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Filipinos of Japanese descent celebrated their native culture this week, with an annual “matsuri”-style festival on the southern island of Mindanao, aiming to foster links between the two cultures.

“Our Philippine-Japan festival serves as an avenue to spread awareness to the public about the great contributions of the Japanese in the creation of Davao City, and in uplifting the economic status of Filipinos, especially the Filipino-Japanese descendants,” said Ines Mallari, president of the Federation of Nikkei Jin Kai Philippines, the nation’s main association of ethnic Japanese.

Japanese workers arrived in the Philippines in significant numbers in the early part of the 20th century, when laborers helped to build Kennon Road, a trunk route in the northern Philippine province of Benguet on Luzon island.

Some then migrated south to Davao to work for a Japanese-run plantation, producing mainly abaca, or Manila hemp.

However, World War II disrupted peaceful coexistence, as Japanese soldiers occupied the country in the 1940s.

“Although the war may have destroyed the friendly relations between the two countries during those times, through our celebrations now, we are able to promote peace and the long-lasting friendship of Japan and the Philippines,” Mallari said.

The weeklong 12th Philippine-Japan Festival included lectures on cultural relations, Japanese pop culture and the Japanese language, talent contests for singers in both Japanese and Tagalog, and a Japanese and Filipino movie festival.

The festival’s theme was “Philippines-Japan: Two Nations Bridging Cultural Diversity with One Desire Towards Success.”

It also featured speech contests in both Japanese and Cebuano, a Philippine language, a sumo competition, a showcase of Japanese traditional dance, and a performance of Japan’s centuries-old Noh theater by professionals from Kyoto.

“We had interactions of cultural lessons, both Filipino and Japanese, among students and staff of the Philippine Nikkei Jin Kai International School and Mindanao Kokusai Daigaku, as well as with the public,” Mallari said. “We taught ikebana, origami, and calligraphy. In fact, some Japanese came all the way from Japan to teach the people here.”

Mallari heads the 12-year-old Mindanao Kokusai Daigaku, which is also known as Mindanao International College. She says the eagerness to learn more about Japan has grown not just among people of Japanese descent but the general public as well, because education and the passing of time have erased the anti-Japanese sentiment that was prevalent in the country at the end of World War II.

“With the education we have been offering, we could feel that the people have started to show respect to the Japanese people. In fact, others who have no Japanese blood wish they are Japanese descendants because they know how nice Japan is, and that the Japanese government gives many privileges,” Mallari said.

She said 70 percent of the 500 pupils at her college are Filipinos, and there is a similar proportion at the 22-year-old Philippine Nikkei Jin Kai International School, which has 1,600 elementary and high school students.

“Many people really want to study ‘nihongo’ (Japanese). They also like the Japanese culture. Some of those studying here opted to enroll because of their interest in anime or manga, and not necessarily because they want to go to Japan in the future,” Mallari said.

“So, the Japanese culture has really made a big influence already in our community.”

The Philippine-Japan Museum, established in 1994 in the city’s hilly Calinan neighborhood, showcases the Philippines’ prewar culture. It covers the establishment of the Japanese community before the war and has some wartime memorabilia as well as material on the postwar struggle of people of Japanese descent.

“This is important for Japanese descendants, for them to see their ancestors’ history, and even for ordinary Filipinos and Japanese, so they can become a bridge of better understanding between the Philippines and Japan,” said Kenzo Yanaka, a 67-year-old Japanese teacher at the Philippine Nikkei Jin Kai International School’s Calinan Campus, where the museum is located.

Mallari said the Federation of Nikkei Jin Kai Philippines also plans to establish a campus of the Mindanao Kokusai Daigaku in the central Philippine province of Cebu by 2018 to help propagate the Japanese language and culture more widely.

She hopes that by producing Japanese-speaking graduates in Cebu, the school will help meet the recruitment needs of Japanese companies operating in the province.

“Aside from further strengthening the relationship of Japan and the Philippines, the ultimate goal of this project is also to establish further the role of Filipino-Japanese descendants, that we can do these initiatives, especially after we have done it successfully here in Davao,” Mallari said. “I want to give the Filipino-Japanese descendants a face in society.”

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