A Little Home on the Big Mountain

Northern Luzon’s Nikkei-jin community survives and thrives through the years, against all odds

While the name Masakazu Nose may not ring any bells, for most people across the globe, it certainly carries a lot of respect in the Philippines’ mountainous northern city of Baguio. Masakuza-san first caught the public eye in 2014, months after he arrived from Japan to study English in Baguio, when a video of the Japanese national sweeping the city’s overpasses, armed with a pair of tongs and a garbage bag, went viral on social media channels. He also took on the task of repainting walls around the city, the materials for which came all out of his own pocket. In 2019, he returned to Japan, but still made efforts at organizing community cleanups of Baguio, from across the miles, in time for his return visit to the Philippines. When asked why he did it, he reportedly said that he “had time to spare.” Another Japanese national, a man by the name of Hiroshi Sato, who joined Nose on one of his 2019 city cleanups was reported as saying: “It’s always nice to clean the city. We cannot ask everything to the city. At least maybe not cleaning, but not make it dirty. I love it here, I love Baguio.”

Both Nose and Sato demonstrated a very Japanese cultural trait, one that holds cleanliness in the highest regard, as rooted in the spiritual tenets of Shintoism and Buddhism, alike. But apart from that, they also demonstrated an affinity for their hilly home away from home, the highlands of Baguio City, which was once the locale of a thriving Nikkei community.

The boom of Baguio

The formation of the Nikkei community in Baguio dates to the early twentieth century, during the time of the American occupation, and is tied in with key installations of the American administration in the Philippines. One of these major installations, the hill station resort of the American colonial government, attracted numerous Japanese laborers. Japan had just reopened, and many of the nation’s rural workers found themselves displaced and in need of employment. As such, scores of Japanese workers, mostly young men, migrated out of Japan to various countries. A good deal of the Japanese migrants to the Philippines ended up in the mountain province of Benguet, settling in Baguio City and neighboring La Trinidad Valley.

Both Nose and Sato demonstrated a very Japanese cultural trait, one that holds cleanliness in the highest regard, as rooted in the spiritual tenets of Shintoism and Buddhism, alike. But apart from that, they also demonstrated an affinity for their hilly home away from home, the highlands of Baguio City

The construction of Kennon Road, part of the bigger plan of the hill station resort, was the very first project to attract Japanese migrants to Benguet. Records have it that, initially, 34 Japanese nationals came to work on the road, in July of 1903; this figure jumped to more than 500 Japanese migrant workers by the end of the same year. As other big projects came along, this number reportedly rose to over 4,000 — forming a solid and strong Nikkei community in the north.

The Japanese migrants worked alongside their local counterparts to build several major American colonial installations in the Northern Luzon locale; projects that would lead to the area’s transformation from a sleepy mining town to one of the Philippines’ most famous tourist destinations. These installations include Teacher’s Camp, Camp John Hay, Camp Holmes, The Governor’s Residence, as well as Baguio Hospital and Baguio Country Club.

Roots, ruin, and recovery

In the 1920s and 1930s, after completion of the majority of the installations, some of the Japanese migrants dispersed to other parts of the Philippines. Those who stayed in Baguio City and La Trinidad Valley, however, established their own trades and small businesses, mostly in retail, farming, construction, and trucking. These settlers became the cornerstone of the Nikkei community in the north, eventually intermarrying with locals from the Igorot, Ifugao, and Ibaloy tribes, giving rise to a generation of Japanese Filipinos.

Of course, World War II took its toll on the Nikkei community, with the relationship between Filipinos and Japanese bearing the brunt of wartime and the atrocities that come with it. Many of the Nikkei were displaced, as they dealt with post-war socio-economic issues such as poverty and exclusion from society.  

Fast-forward to 1972, when an elderly Japanese nun by the name of Sr. Theresia Unno saw the plight of the Northern Luzon Nikkei and their descendants. Sr. Unno — who, for health reasons, had relocated to Baguio from Japan — became the rallying point for the recovery of the Nikkei community, unifying the remnant and helping them get back on their feet and reintegrate with society. St. Unno’s efforts lay the groundwork for what would eventually become known as the Filipino-Japanese Friendship Association of Northern Luzon Inc.  or Abong, an Ibaloy term meaning “small house/home”

Building roads to recollection and respect

Abong remains active, to date, as a private, non-stock, non-profit corporation that serves as a hub for the Northern Luzon Nikkei and their descendants. In 2006, Japanese director Imaizumi Koji released a film entitled “Abong: Small Home” depicting the life of a second and third-generation Japanese-Filipino family residing in Baguio City.

At the Jesuit-run Mirador Heritage and Eco-Spirituality Park at Baguio’s Mirador Hill, landmarks pay homage to the Filipino-Japanese community. At the park’s highest point, affording spectacular city views and dazzling sunsets, a torii stands as the Mirador Peace Memorial. The symbolic Japanese gateway has become a shrine, of sorts, to the history of the Nikkei in the city, as well as a monument to peaceable, harmonious living. The bell hanging atop the torii is actually made from an unexploded, neutralized bomb found at Mirador Hill; a remainder and reminder of the bombing of Baguio during World War II. Mirador Park also boasts a replica of Kyoto’s Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, as well as a Zen-style rock garden. In Baguio’s Liteng, Pacdal district, St. Francis Xavier Seminary’s Bamboo Eco-Park Sanctuary has been drawing tourists for its ambiance that is reminiscent of Sagano Bamboo Forest in Kyoto.

Meanwhile, at Baguio’s Filipino-Japanese Friendship Park, the Filipino-Japanese Friendship Memorial Shrine, also known as Baguio Memorial Tower, honors all soldiers who fought during WWII. The tower, erected in 1973 by the Baguio Lions Club in partnership with the War Memorial Service Association based in Japan, has also come to symbolize the post-war bilateral friendship between the two nations. Other similar historical markers may be found throughout the city, such as the one commemorating the end of the war, with the surrender of General Tomoyuki Yamashita “The Tiger of Malaya” and all the Japanese forces to the US 6th Army at an old schoolhouse in the hills near Camp John Hay.

Indeed, time and tide have taken their toll. But, while the Northern Luzon Nikkei community is nowhere near as big or robust as it was in the 1900s, a vibrant fragment remains. Only this time, the roads they build are metaphorical, leading to cultural understanding and mutual respect.

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