Jorge Vargas as PH envoy to Japan during WWII
While it is true that Yoko Ono is the most famous person who has ever lived in the Kudan or the residence of the Philippine ambassador to Japan in Tokyo, one must not forget other figures who had lived or visited the mansion. Indeed, often overlooked is the first ambassador, Jorge Vargas, and his role in the acquisition of the property.
On Oct. 14, 1943, the Second Philippine Republic was inaugurated with J. P. Laurel as president. A week later, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was established with Claro M. Recto as foreign minister.
When Shozo Murata, adviser of the defunct Japanese Military Administration, was designated as Japanese ambassador to the Philippines, and the former residence of the commander of the Japanese Imperial Army on Heiwa (now Roxas) Boulevard was designated as the Japanese Embassy, Laurel designated Vargas as Philippine ambassador to Japan. After serving previously as mayor of Manila and chair of the Philippine Executive Commission, Vargas took his oath as ambassador to Japan in Malacañang on Oct. 25, 1943, against the advice of some members of his family.
During Laurel’s state visit to Japan in November 1943 to attend the Greater East Asia Congress in Tokyo with the leaders of China, Thailand, Manchukuo, Burma (Myanmar) and Free India, he was accompanied by foreign minister Recto who scouted around for a well-located Tokyo property suitable for the Philippine Embassy. He chose the Yasuda Mansion and negotiated its purchase for ¥1 million, including all furniture and household equipment. The mansion was reportedly worth a bit more—at ¥1.088 million, even without furniture.
On Jan. 4, 1944, Murata cabled from Manila the foreign ministry in Tokyo, referring to a letter from Secretary Recto, dated Dec. 29, 1943, regarding the purchase of the Yasuda Mansion and the remittance of a down payment of ¥100,000. Since this was before the National Assembly’s approval of the authority of the president to acquire the mansion and its appropriation of the ¥1 million-purchase money on Jan. 21, 1944, it is possible that Laurel’s wife, Paciencia, advanced the ¥100,000-down payment and got reimbursed when the ¥1 million-fund was released to Recto.
Vargas arrived in Haneda airport on Feb. 10, 1944, with his staff and two children: his son Roberto who served as his aide-de-camp, and his daughter Teresita. Vargas left his wife and the rest of his family in Manila anticipating air raids on Tokyo during the war. When the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs insisted that he take his entire family, Vargas reasoned out that he was only following the example of the Japanese ambassador in Manila who left his wife in Japan. A week after his arrival, on Feb. 17, 1944, Vargas sent Manila an urgent cable that read:
“Cannot formally occupy Embassy until after signing purchase contract which can be done even before full payment is made provided we can fix date of such payment. Am anxious to complete transaction as part of our supplies and equipment for Embassy have already arrived, some in damaged condition, and it is necessary that we transfer them to Embassy for proper repair and housing from their present location. If sending of funds is delayed please wire at least authority to sign contract to avoid further delay our occupancy of premises.”
On the same day Recto replied to Tokyo
regarding a remittance of ¥900,000 and the authorization for Vargas to sign “For the President
of the Republic of the Philippines.” Vargas inspected the mansion and found it cold and bare, prompting him to send a series of cables to Manila requesting, among many things, Philippine flags in various sizes—two large ones and a dozen others of smaller measurements. He asked for canned adobo and tennis equipment, too. Vargas also wanted to warm the mansion’s interiors with Philippine art. From the Imperial Hotel, on
March 6, 1944, Vargas cabled Recto:
“Highly desirable to decorate Embassy with Filipino paintings. Had selected several from
National Museum before leaving Manila, which Director Rodriguez agreed [to] loan Embassy. Will greatly appreciate if you can have shipment of these paintings expedited. If there is objection, (including) Luna Hidalgo paintings, same may be left behind temporarily.”
Difficulty in transportation was the excuse for not sending these priceless paintings to Tokyo. Vargas had an extensive art collection, yet he did not bring any of his prized paintings to Japan. After two months in the Imperial Hotel, Vargas still could not move into the Embassy due to complications in the payment and transfer of land title. He had to negotiate with Japanese authorities to honor the face value of the Japanese bank notes from Manila that we know today as “Mickey Mouse Money.”
Then there were additional costs for furniture and equipment because, contrary to the agreement, Iwajiro Yasuda claimed most of these were personal effects and he took them out when he vacated the mansion. In one cable to Manila, Vargas requested for beds and mattresses; he even suggested that the six largest beds with corresponding mattresses in his home in Baguio be sent posthaste to Tokyo.
On March 24, 1944, the Yasuda property in Tokyo became the first Philippine Embassy ever established. Vargas was the first and only Philippine ambassador during the war; he carried Diplomatic Passport No. 1, the first in Tagalog.
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