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BLAST FROM THE PAST: The Japanese in Davao

Things Japanese in Davao from the Past

By Michael Angelo Dakudao
Published May 18, 2012 in the

In the 1930’s, mention of Davao Province used to bring to mind Japanese kimonos, happi (Japanese standard outfit of a short coat with wide sleeves for merchants and carpenters), paper lanterns, noren curtains (which hang over entrances to Japanese shops found along San Pedro Street), hakimono (traditional Japanese footwear), ogi (fans for men and women to cool themselves from Davao’s stifling heat), o-hashi (chopsticks), sake (rice wine), origami (paper-folding), hana kago (flower baskets), ikebana and bonsai, shikki (lacquerware), among the plethora of crafts and collectibles of things Japanese then sold at Japanese bazaars, like the Osaka Bazaar, owned and run by Japanese merchants in Davao City.

The economically fortunate position of Davao, with regards its abaca production controlled by the Japanese, inclined Filipinos to recognize the province as the country’s “Little Tokyo” at the time.  The initial development of the region was, after all, essentially a feat attributed to the Japanese pioneers who toiled their way through Davao’s tropical wilderness in search of a better life just like our Pinoy OFWs of the present.  Davao, at that time, was in desperate need of labourers to open up its vast virgin lands; and Japan was able to expand its import-export trade to the Philippines, an area rich in the resources that Japan lacked and needed to support its growing industries.

The Japanese community that lived in Davao numbered 17,888 in 1939.  Of the entire Japanese population in the Philippines, 75% was concentrated in the “Land of Promise,” Davao.  This Japanese community began in1903 when the American-run Philippine Commission encouraged Japanese labourers to the Philippines and employed them in the building of the zigzag road in Benguet leading to the summer capital of Baguio.  The road completed, a group of 150 labourers went to Davao to work in abaca plantations.  Through diligence, hard work and enterprise, unmatched by any other group in Davao, the Japanese labourers soon distinguished themselves as the prime movers of the country’s abaca industry.  With their exemplary organization and technical know-how, the abaca industry in Davao grew and established itself internationally.  In time, Davao abaca, more popularly known as Manila hemp, was reputed as the strongest fibre in the world.

By the 1930’s, Davao, with its Japanese-supported business and industry, began to rival Manila in economic supremacy, earning the envy of the capital’s political leaders.  Davao reached its so called Golden Age through Japanese planning with the support and cooperation of the Davao ruling elite.

The Japanese nationals who lived in Davao preserved the whole fabric of Japanese customs and traditions and introduced dominant institutions towards maintaining the Japanese way of life.  Since the district of Guianga had the most extensive Japanese plantations and Japanese population, the town of Mintal in the district became the centre for the Japanese in much the same manner as the Davao poblacion was for Filipinos and other foreign residents.  It became the most “Japanized” town and came to be known as “Little Tokyo” owing to its Japanese-owned industry.  Mintal, with its Japanese-funded development, became a self-contained centre that was linked with the economic and information functions of central Davao poblacion.  It had the first modern Mintal Hospital owned and managed by the Ohta Development Company.  Likewise, the Japanese town was also provided with the Mintal Japanese School; the Bago Oshiro experimental station for the study of abaca, ramie, and others; an irrigation dam; a hydroelectric station; private telephone lines; the Mintal Ice Plant; private roads; the Mintal Japanese Cemetery (considered the most beautiful in Southeast Asia); Shinto shrines and temples; and others.

Despite the devastation wrought by war and the ravages of progress, the episode of the Japanese interlude in Davao’s past still exists in works of art or simple objects of daily life and collectibles kept by Davaoenos through all these years.  Featured on this page are pre-WW II Japanese things from the collection of Dr. and Mrs. Santiago Pamplona Dakudao, Sr. and Mr. and Mrs. Kenichi Migitaka.

Dr. Santiago Pamplona Dakudao, Sr., a graduate of the Tokyo Jikeikai Ika Daigaku (Jikeikai University’s School of Medicine) in 1918 was the first Filipino Director/resident physician of the Ohta Development Company’s Mintal Hospital for the Japanese migrant labourers in Davao City in 1922.  His wife, maestra Carmen Lacson Dakudao, taught English and Spanish to the Japanese community at the Mintal Japanese School.  Both were held in high esteem by the Japanese community in Davao.  Even their stately plantation house in Tugbok (now a family mausoleum) is an architectural marvel of the fine craftsmanship of Japanese carpenters and masons then living in pre-war Davao City.  On the other hand, the Japanese national Kenichi Migitaka was hired as plantation manager by Dr. and Mrs. S.P. Dakudao, Sr. upon the personal recommendation of the legendary Japanese abaca tycoon of Davao City at the time named Ohta Kyosaburo.  Ohta Kyosaburo was the man responsible for bringing Japanese migrant labourers to Davao after the completion of the construction of Baguio’s Kennon Road.

Learn more about the history of the Japanese in Davao by visiting the Davao Museum of History and Ethnography which is currently holding the exhibition Davao-Ku:  The Abaca, the Japanese, and the Making of Davao in cooperation with the Consular Office of Japan in Davao. The exhibit is open to the public and will run from May 17 to October, 2012.

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