WITH Davao City welcoming Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday brings back a shared history between the two countries that was rooted in this city.

This is the reason why until now, a big group of aging Japanese come over to Davao sometime in August when the Japanese celebrate their Obon, an occasion similar to our All Souls' Day.

These Japanese were born to parents or grandparents who came over to work in the abaca fields of Davao City from 1903 up to World War II in 1945.

Thus, Davao became their furusato, or second homeland, and Davao was regarded as Davaoku or a District of Japan, albeit unofficially.

A visit to the Museo Dabawenyo where an old map of Davao City can be seen on the wall will show that the whole of downtown Davao was once dominated by Japanese businesses.

25 percent of population

In the book "Japanese Diasporas: Unsung Pasts, Conflicting Presents and Uncertain Futures" edited by Nobuko Adachi, it states that as of July 1937, Davao City was made up of 26,731 Christian Filipinos, 6,209 non-Christian Filipinos, and 12,639 foreign residents of which 11,487, or a quarter of the total population, were Japanese.

By 1939, Japanese immigrants in the whole undivided Davao Province (now Davao City, Oriental, del Norte, del Sur, Occidental, and Compostela Valley) was recorded at 17,888 or 61.6 percent of the total Japanese population in the Philippines (1941 Census).

The Japanese turned Davao into a "thriving economic zone and abaca a major Philippine commodity" by the Commonwealth Period, University of Hawaii-Manoa Professor Patricio Abinales wrote in his book "Making Mindanao: Cotabato and Davao in the formation of the Philippine Nation-State" published by the Ateneo de Manila University Press in 2000.

"The colonial state benefitted immensely from this transformation, reaping unexpected revenue earnings from the (Davao) province's tax payments which by 1932-33 exceeded those of Zamboanga, the erstwhile top contributor from Mindanao," Abinales wrote.

Davao was so prosperous; cost of living skyrocketed much higher than the original settlement provinces and top-earners, Lingayen, Manila, and Zamboanga.

First migrants

The first batch of Japanese landed in Davao in April 1903 led by Suda Ryosaku as contract laborers from Kagoshima Prefecture in Japan to work for the Awad Plantation at Lapanday in the municipality of Sta. Cruz.

This group returned home after a year because of the hard life there.

In September 1904, 180 Japanese laborers who finished their contracts for the construction of Kennon Road in Baguio were shipped to Davao from Manila by Japanese merchant Ohta Kyosaburo, after the latter failed to find work for these laborers in Sorsogon.

The vast plantations demanded a lot of manpower. By January 1905, 100 more Japanese laborers arrived accompanied by Oshiro Kozo and Dr. Hashimoro.

Seventy more arrived in July 1905. "Oshiro Kozo and Oki Kizo of the Ohta Development Company were Okinawans who were responsible for recruiting laborers from their native Okinawa for Ohta," architect and fellow writer Michaelangelo Dakudao in an unpublished paper.

Dakudao is the grandson of Dr. Santiago Dakudao Sr., a landlord and host of throngs of Japanese who worked in Tugbok here before World War II broke out. He also took his post-graduate studies in architecture in Japan.

In a 2012 interview with Hiroyuki Mizuguchi, the only Japanese immigrant left in the city who lived in pre-war Davao City, he said, "Japan was very poor. They came to the Philippines to work, make money." It was in Davao City where "they became rich", Mizuguchi said during that interview. Mizuguchi was already 92 at the time of the interview.

SunStar tried to contact him anew but couldn't find any means as of presstime. Mizuguchi, who arrived as a 12-year-old boy in 1932 to join his father, who was a blacksmith in Nagasaki to make "hagotan" or abaca-stripping machines in a shop in Toril, and mother who set up a dress shop along Anda Street.

It's not all good

With prosperity and power came corruption and exploitation. By the late 1920s, Japanese had full control of the abaca industry, Abinales wrote, from production to trading and land control to labor supervision.

In 1930, the Japanese controlled the undivided Davao Province's richest agricultural lands.

There were indigenous tribes who were displaced because of the bureaucratic wheeling and dealing that brought about this foreign control.

On the people side, the Okinawans, who first arrived, were discriminated and looked down on both by Filipinos and non-Okinawan Japanese.

They were called Otro Japon (the other Japanese) by the non-Okinawans and anyone who is not dressed properly is described as "da Okinawa (like from Okinawa) by the Filipinos. At that time, Davao dialect was predominantly Chabacano, Dinabaw, and a smattering of Tagalog.

World War II

"I grew up in the Philippines. I know how to bola-bola (ingratiate one's self)," Mizuguchi said.

Mizuguchi loved Davao so much such that even as the Japanese were all repatriated after World War II, he returned in 1955 when Philippine-Japan relations had improved.

"Many Filipinos were good friends of the Japanese immigrants, but some of them were killed by the Japanese forces. It's a shame," Mizuguchi recalls.

World War II affected Mizuguchi so much, he wrote a book "Jungle of No Mercy: Memoir of a Japanese soldier" that was published by Anvil Publishing Inc. in 2010.

In the foreword to his books, Mizuguchi wrote, "My school life in Davao was full of joy and happiness, surrounded by Filipino classmates and baseball teammates. I was educated in Japan and later, obtained American education in the Philippines. I grew up in Davao. For almost ten years I got integrated into Japanese, American, Filipino, and Chabacano culture. I enjoyed life,"

It was as he was about to graduate in high school when World War II broke out and he witnessed how Filipinos risked their lives just to bring over food to the Japanese were who incarcerated, and yet these same Filipinos who kept them alive were killed by the Japanese forces.

"My dear readers, through these pages, I would like to share with you my experiences during the war. And as you walk with me through the jungle without mercy, please join me in my prayer for WORLD PEACE. NO MORE WAR, NO MORE BULLETS, NO MORE KILLING," he concluded his foreword.