DAVAO CITY, PHILIPPINES – Koichi Sakae was 14 and living on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and then hours later hit U.S. bases in the Philippines.
Sakae, the sixth of eight children of Yamaguchi Prefecture native Naokichi Sakae and Filipino tribeswoman Amoy Bagoba, said he had mostly enjoyed a “good life” until the war began, growing up in Davao City in southern Mindanao, where his father leased a plantation growing abaca, an indigenous plant harvested for its fiber.
When the war started, the Philippines had been under American rule for over four decades, but Davao already had attracted many thousands of Japanese settlers — in fact, the largest concentration of overseas Japanese migrants in all of Southeast Asia.
Many of them, like Sakae’s father, had come to the Philippines decades before as laborers to help build a road in central Luzon, the main island, and stayed on to work on or run extensive abaca plantations around Davao Gulf.
The war came to Davao on Dec. 8, 1941, when Japanese planes raided Davao Harbor, just hours after the Dec. 7 surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Japanese troops came ashore near the city just 12 days later to begin an occupation that lasted until 1945.
“When the war started, life became very difficult,” Sakae, now 86, said at his residence in the Davao mountain village of Suawan.
Sakae recalled with sadness how he got separated during the chaos of war from his mother and siblings, his father having died of illness in 1940.
In April 1942, while still only 14 years old, he began working for the Japanese military office in Davao as a janitor, and then as a driver.
In 1944, he was drafted into a Japanese military engineering battalion, exposing him to the same dangers as older Japanese soldiers, some of whom were badly wounded and had even had limbs amputated.
“I slept in small huts in the jungle with Japanese soldiers. There was no food, so we ate plants that aren’t poisonous,” he said, speaking alternately in Japanese and the local Visayan language.
“We were supposed to be road-builders, but we instead tended to wounded Japanese soldiers. We also set punji sticks against American paratroopers,” he recounted.
“At that time, I didn’t really hate the Americans. I was just particularly afraid of their planes and mortars. We were most afraid of the American’s ‘double-body’ planes and their machine guns,” Sakae said. “The mortar shelling of the Americans was continuous.”
Asked if he knew then why Japan and the United States were fighting, Sakae said, “I wasn’t aware then of their differences, why there was a war. The Japanese military didn’t educate us about the war.”
But he said he heard the United States had interfered in Japan’s conflict with China, prompting Japan to attack the U.S. Pacific Fleet in Hawaii and invade the Philippines, New Guinea and other places in Asia.
Sakae said he was elated when, at age 18, the war ended on Aug. 15, 1945, and he was able to reunite with his family.
Unfortunately, life did not return to what it had been before the war broke out.
Fearful of Filipinos who had fought against the Japanese occupiers and were out for vengeance against anyone with Japanese blood after the war, Sakae said he was forced by circumstances to change his name to Constancio Amoy.
At the time, he had not realized doing so would pose problems for him later in reclaiming his Japanese citizenship, even though he and his siblings had all been listed in his father’s “koseki” (family registry) upon birth.
Having spoken a tribal language with his mother and Japanese with his father, and having been schooled in Japanese, Sakae said he also struggled to learn Cebuano, the lingua franca of Davao.
He said he experienced being teased for being Japanese, although he was spared from any violence and other forms of discrimination.
Sakae admitted pondering having a different, and probably a more comfortable, life had he heeded the invitation of his Japanese commander to come to Japan immediately after the war. He said he opted to stay because he could not leave his mother behind.
“It was still a very difficult life after the war. We didn’t have food. We couldn’t return to school. We had no money. So we had to work harder. I began farming,” he said.
Sakae said that in 1954, after his mother died, he married a Japanese-Filipino woman and began his own family. They had six children, two of whom died in their younger years. All children carried the surname Amoy.
In 1995, with the help of a lawyer from the Philippine Nikkei Jin Kai, Sakae successfully petitioned for official recognition as a Japanese citizen, which was facilitated by his inclusion in his family’s registry.
He then made his first trip to Japan, although he opted not to reside in the country, as he considers Davao his home.
“I went to Japan with a Philippine passport under the name Constancio Amoy. I returned with a Japanese passport, with my original name, Koichi Sakae. This Japanese passport was really for my children, so they can go to Japan and work there and no longer have to live difficult lives,” Sakae said.
Indeed, his four children were able to work in Japan, where two of them still reside.
“Honestly, our lives got better after 1995,” Sakae said.
He encourages his fellow Japanese-Filipino descendants who have yet to acquire Japanese citizenship to continue with their petitions and work hard to comply with the Japanese government’s requirements.
Asked if he feels being more Japanese than Filipino by owning a Japanese passport, Sakae said: “I have the two races. So it’s difficult to say I’m more of one than the other. I value both races in honor of my father, who is Japanese, and my mother, who is Filipino.”
He said he felt that way even when he served with the Japanese military during the war.
Last May, for the first time, Sakae visited his father’s birthplace in Yamaguchi. He said his father never took his family to Japan, nor did he ever return there himself due to his work.
Content with his life now in the Philippines, Sakae, who is in good health, said his only wish is to live longer so he can spend more time with his children and grandchildren.