At the outskirts of Davao going down South of Mindanao, lie my humble beginnings my hometown in Balut Island of the Municipality of Sarangani. You could reach this faraway land through General Santos City, the Tuna capital of Mindanao, if not the whole of the Philippines.
How on earth did we even get there? If you want more answers, you better ask my dad about his conversation with my grandparents, may their souls rest in peace, that trade, and commerce in Balut Island begun when my grandfather once managed a merchandising company for Indonesia and the South Seas.
Aside from the series of articles I have written about Davao of the Past, I am very much fascinated by the early accounts of sea navigation and exploration around Mindanao and the oceans down South. In the second part of this article, I gave a background reflection on a book I co-authored on documentary sources about Mindanao Muslim History. One of the major sources was the personal diary of Thomas Forrest in 1779 while on his way to New Guinea and the Moluccas wherein he took account of the continued existence of two Muslim polities, the Sultanate of Magindano (Maguindanao) and the Sultanate of Sooloo (Sulu). His work also made reference to Dalrymple’s account on Mindanao which had maintained an open trade with Japan that typically had two or three ships laden with silver, amber, silks, chests, cabinets, and other curiosities, made of sweet-scented woods; with vast quantities of silks, quilts, and earthenware, from China (as cited).
Apparently, Japanese ships 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 closer to the Philippine South (Mindanao Islands). During the Ming dynasty, China began to stretch its navigational exploration, which somehow impeded Japans movement in the South Seas. Consequently, 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). Hence, the maritime interests and fascination of both China and Japan in South Seas have been already established earlier on as proven in the historical accounts of their active presence in Mindanao and Sulu.
￼Similarly, if we fast-forward to the present, perhaps the only knowledge we have about Japanese presence in Davao, Mindanao and the neighboring countries in the South was only during World War II.
However, it is also a known fact that during the interwar years as I have cited in my previous articles, Davao was also known as a stopover port for annual Japanese tours to the South Seas Islands, that is in Japans mandated islands in the South Pacific. So what is the background behind the so-called South Seas and why is this even making sense on the broader discourse of Japanese presence in the Philippines and Davao and Mindanao in particular?
In one of the international conferences that I attended, my presentation delved into a hypothetical proposition that the settlement of the Japanese in the Davao Province may not be solely driven by personal or familial reasons but due to the governments policy of implicit permission of these migrants to explore the other regions of the Pacific South (otherwise known as the Nanyo).
Studies such as those of Lydia Yu-Jose and Ikehata Setsuho vividly accounted for some Japanese advocates for colonial expansion in the “South Seas.” As early as the 1880s, Setsuho argued that a pre-war political doctrine called Nanshin-ron or Southern Expansion Doctrine (南進論) advocated for an emigration of Japanese settlers, merchants, and investors in the Philippines.
Nanshinron was an “ideology calling for a Japanese advance into the South Seas (i.e., Southeast Asia and the Pacific Ocean), known as ‘southward advance’ advocates called for peaceful expansion under the principle of free trade; however, many favored territorial expansion and possession of the Philippines as the ultimate goal. Setsuho made mention of the works of Hattori Toru’s Nanyo Saku (South Seas Policy) and Fukumoto Nichinan’s Japan and the South Seas who asserted that in order to prevent a threat to the south Japanese must migrate to the Philippines (through colonization). The proposition continues that if thousands of enterprising Japanese merchants, farmers, craftsmen, laborers, scholars, and soldiers were to migrate to the Philippines, trade between the two countries would flourish, and the Philippine industry would prosper.
Henceforth, time and again, as I concluded in my earlier work, we must bear in mind to rethink the many facets of colonization and invasion in many forms. Some may have welcomed them, while many others may have fought against them. Whether the issue is about Japanese colonization of Davao or American occupation of the Philippines for that matter, multiple perspectives from different angles are more than wanting in the review of documentary sources and to validate how state and non-state actors locate themselves in the whole process of rewriting their local histories and identities through space and time. In the present, we again encounter new forms of territorial incursions in the South Seas, but we should not tarry. As Martin Luther King, Jr. says, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
To be continued
Andi, owing to the Japanese Romaji version of his Katakana nickname アンディ, is a loving husband to a wife, a teacher, researcher, political analyst, and a community development specialist. He finished his PhD in Japan and has travelled extensively around East and Southeast Asia.