In March this year, I presented my research paper at the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) in Washington D.C., USA. One should not be surprised that at the said conference Asian Studies is dominated by non-Asian scholars, and such observation is not uncommon in the past few decades. In fact, this was my second opportunity to visit North America together with other Southeast Asian scholars from Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand, among others. Most of us were able to share a fraction of our views from an “Asianist” perspective only because Japan Foundation supported us. Indeed, Japan is doing well in mainstreaming Asian perspective to the fore. The last time I checked, during the World War II, Japan fought for Asians calling for a united stance, “Asia for Asians” under the banner Greater Co-prosperity Sphere in East Asia. We know what happened and the rest is history.
During the post-war era, “Non-western” scholarship emerged as an alternative trend of discourse in understanding world history. Recently, scholars from Southeast Asia and the Philippines are rewriting if not re-updating the study of Asia and Asian history. In his 2010 book, “Asia as Method: Toward Deimperialization,” Kuan Hsing Chen clarifies,
…using the idea of Asia as an imaginary anchoring point, societies in Asia can become each other’s points of reference, so that the understanding of the self may be transformed, and subjectivity rebuilt. On this basis, the diverse historical experiences and rich social practices of Asia may be mobilized to provide alternative horizons and perspectives. This method of engagement, I believe, has the potential to advance a different understanding of world history (212).
Indeed, the realizations from writing this article-series on reexamining Davao of the Past is to re-locate and recalibrate the self in the study of Asia. Geopolitically, Mindanao has been relegated to the periphery of the Philippine nation-state and consequently of the Southeast Asian region and the world. My only wish is to offer fresh insights on the historical value of relearning Davao and Mindanao of the past for that matter. In this particular context, I concentrated on the case of Japanese presence of migrant settlers in Davao during the prewar era (before WWII) as presently Japan is actively contributing to the development efforts and rehabilitation program of the Philippine government in Mindanao. Thus, it is significant to ask about the deep connection of Japan with Mindanao by presenting an alternative historical review of its past to strengthen the good relations established between nations.
In the previous article, I impressed on the need to understand that in the past centuries, as early as 13th and 14th centuries, Mindanao had separate polities and ethnohistorical backgrounds with that of Luzon and the Visayas Islands. Early explorers accounted for a thriving maritime trade network in Sulu which reached Java, Sumatra, the Moluccas, and even as far as China and Japan. As depicted by historians and scholars, Japanese ships and vessels were known to be active in Asian waters from the 13th to the 16th century sailing the Southeast Asian ports as far as Annam (Vietnam), Malacca and Java and even through Ternate which is much closer to the Philippine South (Mindanao Islands). During the Ming dynasty, China began to flex its navigational exploration that impeded Japan’s movement in the South Seas. Thus, the maritime network was maintained through a trading channel in the Kingdom of Ryukyu (Okinawa), which was a tributary state of both China and Japan back then. In the 17th century, under the Tokugawa Shogunate, Japan remained isolated but permitted to continue the maritime trade under the “Red-seal ships” or Shuinsen system (朱印船).
My contribution hopes to shed light on addressing the gap in the literature on the enduring maritime trading network and historical linkages of Japan and the Mindanao Sultanates from early 16th to late 18th century. In fact, studies about the Japanese presence in the Philippines is somehow limited on account of Japanese exiles in Manila around mid-16th century; and later in Davao during the American occupation period (the early 1900s). Thus, due to a deficiency in past literature, I wish to connect Davao and Mindanao to the broader discourse of Japan and Asian studies.
I guess this is not yet the final article, but perhaps a jumpstart to a more comprehensive perspective on rethinking the study of history and its importance to basic life and survival skills. History is an essential element of how a person (life story) and a nation (national and regional stories) move forward in the present and the future. As the famous quotable quote by George Santayana says, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (davaotoday.com)