From ‘Little Tokyo’ to Tokyo, Japan: historical bond, shared journey

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 01 October) — Few Dabawenyos know that Davao City and Japan share a rich historical bond. More than a century ago, there was a thriving community of around 30,000 Japanese in Barangay Mintal, then the city’s economic center.

What remains of the community a century later are a few Japanese mementos, cemetery and monuments that serve as window to the past.

But efforts have been undertaken by Barangay Mintal to revive what they call the “Little Tokyo,” with the Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority (TIEZA) earmarking P120 million to build a heritage site.

“I think, as mentioned to me by TIEZA, this will be the first project that will be put in the tourism map focusing on the good relationship between Japanese and Filipinos. If you go to other places, it’s more about the war. Here, it’s a different story,” said Ramon M. Bargamento II, the village chief.

As it was barely taught in school, I only came to know about the city’s century-old love affair with Japan after I landed my first job as a journalist nearly six years ago, when Barangay Mintal clamored for a revival of the nearly forgotten memory of the Little Tokyo.

From my little knowledge of this historical bond, which was practically about the popular Japanese tunnel and the urban legend of the infamous Yamashita treasures, it was then expanded to the interesting narrative of the Japanese migrants and the Bagobos, living in harmony in Barangay Mintal.

Bargamento said the story shared by the Dabawenyos with the Japanese during the pre-war Philippines was one founded on “good relationship” in contrary to the violent narratives elsewhere in the country.

He said one of the early Japanese settlers was wealthy entrepreneur Ohta Kyozaburo, who arrived in the city in 1903, set up his Ohta Development Company head office in Talomo, and later moved to Mintal where his abaca business had not only flourished but had also driven the city’s economy.

He was dubbed the “Father of Davao Development.”

His success in abaca farming and processing drew other Japanese to Mintal, then the most advanced of all villages with a well thought of map similar to an “urban plan” initiated by the Japanese.

Photo on the left shows what is left of the hospital (right) built by the Japanese in Mintal, Davao City in the early 1900s. It was the biggest and the most “modern” hospital in the city at that time. MIndaNews photo by ANTONIO L. COLINA IV

Bargamento said the Japanese built, among others, a school, cemetery, irrigation facility, ice plant, hospital, and hydropower plants with a combined power of 3,470 kilowatts enough to power the whole of old Davao City.

Hedcor, a subsidiary of AboitizPower, takes maintains the power plants – Talomo Hydro 2A, Talomo Hydro 2B, Talomo Hydro 2, and Talomo Hydro 3.

Bargamento said the hospital was said to be the biggest and the most modern at that time in Mindanao. However, what remains of it now is the hospital’s decrepit stairs, surrounded by shanties, residents conveniently forgetting its significance in the past.

The Japanese were forced to flee the city immediately after the World War II broke out in the 1940’s for fear they might bear brunt of the people for the hostilities that the imperial army had brought, according to Bargamento.

During the recovery period, most of the Japanese houses, monuments, and buildings were destroyed, parts removed to build new houses or looted for gold.

The Shinto shrines were also all over Mintal but remnants of these buildings could no longer be found today, he said.

The heritage site that Barangay Mintal plans to create will include a museum, replicas of important Japanese facilities, improvement of Japanese cemetery, and improvement of the Ohta Kyozaburo Monument, located within Mintal Elementary School, but only known to many students as “pencil.”

The Ohta Kyozaburo Monument is still standing within the Mintal Elementary School. However, the nearby triangular structure was destroyed by treasure hunters looking for gold, the war loots of the Japanese imperial army The obelisk is known to pupils as “pencil”. MindaNews photo by ANTONIO L. COLINA IV

Bargamento said he envisions the heritage site to be very impressive to foreign and local tourists upon completion. Work will start some time next year, he said.

Visiting Japan was a chance to get a better feel of what the Japanese community was like a century ago in Mintal, right in their own homeland.

The opportunity came when I was selected by the National Youth Commission and the Embassy of Japan in Manila to be part of a 20-member Philippine delegation to the Japan-East Asia Network of Exchange for Students and Youths (JENESYS) 2017 Young Journalists Exchange in Tokyo and Kanto Koshinetsu from September 12 to 19, 2017.

Our Japan International Cooperation Center (JICE) coordinators brought us to Meiji Jingu, a Shinto Shrine in Tokyo on September 13, second day of the JENESYS 2017, after our visit at the Meiji University and state-owned broadcasting company, NHK World, that provides news on Japan, Asia, and the world with its global network.

The shrine’s antiquity provided me a glimpse and a feel of the long-gone community in Mintal. I was left in awe as we began our long forest hike to the main shrine building from the Torii, the shrine gate, the point that separates the ancient and the contemporary.

The main shrine building of the 70-hectare Meiji Jingu in Tokyo, constructed for the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his consort, Empress Shoken. Photo courtesy of KRISTIANNE MARIE FUSILERO

The Shinto shrine was constructed to immortalize the deified souls of the imperial couple Emperor Meiji and his consort, Empress Shoken, thriving in the middle of the contemporary, advanced, and fast-paced capital of Japan.

In 1867, then 15-year old Meiji ascended to the throne as 122nd Emperor of Japan and ruled until his death in 1912. Eight years after his death and six years after his wife’s death, the shrine was constructed on November 1, 1920.

Trying to establish a connection between our city and Japan, it then dawned on me that it was during Emperor Meiji’s 45-year reign that Kyozaburo, the “Father of Davao Development” set foot in the city in 1903.

Both men had largely contributed to the development of Japan and Davao —  Emperor Meiji putting an end to isolationist foreign policy of the Tokugawa era and modernized Japan’s political system while Kyozaburo pioneered Davao’s progress through agriculture.

The late Emperor was the great grandfather of the 83-year old Akihito, 125th Emperor, who is Japan’s “symbol of the state and unity of the people,” Kazuki Sasaki, senior assistant professor on Japanese Politics and Society at Meiji University, told the JENESYS 2017 Philippine delegation of JENESYS 2017.

JICE coordinator Yukie Yamamoto described the Meiji Jingu as a “typical example of hero worship” in its traditional and reclusive atmosphere,  drawing three million local and foreign visitors a year to offer prayers, to take selfies, or both.

Japan International Cooperation Center (JICE) coordinator Yukie Yamamoto discusses with Filipino delegates of the JENESYS 2017 the history of the Meiji Jingu. MindaNews photo by ANTONIO L. COLINA IV

In 1868, Yamamoto said the young ruler declared Shintoism as the “national religion” after a long period of “ambiguous religious situation” in Japan stemming from the intermix of Buddhism with their ethnic religion in the 6th century.

“The Japanese people liked the Emperor a lot. So, after he passed away, they wanted to make a shrine to dedicate to him,” she said.

The shrine sits in the middle of the 70-hectare lush greenery owned by the imperial family that welcomes its visitors with a cacophony of sound from the countless cicadas and numerous crows, creating what the locals call the “music of summer”.

The Torii, or the wooden shrine gate MindaNews photo by ANTONIO L. COLINA IV

The vast tract of man-made forest does not look any different from a natural forest, being home to over 100,000 century-old trees donated by the Japanese people across Japan’s 47 prefectures, according to Yamamoto.

Unlike Emperor Meiji, Sasaki said his great grandson Emperor Akihito has no political powers over important national issues and cannot meddle in the country’s economic affairs, the privilege that’s now given to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Abe visited Davao City in January this year.

Sake and wine barrels

A stack of barrels of sake or rice wine on the right side of the road and a stack of large barrels of wine on the other side would make an appearance about 10 minutes into an exhausting yet beguiling forest walk.

She said the Japanese people donate the sake for the shrine deities and is used for the ceremonies and festivals.

The wines were offered by the celebrated wineries of Bourgogne in France on the initiative of Yasuhiko Sata, a representative of House of Burgundy in Tokyo, honorary citizen of Bourgogne, and owner of the Chateau de Chailly Hotel-Golf in France.

To modernize the nation, Sasaki explained Japan “imported the French system” to catch up with the most advanced Western economies, including, among others, United Kingdom, Germany, and France by learning the “best practices” in governance when “they tried to create a new local government.”

“Modernization means westernization,” he said.


Visitors to the Shrine have to walk over to the Temizuya, a Shinto pavilion for ceremonial purification, located on the left side of the road, before entering the main shrine building.

The washing ceremony is done in three steps; rinse your left hand and then your right hand; pour water into your left hand and rinse your mouth; and rinse your left hand and rinse the dipper.

After this ritual, visitors enjoy a visual feast of an impressive wooden main shrine building.

Through the door, one can take a glimpse of the wide inner courtyard filled with tourists soaking in the nostalgic feeling that comes with being inside Japan’s most important historical and spiritual site.

Across the door of the main shrine building is the noritoden where the visitors can offer their prayers and make their wishes to the Shrine deities.  On the right side of noritoden, visitors may hang wooden plaques, inscribed with their prayers or wishes, many of these written in foreign languages, to the deities of the shrine.

[Antonio L. Colina IV visited Japan part of a 20-member Philippine delegation to the Japan-East Asia Network of Exchange for Students and Youths (JENESYS) 2017 Young Journalists Exchange organized by the Japan International Cooperation Center (JICE) in Tokyo and Kanto Koshinetsu from September 12 to 19, 2017]