Maglana: Japanese in Davao

IT IS not every day that the Japan flag festoons the main thoroughfare of Mintal, Davao City. Not the small ones used in schools during United Nations Day mind you, but full-sized immaculate white flags with the blazing red sun in the middle, displayed on posts stretching for some distance down the national highway.

Mintal was part of the itinerary of Japan Prime Minister (PM) Shinzo Abe, the first head of State to officially visit the Philippines in 2017, and said to be the highest ranking foreign official to visit Davao City.

Much will be made of the observation that PM Abe seems to have tapped into the preferred style of President Duterte-for instance, visiting Duterte at home.

There will also be focus on the anticipated announcement of Japanese assistance for the term of Duterte. Japan has been the top donor country of the Philippines over the past 23 years. Per the JICA website the Philippines was among the top three largest recipients of Japanese official development assistance (ODA) in 2006. 2017 marks the 63rd year of development cooperation between the two countries.

Speculations about Japanese investments in Philippine mineral resources to the tune of one trillion dollars are also going the rounds.

I prefer to dwell on opportunities that the visit of PM Abe and his wife Akie provides to shine light on places like Mintal, and issues that do not make it to the glossy ODA pages.

For starters the visit should help dispel the notion that Mintal was named such because there was a Japanese Mental Hospital in the area before World War II. There was a hospital situated across what is now the Mintal Elementary School, but it was not one devoted to mental health. The joke that Mental became Mintal thanks to the Cebuano tendency to pronounces e's as i's has to be challenged lest it become the popular explanation.

Ayson and Campado (Banwa, Vol. 1 No. 1, 2004) indicated that based on oral accounts the name was associated with Datu Intal, a Bagobo chieftain in the late 1880s. Over time the name evolved to become Mintal, and early Japanese settlers called the place "Mintaro."

News articles picked up on the historical fact that the Japanese established abaca plantations in Davao and mobilized workers from home. Local historian Ernie Corsino noted that in 1919 the number of Japanese in the Philippines was at 9,874, more than half based in Davao. Thus the city earned the moniker "Davaokuo" or "Little Tokyo."

Fear of Japanese influence apparently triggered the creation of Davao City. A 2005 Davao Today article quoted lines from a Davao Museum display:"during the constitutional convention in 1934, one delegate in the person of Pantaleon Pelayo Sr. denounced the control of Japanese in Davao and their unlimited acquisition of land. The issue became a national concern so that Davao was made into a chartered city with appointive officials instead of elective officials."

Less known is the bloody aspect of Japanese history in Davao. Corcino wrote, "the last, the bloodiest, the longest phase of the Liberation campaign in the Philippines was the assault against the well-entrenched Japanese forces in Davao" (from The Davao We Know).

Mintal, Calinan, Gumalang, Tamugan, Kiotoy and Gatungan were among the places of fierce fighting, explaining Corcino's point that "Davao is the territory that suffered most in terms of lives lost."

Corcino estimated that by 1945 there were around 135,000 Japanese, including 20,000 civilians, in the Davao-Cagayan-Bukidnon sector.

Given the Japanese pre-1950s population and the number of entertainers who went to Japan starting the 1970s, among the issues confronting the Abe visit is the Shin-Nikkei-jin (Japanese descendant). Many have not been recognized because their records were lost in the war, and some were abandoned or unrecognized by Japanese fathers. For a time, illegal recruiters used the Nikkei-jin to dupe people desperate to go abroad.

It is also not farfetched that there were women from Davao who became "comfort women." Raped and forced into sexual slavery, many of the victims died without receiving justice. Those who survived continue to campaign, even in their waning and sickly years, to obtain formal Japanese government apology and restitution for crimes committed against them.

I hope it does not take another official visit and the display of more Japanese flags for these concerns to be looked into.


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