THE JAPANESE IN MINDANAO by Gerry van der Linden

14 June 2020

If Mr. Sigetake Sugiura/1/had had his way the Philippines today would have been a very different country. In 1886 he published a novel Dream of Hankai/2/ that put forward a plan for the colonization of the Philippines. He linked this plan to a second idea: Japan should send to the Philippines 90,000 shin-heimin/3/ or outcasts who should establish friendly relations with the indigenous people and at some suitable opportunity they should then rise in revolt against the Spanish rulers of the country.

Sugiura’s ideas were part of the Southward Advance School or Nanshin-ron that emerged during the Meiji period. They believed that Japan needed overseas markets for its growing economy and these markets should be accessed either through peaceful means such as trade, or through territorial expansion. Casting an eye over the colonies in Southeast Asia it was clear to them that Spain was by far the weakest of the colonial powers. In an 1888 article another supporter of the Southward Advance, S. Saganuma/4/ argued that Spain was ‘the least progressive race in Europe’ and it should be the first target of Japanese expansion. He suggested that the 90,000 from Sugiura should settle in Luzon and after getting rid of the Spanish they should establish an independent Kingdom of Luzon that could then be offered to the Japanese Emperor.

The Southward Advance School’s views reflected a concern in Japan that Spanish rule in the Philippines was weakening and this created the risk of another major power taking control of the Philippines. This was called ‘preventive self-defence’ and there was particular concern about the designs of Germany. In the end, of course, it was the USA that 15 years later would capture the Philippines.

There was also a Northward Advance School of thought that argued that Japan should expand in a northern and eastern direction, and although Japan did colonize Formosa (Taiwan) the Northward Advance view prevailed and Japan captured Korea and later Manchuria.

While nothing came of the proposals from Sugiura and Saganuma, Japan maintained a strong interest in the Philippines which, after the capture of Formosa, was now a direct neighbour of Japan. In the decades that followed various ideas were put forward to advance Japanese economic interests in the country, although officially Japan was always supportive of the US colonial administration that had replaced the Spanish in 1899.

Meanwhile a very different development had taken place. The US colonial administration had at an early stage decided that it needed a summer capital in the mountains. This was to become Baguio and a challenging zigzag road was constructed to reach the heights on which Baguio was going to be built. The Americans decided to import about 1,500 Japanese labourers to build the road. A Manila-based merchant, Kyozaburo Ohta/5/, became a supplier of Japanese labour for the road project, and he realized that there was also demand elsewhere for Japanese workers, especially in the new abaca plantations in Davao.

In 1903 the first 300 Japanese workers were contracted by a Davao abaca planter and in subsequent years many more followed. In 1905 Ohta himself moved to Davao and once there he realized the great potential of Davao. This was the beginning of what would grow into a vibrant Japanese community in Davao province. Two men were to play a key role in this development: Ohta, who in 1907 set up the Ohta Development Company, and Yoshizo Furukawa who came a decade later and started the Furukawa Plantation Company.

The Japanese were not the first to go into the profitable abaca business. The first abaca plantation dated from 1883 and was set up in Lapanday by Juan Awad, who was from Lebanon. But it was really the American soldiers who quickly realized the fertility of Davao soil and who called it the’Garden of the Gods’/6/. After leaving military service many decided to try their luck as abaca planters in Davao. The first was Birchfield who set up a plantation in 1902 in what is now Toril. Many others followed and Tiu shows a map with 23 plantations dotting the coast of Davao Gulf, in Davao del Sur, Davao Oriental, and as far away as Mati and Baganga on the Pacific coast of Mindanao.

From the start these American planters faced difficulties: abaca cultivation is very labour intensive and labour was scarce in Davao province. Many of the native Manobos, Bagobos and Mandayas were unwilling to work the long hard hours on an abaca plantation. There were also conflicts over land and over abuses that the planters committed against the natives. To obtain more workers the Americans followed the ‘reduction policy’ of the Spanish, forcing the lumads to stay within their plantations. In June 1906 there was a serious incident that resulted in the killing of Lieutenant Edward C. Bolton, the Governor of Davao District by the Manobo Mangulayon in Davao del Sur. The Americans also had problems with technology, access to capital and marketing.

The Japanese tackled these challenges in a better way. They imported Japanese workers, accessed capital from Japanese corporations and ensured ready markets for the abaca fibres in Japan. As a result the ownership of plantations gradually shifted from the Americans to the Japanese so that by 1918, out of 164 plantations in Davao the Japanese owned 71, the Americans 34, and the Filipinos 44. At that time about 60% of cultivated land area was in Japanese holdings/7/. The productivity of the Japanese was also much higher than that of the others.

The key issue was land. Tribal lands were classified as public lands and the Philippines Act of 1902 stipulated that aliens could not acquire public lands. However the Public Land Act of 1903 permitted corporations to purchase or lease public land up to a maximum of 1,024 ha. This was the reason that Ohta established his Ohta Development Company in 1907. The other Japanese plantations followed this example. The First World War resulted in an enormous demand for Manila hemp and sent prices sky high, leading to a significant expansion of lands under cultivation, but also growing concerns about Japanese control of abaca cultivation/8/ . This led to the Public Land Act of 1919 which provided that that no individual or corporation could purchase or lease lands unless 61% of the capital stock was owned by a US or Philippine citizen. This act put an end to land purchases by Japanese corporations. After 1919 the two principal means of Japanese land acquisition were dummy corporations and the pakiaw system/9/.

Through it all the Japanese community in Davao continued to grow to ultimately almost 20,000 people in 1940, with a significant number of them coming from Okinawa. The Japanese had their own schools, hospitals and health centres, newspapers, banks and shops. Prominent among the latter was the general convenience store of Ohta. In 1920 Japan opened a consulate in Davao. It was possible for a Japanese to work and live in Davao without ever meeting local people. As a result of Japanese efforts Davao province became one of the most prosperous in the Philippines. Japan grew from being the 10th trading partner of the Philippines in 1909 to 2nd in 1929, although it was responsible for only 10% of total trade.

The American attitude towards Japanese activities in Davao was broadly tolerant. They recognized the wealth that had been created as a result of all this economic activity and they appeared not overly concerned about growing Japanese influence. The attitude of Filipino politicians was more complex. On the one hand many benefitted from the Japanese by working for them as lawyers or by agreeing to be a dummy in a Japanese controlled corporation. On the other hand, many politicians found it useful, especially during election time, to rail against Japanese influence and control.

The most serious effort to curb Japanese influence came in 1930 when Secretary of Agriculture Alunan issued a report in which he proposed to close Davao as a port of entry. This would have meant that Japanese workers could not come straight to Davao and that abaca exports had to be shipped to Manila before they could be shipped to Japan. Thanks in part to astute lobbying by the Japanese nothing came of this proposal, except the creation in 1931 of a special committee to investigate Mindanao lands. Another flare up occurred in 1934/1935 triggered by Davao congressman Pelayo and there were calls in Congress to buy out the Japanese for P20 million. This resulted in another investigation, led by Agricultural Secretary Rodriguez. The Rodriguez committee reported in 1935 that Japanese land holdings in Davao came to 60,000 ha. out of total cultivable land in the province of 1 million ha. On this occasion it was proposed to cancel all illegal leases and subleases. Rodriguez also wanted the pakiaw system declared illegal.

Because of the increasing influence of the Japanese in the trade and economy of region, on March 16, 1936, Romualdo Quimpo, the congressman from Davao filed a bill that was subsequently passed as Commonwealth Act No. 51 creating the City of Davao from the Town of Davao (Mayo) and the Guianga District. The bill called for appointments of the local officials by the president.

All this came at a sensitive time, just ahead of the establishment in November 1935 of the Commonwealth, with Quezon as president. Quezon realised that the issue had ramifications well beyond Davao. With independence promised in 1946 Quezon wanted to ensure friendly relations with its powerful neighbour to the north. Quezon therefore manoeuvred to put off everything until after November. Once elected however he acted swiftly. In February 1936 Quezon took personal charge of the Davao land issue. He visited Davao in April of that year and while in Davao the representatives of the Japanese community there reminded him that thousands of lives had been lost fighting aborigines. They argued that they were not land grabbers (Gleek). In June Quezon made a statement to Congress declaring that ‘there is nothing in the so-called Davao problem that should cause serious concern’.

Quezon tried to broaden the issue by calling for settlement and development of Mindanao to relieve the growing pressures in other parts of the Philippines. He created the National Land Settlement Administration and appointed as its head Paulino Santos, a retired army chief of staff, and at that time Director of Prisons/10/. In 1938 Quezon appointed the pro-Japanese Benigno Aquino as Secretary of Agriculture.

All this took place against the background of growing international tensions. Japan had invaded Manchuria and China and this resulted in growing anti-Japanese feelings in the country. There was also growing concern about a possible invasion of the Philippines. Within Japan there was renewed interest in the Southward Advance first mooted during the 1880s; the so-called Pan-Asianists argued that Japan should try to replace the US in the Philippines and absorb the country into a greater Asia led by Japan. In their view the Philippines was ‘an Oriental country led astray’, and the challenge was ‘how to make Filipinos into true Orientals’/11/. In response to the Japanese question in the Philippines, the Asahi Shimbun wrote that ‘Japanese national prestige’ required intervention on behalf of the Japanese in Davao. All of this must have caused great apprehension in the Japanese community in Davao.

Not a few people viewed the Japanese in Davao as a fifth column for a future invasion. In the event, when Japan invaded the Philippines in December 1941, they made little use of the Japanese in Davao. Weren’t these the dark-skinned people Sugiura had written about 55 years earlier? The Okinawans and shin-heimi/12/? 


Footnotes: /1/Or Sugiura Jugo (Saniel);/2/Or Hankai’s Account of a Dream, Hankai Yume-monogatari, more of a booklet of just 31 pages. S. Hayase, Japan and the Philippines, Philippine Studies, Volume 47, First Quarter 1999. Sugiura’s novel was reprinted in 1943;/3/Shin-heimin or burakumin are an ethnic minority in Japan that suffers prejudice and discrimination;/4/Or Suganuma Teifu (Saniel) /5/Ohta was from Kobe and had arrived as a 26 year old in Manila in 1901;/6/Macario Tiu;/7/Goodman;/8/ Goodman quotes Governor Walker’s prediction of 1907: ‘If the Japanese are aloowed to secure a foothold and settle in such large numbers in one of the fairest spots ……the consequences in the future can easily be foretold’;/9/Under this arrangement it looked as if the Filipino landowner hired the personal services of the Japanese;/10/The city General Santos was later named after him;/11/ There was certainly concern that after the departure of the US Japan might try to gain control over the Philippines. In response to this Quezon secretly floated the idea of the Philippines joining the British Commonwealth as a protection against any Japanese designs. However when the Americans found out they quickly put a stop to it;/12/In a hierarchical society like the Japanese the ranking in occupied Philippines ran as follows: Japanese military, Japanese civilian officials, Japanese businessmen from mainland Japan, Japanese emigrants, Christian Filipinos, overseas Chinese, Muslim Filipinos, and tribal people (Hayase).


Gerry van der Linden is a former Vice President of the Asian Development Bank and is now active in microcredit and governance NGOs in the Philippines


Bruce Murray

15.06.2020 23:14

Gerry. Great read. I like learning about Filipino history from you. Keep writing!
Vicky: Thanks for writing you book, blogs and developing this website. Bruce

Jill Gale de Villa

14.06.2020 08:38

Interesting. Thanks Gerry for writing and Vicky for publishing. I had to stop my comment due to insufficient space.