In prewar times, there were observations saying the developments occurring in Davao during American rule were signs the Japanese were covertly transforming the city into a Japanese colony. Two of the factors that support this claim were the existing socio-economic clout and the demographic growth of Japanese migrant population, which the American and Filipino authorities thought were alarming.
William H. Anderson, a businessman who joined the U.S. Army in 1898 and 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 migrant community which was intensely focused in building businesses, like cornering the harvests of small abaca plantations and using pre-harvest loans to oblige local peasants to sell their farm produce to them, the Japanese took a more proactive agenda. The abaca plantations they controlled served as lucrative source of income back home, and the influence of Japanese investors Ohta and Yoshizo Furukawa over the local hemp industry inspired new interests that would exploit Japanese domination of the local economy.
With the demand for amenities from the growing migrant population increasing by the year, it was inevitable to see the opening of brothels, temples, schools, medical institutions, dshops, and other establishments that exclusively catered to the Japanese.
Outside the Japanese women who were offering their services to soldiers in American naval stations and every military posts, the karayuki-san (originally, the Japanese migrant workers in China), there were also prostitutes hired and destined for brothels in various parts of the country, catering mainly to Japanese men. One account cited of 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 a decade, the business flourished such that by 1917 the number of prostitution houses had reached ten. A report included in the Taft Papers showed that that during this decade, the town of Davao was home to three hundred sixty-one Japanese, including ten who were classified as karayuki.
Efforts by migrants, notably the Davao Japanese Association, to eradicate the prostitution did not prosper for fear such move would only encourage violence from the criminal elements supporting them. On the other hand, the brothels were viewed as part of the plantation economy of Davao. Petitions were sent to the Manila consulate which was afraid of the financial repercussion of the removal of brothers; in turn, the American administrator in Mindanao about the appeal. Frank W. Carpenter, governor of Mindanao and Sulu, cited three reasons for not acting on the appeals.
First, he argued the huge migrant Japanese population would oppose such move to eliminate brothels 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 may result in the prostitution of local women. And, third, the red-light district, the area where most of the brothers were situated, is 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 houses of ill-repute in the capital. As a result of thise banishment, there was rise in the number of gonorrhea cases in Davao in 1918. A 1920 health report showed that one thousand forty-one vaginal examinations, mostly from prostitutes, were recorded in Mintal alone.
To keep social, cultural and economic ties between and among Japanese outside their homeland, associations were organized in plantations and town centers where there were sizeable migrants that can be recruited. By 1929, after the establishment of consular office nine years earlier, 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, in particular, collected PhP224,918, according to the May 27, 1943 wartime issues of Manira Shimbun and Dabao Shimbun, to buy airplanes.
Associations included Japanese residents who operated large-scale companies and bazaars using local capital, including the Davao-based 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, and the ownership of Japanese-backed local publications such as Dabao Shimbun and Davao Times, renamed by its new owner as Mindanao Times.