Note: This is a long overdue entry that was originally planned for last year. I managed to have it published today though the plaza has been affected by the ongoing works of the Skyway project that it looks different now. We can only hope this plaza will manage to survive and its legacy intact
Plaza Dilao in Manila’s Paco district these days finds itself in an interesting spot. As an open space of sorts, it finds itself being sadly squeezed in between the major traffic chokepoints of Quirino Avenue and the old Quirino Avenue Extension. So apart from the few trees, the sights you mostly get to see are vehicles, especially trucks stuck in traffic, or the sight of the Skyway Project under construction at this time of writing.
As such, it is easy to overlook Plaza Dilao, or just dismiss it as some dull plaza in the middle of congested roads. But who would think that this neglected spot in the city holds so much history, a heritage of a past that connects this city all the way to the Land of the Rising Sun back when it was under the rule of shoguns and daimyos?
It is believed that Plaza Dilao got its name from the fact that before, the area was a site of a thriving community of Japanese immigrants. And at a time when political correctness did not exist, the Spanish were fond of calling the Japanese as “yellow” or in Tagalog, “dilaw” or “dilao”, the latter being the old Hispanized Tagalog spelling of the word.
These Japanese migrants were not just regular immigrants. They were actually Japanese Christians who migrated here to escape the growing persecution of Christians in Japan under the regime of the Tokugawa Shogunate. And since the Philippines was the only Christian nation in the east, it was the chosen haven for them to start anew and profess their faith freely.
Prominent among these migrants was their head, Takayama Ukon, later baptized as Justo Takayama, a daimyo or Japanese feudal lord and samurai who later converted to Christianity. Given his important stature in government, the Japanese leaders were in a quandry as to how to handle him and his Christian faith. Rather than face public backlash if they execute him for his faith, they decided to exile then keep him under close watch. And when Takayama decided to leave Japan, the leaders let him go freely.
Along with his family and 300 other Japanese Christians, Takayama arrived in Manila in December 1614 and established the first Japanese settlement in the country, in the area where Plaza Dilao is now. The Spanish authorities welcomed them with open arms, though still subject to close watch by the authorities. But it was Takayama who the Spaniards were more interested in, not only because of him being a prominent individual from Japan. Apparently, the Spain, or at least the colonial government in Manila, was keen on overthrowing the Tokugawa Shogunate, on the pretense of stopping the persecution of Christians in Japan. (sounds awfully too familiar, doesn’t it?) And they wanted to enlist the help of Takayama for this plan. However, Takayama declined to participate and the plot was eventually abandoned.
Justo Takayama Ukon died on February 5, 1615, having not lived long enough to be able to fully establish a new life in Manila. However, the Japanese community in Manila thrived until Japan enforced an isolationist policy in 1636 that heavily restricted its access to other countries. Unfortunately, not much has been documented about the fate of the Japanese Christian immigrants in Manila. Perhaps they may have intermarried with the rest of the population and eventually adapted the Filipino lifestyle, which may explain why no trace of their culture have managed to survive, at least in the city.
Fortunately, the area where the Japanese community used to be located was redeveloped during the postwar years. Given the bitter and bloody chapter in the history of Philippine and Japanese relations during World War II, the redevelopment of the area to be the Plaza Dilao that we know today served as a gesture of mending relations between the two countries. Hence, the plaza became known as the Philippines-Japan Friendship Park.
More than a restored friendship, the existence of Plaza Dilao serves as a reminder of a vibrant immigrant community in the city that would not have been possible without the warm welcome the Philippines gave them, notwithstanding its status then as a Spanish colony.