Niño Saavedra Manaog‘s essay: Turning Japanese

UNTIL NOW, I still feel conflicted about the Japanese.

Who wouldn’t be inspired by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who in the past year resigned his post due to his failing health, once again raising the ethical bar for public servants and government officials? If the Japanese come out on the news these days, they often do inevitably come with the hashtags #honor or #delicadeza or #dangal.

I consider the Japanese an honourable people, generally, but I also cannot rid my mind of how my grandparents—and parents—would painfully recall their own ordeals during the tiempo-hapon

Many years ago, our grandmother Soledad who passed away in 2012 at 82, would tell us how her family fled their village to hide from the Japanese. One time she recalled how she, with her sister, Margarita and her husband Emiliano, had to carry their little child Emma, her niece, through the marshes of Catangyanan and Caaluan in Tinambac just to flee the Japanese. 

Such and other stories from my own folks are a distant memory, but from the way they shared those stories, they were not really pleasant at all. Probably each of us has a similar story—from our lolo or lola or tio or tia. I believe some of our folks at one time or another even admonished us for our allegedly “easy life” these days, daring us to feel the same suffering they had at this period of their lives: “Had you lived during the Japanese occupation, I don’t know if you could have survived it!”

While some of our folks considered it one of the lowest points of their lives, to the victims themselves and their families, it’s a bangungot (nightmare) from which they could not have really recovered.

I cannot forget a story I read about the Agdangan Massacre in Baao, Camarines Sur—it was a magazine article detailing how a number of women and children were bayoneted by the Japanese in that village at the height of their occupation. Passing the town every time we would have a family reunion in Del Rosario in Iriga, I would look for the marker of the site where it happened. Until now, going to Rinconada and passing by the village of Agdangan, I cannot help but picture images from that story I read.

But who am I to speak ill of the Japanese? I myself have not experienced hostility or cruelty as did my parents and grandparents—and other Filipinos who lived in the 1940s.

On the contrary, I had been a Salamat Po Kai scholar at the Ateneo de Naga for seven years. Salamat Po Kai (meaning foundation) is a Philippine –Japan partnership in the late 1980s and mid-1990s which paid for the schooling of financially incapable but well-performing students. It was through the generosity of the Japanese that I was able to attend high school and college. 

In the year of my college graduation, I remember receiving a heartwarming letter from Mrs. Teruko Akiyama, telling me how happy she was that I was finally graduating. She was also happy to tell me that they just welcomed the birth of their first grandchild. I must have written to her many times, telling her about my family and my studies. Her letter came with a picture of her smiling taken at wintertime with the words written at the back: “This photo is a rare snow-scape. My name is Teruko Akiyama.” In her letter she also said that she hopes that I would be a priest. 

In August 1992, during my freshman year, we Salamat Po Kai scholars hosted our visiting benefactors. Along with fellow scholars, I ushered our guests into the school and led them on a tour in Naga and the neighbouring towns. The exchange was aimed at both the Filipinos and the Japanese knowing each other’s culture more. Though many of them were not fluent in English and some even needed translators, I was amazed by their lightheartedness and friendship. 

One of our guests was the motherly Mrs. Honda, a cheerful woman whose eyes almost always disappeared because she was always smiling. Among others, she engaged us in lively conversations and was excited to know about our country. I suppose no other exchanges followed after that, but I would always remember Mrs. Honda for her friendship and yes, her cheerfulness. 

The following year, when I took Asian Literature class under Paz Verdades Santos, I was drawn to Japanese culture, reading books about Noh theater and Zen Buddhism in the circulation section of the old college library. It was then located at the ground floor of the Burns Hall. In a secluded portion of the library, I found an untouched series of books on Japanese culture and literature which I devoured to my heart’s content. On the immaculate library card I was so thrilled to have signed them out first. Then I thought probably not too many people in Ateneo had been reading about it at the time.

At the end of the course, I chose to submit a letter posturing as Onin Nagamo, a cultural officer of sorts, praising Japanese literature and culture to high heavens and proposing to adopt their simplicity and philosophy. That project only summed up my amazement if not utter satisfaction of the Japanese sensibility. 

I once relished their culture as much as I love our very own. Since high school, I have loved haiku (three-line poetry of 5-7-5 syllables) as much as I love tigsik (toast). But have we as a country really forgiven Japan for their cruelty and atrocities? Can the monetary compensation presented to the comfort women and their families really be called “compensation”?

Am I, for one, a scholar of the Japanese government, entitled to forgive them on behalf of the other Filipinos who suffered at their hands? Or can I—at the very least—be considered a living proof of their remorse?

Niño Saavedra Manaog obtained Bachelor of Arts, major in Literature at the Ateneo de Naga in 1996. After winning a string of literary fellowships, he launched Anáyo, a collection of Bikol poetry in 2012. His works have been published by theKomisyon sa Wikang Filipino and the Cultural Center of the Philippines. In 2020, he served as editor of two children’s stories written in Central Bikol for the Asia Foundation’s Let’s Read initiative. He teaches English and literature at the Mariners’ Polytechnic Colleges Foundation in Canaman, Camarines Sur, Philippines.

One comment

  1. I think lot of things cannot be undone by any financial or reparatory acts of remorse. Especially when it deals with our history as a nation, a state and a Filipino. But the Japanese exerted more than enough gestures to show their regret for the things that they have done during the war. I for one also admire their people for having honor above all. Thank you for this writing. May we all learn from all of this, personally and as a people.


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