The Japanese of Old Manila

February 17, 2014

An unexpected detour last week brought me to Paco’s Plaza de Dilao. A recent Manila traffic regulation restricted some buses from entering the city. The unexpected detour gave me the time to inspect the monument that was built to memorialize the Japanese Christian leader, Lord  Takayama [1].  Not too many Filipinos know that there was once a significant Japanese community in Manila in the 17th up until the early 18th century. In fact, these Christian refugees increased their population to several thousands that they became a threat.  Series of riots broke out in the 17th century. To address this, the colonial government ordered a string of mass deportations. To further curve the population, the number of Japanese ships entering the city were brought down to 3 to 4 a year.

Lord Takayama’s bronze monument in Plaza de Dilao. This plaza is poorly maintained. With a little imagination, the leaders of this city could convert this sizable park into a functional recreation area!

Even with the policies crafted to limit Japanese migration, the community grew. For the most part they lived in harmony with the Mañilenos. Several chroniclers had written about their admirable honesty and peaceful ways. It should be pointed out that this so called ‘Japanese ghetto’ was the first significant Japanese community in south east Asia.

But how did these Japanese ended up here?

Even before the Spanish came to Manila there were already Japanese living amongst the natives. The increase in Japanese arrivals took place in the early 17th century when Christianity was completely banned. The new arrivals (headed by ‘daimyo’ Takayama) was initially placed by the archbishop under the Franciscans as the area they occupied (from today’s city hall to San Marcelino, up to Manila Prince Hotel, formerly Mirador Hotel) was supervised by the order. It must have been the affinity the Japanese Catholics had with the Jesuits fathers that made them gravitate towards them. The Jesuits took the Japanese under their care and brought most of them under the bells of San Miguel. It is said that the parish was named after San Miguel because most of the Japanese were descendants of samurai warriors, if not samurai themselves like Takayama and his warriors. In the 1630’s, the San Miguel church was completed. It was,  according to historians, the most exquisitely ornamented among the churches outside the Intramuros. Governor Corcuera fulfilled his promise to make it as such after escaping death in Mindanao, vowing that he would show his gratitude to God by making the Jesuit church rich and beautiful. Unfortunately, Corcuera’s church was leveled during a massive earthquake that hit the capital years later.

Japanese lepers were also received by the colonial government. These unwanted souls were treated in San Lazaro hospital. According to Nick Joaquin, “the Japanese colony in Manila that in early Spanish times numbered only a few hundred, had in the space of two score years increased to over three thousand, to the alarm of the Spaniards… the influx was mainly due to the persecutions of the Tokugawa Shogunate, which hounded many Japanese Christians into exile.”

The Japanese’s population in San Miguel and Dilao (now, Paco) also produced a nunnery run by Japanese women up until the mid 17th century. The rectory of San Miguel church became home to Japanese volunteers that along with their Jesuit fathers went on to evangelical missions back to Japan. Many of these men were lost.

So why did the “Japanese ghetto” of Manila disappeared?

Deportations and the subscription of the Japanese men to fight abroad are believed to be the main contributing factors. There’s also this belief that the Japanese, unlike the Chinese, never concentrated their presence in one place. This, if true, would have merged them with the local population. Uncharacteristically Japanese, as they’re known for preserving not only their tradition but blood line. But if this is the case, if the remaining Japanese population completely integrated with their new found home (as the NHI historical marker suggest in Plaza de Dilao) I wonder how many Filipinos now have Japanese blood without them knowing.

Imagine having a samurai for a lolo?

[1] Lord Justo Takayama, born Hikogoro Takayama, was heir to the Lord of Sawa castle in Yamato. His father converted to Catholicism. In the late 16th century Toyotomi Hideyoshi expelled the Christians. Takayama sought refuge in Manila. He was received by the Jesuits. The reigning shogun sequestered all inheritances and posses ion of Takayama’s family. He died in his 60’s, on February 4, 1615, just few months after his arrival.  The only known ‘daimyo’ buried in the country. Takayama is currently being considered for sainthood.


Takayama was a major player during the period of unification of all Japan. He was contemporary of the historical giants of that nation. It is said that Toyotomi Hideyoshi abhorred the refusal of Takayama to light incense and pray traditional Buddhist prayers because of his Christian belief during the wake of Oda Nobunuga. The man who pioneered the unification of that island nation.

Takayama, aside from being a samurai, was also a student of Sen no Rikyu. The legendary tea master.

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[…] In the abandoned Paco station is a statue of a Samurai, Justo Takayama, who lived and died not far…. Takayama, a daimyo, was sent packing by an edict from Tokugawa banning Christianity. He was accompanied by Jesuit missionaries and was received with pomp by Filipinos. The conditions and perhaps the sadness of being cut off from his people and land must have caused his health to fail. The  Christian Daimyo died just months after he settled in Manila. […]