Athletes, Martial Law, and Handshakes: A Thousand-word History of the Philippine-Japan Relationship

by Esther Elizabeth Suson

That the Philippines and Japan have an ongoing relationship is most evident in two things: infrastructure and culture.

For infrastructure, you could try and glimpse the Japanese flag on the EDSA-Quezon Ave. Interchange. Or, a bit easier, look around for it on the LRT. The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) is active in the Philippines, both in things like infrastructure, and also in Mindanao in support of the Basic Law for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region (BLBAR).
EDSA-Quezon Ave. Interchange (click for image source)

In terms of culture, walk into SM Megamall during a Toycon and breathe in the cosplay.The Rurouni Kenshin live action trilogy, which showed in cinemas here, is also testament to it.

28938_1 Sheet.indd

At the moment, news articles revolve around Japan-Philippine relations in the South China Sea (ahem – West Philippine Sea) dispute, and complaints about Japan’s silence on comfort women during WWII. In other words, it resembles a classic two-person relationship of agreement and disagreement.

Relationships between nations develop much like relationships between people. (As Hetalia illustrates to hilarious effect). There are starting points, rough patches, disagreements brought about by misunderstandings. They all walk towards friendship, enemyship, or neutrality, but a relationship nonetheless.

Today, our President comes home from a four-day state visit to Japan. This post, in honor of the visit, tackles one of my burning curiosities: how our bilateral (two-sided) relationship with Japan came to be.

Cultural Diplomacy: Offering a Hand

Right after World War II, Japan really did do its best to court South East Asian friendship (they had to live with us, after all). The Peace Treaty and Reparations Agreement were signed between Japan and the Philippines in 1956, which restarted diplomatic relations between them (started in 1943 under the Second Republic, interrupted by the war).

However, even before that, Japan was attempting to build goodwill with its neighbors and had very few avenues in which to do so. Economic power was threatening. Political power was threatening. Anti-Communism would place them in a complicated position with their nearest geographical neighbors, Russia and China (although their Cold War alignment is First World). Basically, after their decades of militant imperialism (which have yet to be forgotten, particularly in Korea), Japan needed to be as non-threatening as possible on all fronts.

Their solution: sports. In 1952, even before the Peace Treaty was signed, the Japanese Basketball Association and the Yomiuri Shimbun-sha (newspaper) organized the Japanese-Philippine Basketball Friendship Matches. Several Japanese university and business basketball teams played the Firipin Tomo no Kai (Philippine Air Lines Basketball Team) in light matches.

Programs to send Japanese to the Philippines to alter our perception of them were also set in place. This started in 1965 with the Japan Cooperation Overseas Volunteers. These were mainly technical experts sent abroad, with twelve sent to the Philippines for the first time in February 1966. By 1984, there were ninety-eight residing in the Philippines, the largest number in the world at the time. The idea was for Filipinos and Japanese to make face-to-face contact, and try and balance the negative view of Japanese taken from the Second World War.

However, other kinds of relationships other than the cultural and personal were not moving along as well. As shown by the rejection of the Treaty of Amity, Commerce and Navigation by the Philippine Senate – after going over it for twelve years – in January 1972, even over twenty years after the war there were difficulties in the relationship.

Martial Law: Taking a Hand

Two hands have to be clasping for a handshake to happen, and if cultural diplomacy was Japan’s way of offering a hand, in some way, martial law ended up being the Philippines’ way of taking it.

In September 1972, the Philippines was placed under martial law by the Marcos Administration. In early 1973, President Marcos ratified the Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation (so much easier to do without a Senate). Japanese businesses were encouraged to thrive in the Philippines.

Furthermore, in 1974 there were anti-Japan (often called anti-Tanaka) riots as Japan’s Prime Minister TANAKA Kakuei toured Southeast Asia, in Indonesia (the Malari Incident) and Thailand. Until that time, Japan had thought, with fascinating positivity, that a healthy and ongoing economic relationship meant that there was a healthy political relationship as well. The riots woke them up sharply.

However, the Philippines gave Prime Minister TANAKA a hearty welcome, helped by the fact that the Marcos-controlled press was friendly to Japan, and that martial law kept potential protesters off the streets. That, and the fact that the Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation had been signed, led to a steadily growing relationship unhampered by too many politics. This period of quiet, along with the span of time that created generational change, may have helped along the relatively peaceful relationship.

Aquino and Arroyo: Shaking a Hand

After the Marcos Administration, Japan and the Philippines kept up their good relations. Part of this was because of Japan’s sympathy extended to President Cory Aquino in the wake of the Aquino assassination in 1983. There are political reasons as well, such as the ‘need’ for Japan to display support for the democratic regime after their closeness with Marcos. Whatever the reason, Japan was a strong supporter of the first Aquino Administration.

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo took the next step, signing the Philippines-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement (PJEPA; our only bilateral economic agreement) in 2006. It was ratified by the Senate in 2008. This is part of what continues our close economic relationship with Japan today.


In conclusion, the relationship that Japan and the Philippines share now, economically, politically, and culturally, would not have developed without the interactions that eventually led to it. Of course the whole picture is obviously way more complicated than the analogy of a handshake – and we don’t even know the whole of it yet. But, like any other relationship, today we have managed one that is generally good, has some rough spots, and so far, it looks like the Philippine-Japan relationship is bound to continue.


PNoy in the Imperial Palace
PNoy in the Imperial Palace

On his trip to Japan this week, President Aquino received the Grand Cordon of the Supreme Order of the Chrysanthemum, as his mother did before him. Fifth President of the Philippines to receive the distinction, he will be the third Aquino (as far as I discovered) to receive a high distinction from Japan. Benigno Aquino I (his grandfather) received the Order of the Sacred Treasure on 01 October 1943. President Aquino will also confer the Grand Collar of the Order of Lakandula and the Grand Collar of the Order of Sikatuna on Prime Minister ABE Shinzo.


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