 800 Japanese were documented to be in Manila.

Two years as visiting professor in Sophia University made me go beyond Rizal and my comfort zone and explore Philippine-Japanese relations that should be written up some day if not by me, by a younger historian who can read Nihongo. What makes this area of research fascinating is that our relations with Japan are not just historical but cultural, too. Even today, we can still see traces of our long association with Japan not just with: manga and anime, sushi, sashimi, tonkatsu and ramen. The childhood game “jak en poy,” with a nonsense rhyme in Filipino that accompanies the hand gestures of rock, scissors, and paper, traces its origin to the Japanese “janken pon.” The Filipino word for mosquito coil “katol” is actually shortened from the Japanese “katorisenko.” The Philippine word for bottle caps “tansan” originated from “Tansan” a brand of bottled carbonated water introduced in the Philippines in the early 20th century. Japan can be said to be under our skin.

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Comments are welcome at [email protected]


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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, History, Japan, Looking Back, opinion, Philippine-Japan relations, Toshinao Urabe
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