Looking Back

The Philippines through Japanese eyes

My interest in the relations between the Philippines and Japan began when I did some research on Jose Rizal’s girlfriend O-sei san (or Usui Seiko). This then branched out into research on Mariano Ponce, who lived in Yokohama and came to know Dr. Sun Yat-sen, and on another longtime resident of Japan, Artemio Ricarte. (Ricarte was a relic from the Philippine Revolution and the Philippine-American War whose reputation was tarnished when he was brought back to the country during the Japanese occupation. Both Ricarte and Emilio Aguinaldo had the misfortune of longevity. If they had died in battle early on, their names would be remembered with affection by schoolchildren learning textbook history.) Juan Luna also visited Japan although it is not well-known. Some of the small paintings he did during his stay are now in the National Museum of the Philippines.

For the past few years I have ventured beyond the 19th century to an earlier period, responding to invitations to speak at the Instituto Cervantes Tokyo, first on Rodrigo de Vivero, a Spanish governor-general who was shipwrecked in Onjuku in 1609 while he was on his way from Manila to Mexico. Japanese fishermen rescued the passengers and crew of the galleon, and this has been marked as the beginning of Japan-Mexico and Japan-Spain relations. In those commemorations, the Philippines was a footnote.


Then there was the commemoration of the Hasekura Mission in 1613-1620, which attempted to negotiate direct relations between Japan and Spain that would bypass the Philippines and Mexico. On his return to Japan from Europe and Mexico, the Japanese “envoy” made a yearlong stopover in Manila. Again the Philippine connection was there as a footnote.

Since almost all the material on the Philippines and Japan is focused on World War II and postwar development, I have been reading up on the Japanese in the Philippines from the 16th to the 18th centuries. Although I cannot read Japanese, there are many neglected Spanish sources on the topic. While reading Sei-ichi Iwao’s pioneering work “Early Japanese settlers in the Philippines,” translated from the original and published in 1942, I was drawn to the appendix. It was a translation of “Luzon oboye gaki” (Notes on Luzon) by a certain Kawabuchi, dated Aug. 18, 1672. This was to be the first of a series of materials published by the Foreign Affairs Association of Japan, but the war got in the way.


Kawabuchi was probably a trader who visited the Philippines or took notes from those who had been to Manila before Tokugawa Japan closed itself to foreign intercourse. Most of the notes give geographical landmarks, distances, navigation, weather and wind directions, all providing an idea of perilous sea travel in the 17th century. Some notes are incredible, like that on an edible snake:

“I had once seen a big serpent. It was some 12 shaku (3.6 meters) long. It had a head like that of a horse. It had no ears, nor a tongue. Its meat was eaten by people, but found tasteless. People fired at the serpent, which, however, did not die instantly. It died the following morning.”

There are descriptions of fortifications in Cavite and Manila that he calls “castle-towns” inhabited by people of the “samurai class.” His references to European and Chinese vessels suggest that active trade was conducted at the time. Although it was prohibited to take measurements and soundings of the walls, fortifications and guns in Manila and Cavite, he is able to note these down, which was dangerous for the security of Spanish Philippines. Churches are described as “temples,” so we see the Philippines and Filipinos through Japanese eyes.

Textbook history makes mention of the Chinese quartered in the Parian. No mention is made of a Japanese quarter in Dilao at the time, as well as the commercial district of Paco where Chinese and Japanese shops were located. Of interest to me are the notes on food and everyday life:

“The people of Maneila (Spaniards) 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. Their staple food is bread. They also eat beef, chicken, pork, venison, fish and game just as Dutchmen do. However poor people (Indios) do not take bread but instead eat rice. Only rich people eat bread.

“A rain of locusts fell on Maneila about the middle of [May] like a snowfall. Indigenous people gathered the locusts and ate them after roasting. Soya bean paste (miso) was not to be had in Maneila. [Miso] soup was made of something [brown] like muscovado. Bananas are called   ‘planta’ in Maneila. They are to be had throughout the seasons and are eaten as dessert. There are three grades of bananas. All vegetables, including eggplant, melon and watermelon, are to be had throughout the seasons. Rice is grown twice a year. A plant from which sugar is taken looks like a corn plant in Japan. It is grown extensively throughout Luzon. No better sugar is made anywhere than in Maneila.

“There is some plantation near the castle of Maneila (Intramuros), but I have not seen the manner of cultivation. Foodstuffs and other daily necessities are brought from a district some dozen ri away, which is called ‘Hats-hakai’ (Pampanga?).”


These are notes old and obsolete that provide an eyewitness account of 17th-century Philippines.

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TAGS: artemio ricarte, Japan, Jose Rizal, mariano ponce, O-sei san, Sun Yat Sen, Usui Seiko
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