DAVAO CITY - Choosing Davao for his first official visit to the Philippines was not just strategic diplomatically for Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono, but personally as well.
During a VIP inauguration ceremony for Japan’s new Consulate General on Sunday night, the country’s top diplomat revealed another reason for his visit -- to eat his favorite fruit.
“I always wanted to come to Davao, which is the durian capital of the Philippines,” he told the crowd of government officials and local Filipino-Japanese community gathered at the Waterfront Insular Hotel. “I’m proud to report to you that a big part of my objective of this visit was already fulfilled.”
Kono reflected on his weekend visit in an exclusive interview, saying he tried 3 varieties of the local delicacy and held productive meetings to strengthen cooperation on infrastructure, regional security, business relations, and economic development across Mindanao, especially following the ratification of the Bangsamoro Organic Law.
The results are especially meaningful for Tokyo, which helped initiate the Mindanao peace process by hosting the historic meeting between then-President Benigno Aquino III and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) chairman Murad Ebrahim in 2011.
Murad attended Sunday’s ceremony, along with Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea, Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez, National Security Adviser Gen. Hermogenes Esperon, Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Carlito Galvez, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio. Philippine Ambassador to Japan Jose Laurel, Japanese Ambassador to the Philippines Koji Haneda, and Japanese Consul General in Davao Yoshiaki Miwa. Kono also met with Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana earlier that day.
“The peace process is taking a giant step forward and we are determined to support this process,” Kono said. “We need to keep tapping into the Japanese business community. This has a great capacity and if they decide to come to Mindanao, it will help develop the economy. People here need a peace dividend and we will try to work for that.”
Murad said he appreciates Japan’s support, adding the overall mood is positive after the “landslide” result of the recent plebescite.
“Now we are trying to converge the development plans to have a comprehensive development, so that will be the development plan of the MILF, the MNLF, the ALMF and also the NEDA,” Murad said. “The political process now is the final solution to the peace and order situation.”
On Saturday night, Kono called on President Rodrigo Duterte at Matina Enclaves, telling him Japan is ready to assist in the transition period and offered his condolences to the victims of the deadly bombing in Sulu. Malacañang said in a statement that Duterte was "honored" by Kono's visit.
Mayor Duterte-Carpio echoed her father’s sentiment, noting the city’s historical ties to Japan make it ideal for economic growth.
“What we really want is an increase in business and trade between Davao City and cities in Japan and we hope to do that with the Consul General,” she said.
It happens to be priority number one for Consul Miwa, who said he’s working to dispel the negative perception of martial law, which is a concern for some Japanese investors.
“Many Japanese companies are aware of the future of Mindanao” and its potential, said Miwa, who hosts visiting Japanese firms interested in seeing the situation.
The fortunes of Japan are essentially tied to the fortunes of Mindanao, with investments not only in Davao, but in economic hubs like General Santos’ tuna and fisheries industries and Cagayan de Oro’s role in Japan’s steel and palm oil production.
For Locsin, who extended the invitation to Kono, the visit was “more a celebration of friendship than it is what they call a revival,” noting that Japan has been “a consistent supporter of Philippine progress.”
“They never faltered no matter what,” Locsin said. “They’re always a friend, in good times and bad.”
Japan isn’t Mindanao’s only friend. Western powers, like the United States and Australia, have a vested interest in developing and uplifting conflict-stricken Mindanao, while China has become more vocal about pledging its assistance. In October, Beijing sent its own chief envoy Wang Yi to Davao for an official visit and to inaugurate its Consulate General.
Before his bilateral meeting with Kono, Locsin touted Japan’s assistance as the “gold standard” and “template for similar such arrangements with other countries” due to its “quality of outcomes, breadth, and generosity of terms.”
After the hour-long bilateral meeting, the foreign ministers signed an agreement on a more than $1.2 billion road network project for conflict-affected areas in Mindanao, with Japan providing a $202 million loan provision for infrastructure spanning 150 kilometers, including 40 bridges.
Indeed, Kono’s visit is a timely reminder of Tokyo’s deep historical and cultural connection to Davao, which was home to the largest Japanese community in Asia about 100 years ago. Kono met students from Mindanao Kokusai Daigaku and the Philippine Nikkei Jin Kai International School, living testaments to the legacy of Japan’s early settlers in Davao in the 1900s.
“Davao is the biggest colony of Japanese in the Philippines, with roughly about 70,000,” said Laurel, who accompanied the Japanese delegation from Tokyo. “The Japanese are happy because they are observing the kind of absorption that the Filipino community in Mindanao has afforded the Japanese.”
As luck would have it, the very first Japanese chief consul in Davao in 1920 was the uncle of Consul Miwa’s father-in-law, bringing the Philippine-Japanese relationship full circle. Fate, Kono called it.
Looking ahead, Miwa is preparing for a massive centennial celebration in October of the founding of Japan’s Davao Consulate. He is also scouting sites where cherry blossoms can thrive.
Sakura would be a fitting symbol of peace and friendship for Mindanao, not only for 2 nations once divided by war, but for their joint effort to bring beauty out of battle.