The ties that bind Davao City and Japan
by Jon Joaquin
The recent visit of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe serves as a reminder that Davao City was known as “Davaokuo” (Little Tokyo) and even “Ko Nippon Koku” (Little Japan). The ties that bind Japan and Davao City are deep, although not all of it is a pleasant memory.
At the turn of the 20th century, Japanese labourers who had worked on Kennon Road in Baguio came to Davao to work in the abaca plantations that American soldiers had been developing. Being diligent workers, the Japanese were soon growing abaca themselves, and they began to prosper and increase in number. By 1939 there were around 18,000 Japanese living in Davao, most of them in the Municipal District of Guianga covering Mintal and Calinan.
The increasing Japanese population soon became a cause for concern, and by the time of the Constitutional Convention of 1934, Davao delegate Pantaleon Pelayo Sr. was pointing out the growing control the Japanese had over Davao through their rapid acquisition of land. His warnings brought the matter to the consciousness of the entire country.
On March 16, 1936, Davao congressman Romualdo Quimpo filed a bill creating the City of Davao from the Town of Davao and Guianga. Under the bill, the city would be led by officials appointed by the President, a step aimed at preventing Japanese-backed candidates from being elected into government posts. Davao was inaugurated as a charter city on October 16, 1936 by President Manual L. Quezon.
As it turned out, some of the fears of the locals were well founded. Some of the Japanese in Davao City were actually acting as a fifth column, embedding themselves in the communities in order to make it easier for the Japanese armed forces to invade the country. There were accounts of seemingly gentle and harmless Japanese men turning out to be officers of the Japanese Imperial Army, their true identities revealed only when they donned their uniforms.
World War II was particularly brutal on Davao City, especially towards its end when Japanese forces decided to destroy as much of the city as they could before retreating inland in the face of advancing American forces. It is perhaps this brutal chapter that has prompted Japan to become particularly generous to Davao City when it comes to aid and other forms of assistance.
Today there are only a few remnants of this period in Davao City’s history. Among them are the Ohta obelisk located inside Mintal High School in honour of abaca grower Ohta Kyosuburo who developed Mintal and the Japanese cemetery built in 1910. Mintal and other areas in the city’s south are also littered with war relics like Japanese bayonets, canteens, and even bombs and grenades. The city is also pockmarked with caves and other chambers that were used for Japanese defense — and, some people say, to bury gold and other treasure.
One of the highlights of Abe’s visit, at least for Davaoeños, was his visit to the home of President Rodrigo Duterte in Bangkal. That area is a middle-class community, and while it has gained popularity ever since Duterte became President, it has maintained its low-key status over the past months. The President’s home, in fact, has remained as it has always been: a typical middle-income home with none of the trappings that other politicians’ houses usually have. Inside one finds the usual clutter that any household has. So when news came out that Duterte had actually invited Abe over for breakfast, Davaoeños wondered if the President would have his house cleaned up and redecorated.
As it turned out, he didn’t. Photos of the visit show the Duterte home as we had always known it. Davaoeños had a particularly good laugh at the photo of Abe inside Duterte’s bedroom, with the bed still having the famous kulambo (mosquito net) that the President cannot sleep without.
To my knowledge it was the first time a head of state invited another one inside his home and showed it to him as it was, with no pretension of being rich and opulent. It was both a show of humility and pride. At first I wasn’t sure how Abe reacted, but I learned from a source that the Prime Minister actually found the experience charming. “It was love at first sight,” the source told me, adding that he hoped it would prompt other heads of state to follow suit. Imagine Presidents having breakfast not in hotels or mansions but in simple houses. What a wonderful sight that would be.
The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the original author, and do not necessarily represent those of the Pilipino Express publishers.