Restoring ‘Little Tokyo’

Researchers are almost one in mind that the term ‘Davao-kuo’, in reference to Mintal, an outlying district west of Davao City, means ‘Little Japan’ or, in some instances, ‘Little Tokyo.’

The label is actually a takeoff from Manchukuo or Manzhouguo, which means ‘state of Manchuria’ in Japanese. Following this simplistic argument, Davao-kuo should be translated as “the state of Davao.”

Oral tradition says Mintal, embellished by local historians as part of a cultural and historical heritage, is a corruption of the name of Intal, a Bagobo datu who reportedly died in 1889, and Mishiro, a Japanese leader. Who is Mishiro in the territory once dominated by Japanese capitalist K.S. Ohta, nobody knows. There is not even a definitive story about the chieftain.

Interestingly, long before Japanese investment arrived in Mintal, the place was already known by its present name. The appellation comes from a sweet potato variety known as Mintal, a popular staple among the natives. Its popularity was equated with Georgia yello yam, New Jersey, and Momungan.

Great Japanese center

Agriculture in Davao was so vibrant in the first two decades of American rule that by 1918 there were already one hundred twenty-seven existing corporations, divided as follows: 82 were Japanese; 20 Americans, and 19 Filipinos. This was 58 companies more than the previous year. The largest abaca establishments then were found in Talomo and Mintal, both operated by the Ohta Development Company.

Mintal’s appellation as ‘Little Tokyo’ was not without basis. By 1919-20, the Ohta company, which had three million hills of hemp by 1926, had already mounted an irrigation system that included three miles of main canals and 70 miles of laterals. To address its export activities, a dock and baling station were built at Talomo. There was a large hospital made from light materials at Mintal, dubbed as “a great Japanese center,” complete with electricity produced from a small hydroelectric plant, which also produced ice for the plantations.

Due to the growth of migrant populace in the area to both Japanese and Filipino laborers, health concerns started to manifest as primary issues. A 1920 report provides a general picture of the health condition of the place:

“Sporadic cases of amoebic dysentery were recorded in Mintal, municipal district of Guianga. The infection was traced to the water supply. At the end of the year a total of 96 cases with 16 deaths were registered. Tuberculosis was found to be quite prevalent among the new immigrant laborers… The construction of a sanatorium or preventorium is imperative… Six thousand twenty-nine anti-smallpox vaccinations were performed without health officers having had to resort to the court. The percentage of takes from the use of dried vaccine was found to be lower than from the use of ordinary vaccine… An active campaign against the local unlicensed midwives [hilot] was instituted, and as a result practically all the deliveries during the year were attended by physicians and nurses. Garbage is being collected regularly and disposed of by burning it in a large pit. The construction of a crematory is now under project.”

In later years, a stronger campaign to rid the areas in Mintal, Daliao, Talomo, and Inawayan of malaria-carrying mosquitoes was launched. There were instances, though, when cases of varicella were recorded in Guianga but were quarantined and those who contracted it were inoculated with anti-smallpox vaccines. To keep houses safe from the contagion, disinfection was also performed.

‘Independent state’

In prewar times, there were observations the developments occurring in Davao were signs the Japanese were covertly transforming the city into a Japanese colony. Two of the factors that support this claim are the thriving socio-economic clout and the demographic growth of a migrant population, which the authorities thought were alarming.

William H. Anderson, a businessman who stayed in the country for four decades, wrote that in contrast to American policy in the archipelago, which was a “hodgepodge of missionary ardor, altruistic motives, irresolute nationalism and corroding paternalism,” he was forthright in saying the “Japanese in Davao are running a practically independent state.’

Unlike the Chinese who were intensely focused in building businesses, like cornering harvests of small abaca farms and using pre-harvest loans to oblige peasants to sell their farm produce to them, the Japanese took a more proactive agenda such as using their plantations as lucrative source of income back home and using the influence of Japanese investors in the local hemp industry in inspiring new interests that expanded Japanese control of the local economy.

With the demand for new and diverse amenities from the growing Japanese migrant population which was increasing by the year, it was inevitable to see in Davao the opening of brothels, temples, schools, medical institutions, shops, and other establishments exclusively catering to Japanese whims.


Outside the Japanese women who offered their services to American soldiers in naval stations and military outposts, the karayuki-san (originally, the Japanese migrant workers in China) were prostitutes hired and destined for brothels in many parts of the country, catering mainly to Japanese men. One account cited an incident in Davao in 1919 where a Japanese woman was paid for a night of service by her customer for a princely sum of thirty pesos, the equivalent of a month’s pay of a laborer in an abaca plantation.

Brothels in Davao serviced by imported Japanese karayuki-san started to show up in 1910, providing comfort almost exclusively to Japanese laborers in hemp plantations. In less than a decade, the brothel business flourished that by 1917 there were already 10 prostitution houses in town. A report included in the Taft Papers showed that during the decade Davao was home to 361 Japanese, including 10 who were classified as karayuki.

Efforts by migrants, notably the Davao Japanese Association, to eradicate prostitution did not prosper for fear this would only encourage violence from criminal elements, like the present-day Yakuza, which were supportive of the trade. On the other hand, the brothels were viewed as part of the plantation economy of Davao. Petitions were sent to the Manila consulate but were not acted upon for fear of financial repercussion if the brothels were removed. Even the colonial administrators did not act on the pleas. Frank W. Carpenter, governor of Mindanao and Sulu, cited three reasons for not acting on the appeals.

First, the huge migrant Japanese population would oppose such move and may, at their own initiative, even provide shelter and hiding place for the karayuki-san. Second, the absence of Japanese whores to cater to plantation workers might result in the prostitution of local women. And, third, the red-light district, the area where the brothels were situated, was found in isolated areas, making them accessible only to patrons.

The population of prostitutes in town expanded the following year with the exile of the women from Gardenia, Manila’s red-light district. They were sent to Davao as a way of closing the houses of ill-repute in the capital. As a result, there was spike in the number of gonorrhea cases in Davao in 1918. A 1920 health report showed that 1,041 vaginal examinations, mostly from prostitutes, were carried out in Mintal.


To keep socio-cultural and economic ties among Japanese outside their homeland, associations were organized in plantations and town centers where there was a sizeable migrant population that could be recruited. By 1929, a decade after the establishment of a Japanese consulate in town, Davao had already its own Nanyo Kyokai (South Seas Society), which was encouraged by the government as a way of fostering research and cultural exchange.

The Davao Japanese Association, on the other hand, was greatly patriotic in its mission. During the war, according to the May 27, 1943 issues of Manira Shimbun and Dabao Shimbun, it collected P224,918 from its members which was intended for the purchase of airplanes for use in combat.

The associations included among their recruits the Japanese residents operating large-scale companies and bazaars using local capital, including the Ohta Development Co. The Japanese ties included membership in religious groups, such as the Protestant Christian Mission which opened a branch in Davao during the Commonwealth era, and the ownership of Japanese-backed local publications such as Dabao Shimbun and Davao Times, which later became Mindanao Times.

Creating a village

Japanese invitation to work in the country, particularly in Davao’s hemp plantations, was strongly promoted in Japan. Young men were encouraged to work as contract workers and build a community of migrants. The come-ons included gaining experience, saving money, experiencing the free amenities, and drinking sake, the Japanese rice wine.

The success of prewar Mintal as a prosperous migrant village, hemp plantation, and cosmopolitan town was in large part due to the benevolent management adopted by its principal investor, K.S. Ohta. Farm laborers were not only provided free housing, regular medical attention, movies and recreation, but there was a credit line that assured every employee steady source of food supply when exigency arose.

The entertainment presented during programs was mostly Japanese-oriented, including songs, dances, and cultural events that poignantly reminded the migrant worker of home. In short, the plantations managers tried as much as possible to create a comfortable community where Filipinos and Japanese could share moments of laughter and enjoyment.

By itself, Mintal was a little state populated mostly by Japanese. It had all the amenities that could qualify it as a full-fledged township, but it was a farming village that was preoccupied with earning a livelihood. While there were brothels in peripheral areas adjacent to the plantation, these were only visited by men who had enough cash to squander.

When war struck, this iconic place was almost left to oblivion. The structures were ruined while the once thriving plantations were flattened by aerial bombs. Instead of seeing a boom town, Mintal became the burial center for thousands of innocent civilians and soldiers, both friendly and adversarial forces, killed in a conflict where there was no winner.

It nearly took a month for the U.S. Army’s 24th Infantry Division to liberate Mintal, Toril, and Calinan from enemy forces. As a reminder of its wartime past, the 1920 Japanese cemetery stands as a reminder of an enclave that once home to foreigners from the Land of the Rising Sun. The Ohta Monument, on the other hand, gives honor to the man who placed Mintal on the world’s abaca map.

The Mintal community described above will be restored in a P120-million projects now in progress. The project involving 600 hectares right in the center of Mintal is called “Little Tokyo.”