cseas nl75 Vernon R. Totanes, Visiting Research Scholar, CSEAS

Bookstores, Beauty Parlors, and Weapons: Philippine Book History and the Japanese Occupation

Many, if not most, Filipinos are not avid readers. In 1935, former National Library Director Eulogio Rodriguez noted that trains in the Philippines were often noisier than their counterparts in Japan because Filipino passengers tended to chat with their companions, while Japanese passengers usually read newspapers or other publications (Rodriguez 1935, 3). In 1942, members of the Japanese Propaganda Corps made no such comparisons during their first few weeks in Manila, but they did observe that Filipinos seemed to value beauty parlors more than bookstores. The former were everywhere, but the latter were very few, and many of them—approximately 85 of 125—were selling all sorts of merchandise, not just books (Terami-Wada 1991, 180).

Yet the publication and distribution of newspapers and books was heavily regulated by the Japanese Military Administration from 1942 to 1945. Publishers were required to obtain permits prior to the publication of books and other printed matter, bookstores and libraries had to submit their holdings for examination, and even owners of mimeographing machines were ordered to register their equipment with the proper authorities. The seemingly benign business of textbook publishing and distribution was not spared. Within a few months, classes resumed under Japanese rule and many textbooks adopted during the American period were used once again, but pages depicting the United States in a favorable light were eliminated or, if they were deemed pro- American in their entirety, banned completely (ibid., 187–188; Agoncillo 1965, Vol. 1, 439–442).

More often than not, professional or scholarly appraisals of Philippine libraries during or after the Japanese Occupation have highlighted the quantity of printed matter destroyed during the Battle of Manila in 1945. According to Gabriel Bernardo, the librarian who led the effort to rebuild libraries after the war, the National Library of the Philippines and its branches “salvaged about 36,600 volumes out of its aggregate collection of 733,000 volumes and pamphlets,” while the University of the Philippines library was “completely destroyed, with the exception of about 3,000 volumes [of about 147,000 volumes] returned by borrowers after the liberation” (Ocampo 2004). Approximately 5% and 2%, respectively, remained of two of the largest library collections in the Philippines after the Battle of Manila. All other libraries and bookstores, whether large or small, public or private, were probably lucky if they were able to save that many books.

This article, however, does not focus on the books that were lost during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines. Instead, this article attempts to recon- Bookstores, Beauty Parlors, and Weapons: Philippine Book History and the Japanese Occupation Vernon R. Totanes Visiting Research Scholar, CSEAS The most valuable books of the Silliman University Library were hidden in a vault, but were eventually found by the Japanese and flooded with water. Photo from Wilson Library Bulletin, October 1945. Center for Southeast Asian Studies Kyoto University 015 struct the field of book production—or, more accurately, book destruction and survival—from the point of view of authors, publishers, booksellers, and readers. Based on the limited sources available, this preliminary study puts together fragments from official documents, contemporary accounts, and other sources that mention the Americans and Filipinos involved in the publication, manufacture, distribution, reception, and survival of books and other printed matter (Adams and Barker 1993) as a first step toward assessing the negative and, perhaps surprisingly, positive effects of the Japanese Occupation on Philippine book history.


Fig.1 Hugo Miller, Philippine representative of Ginn and Company, was beheaded by Japanese soldiers in 1943. Drawing courtesy of Rotary Club of Manila.

Despite the Filipinos’ relative lack of enthusiasm for reading, the Japanese regulation of books and other printed matter was not entirely unjustified. After all, then-US President Franklin Roosevelt did declare that “No man and no force can take from the world the books that embody man’s eternal fight against tyranny of every kind. In this war, we know, books are weapons” (Manning 2014, 48). This assertion eventually turned the Philippines into a stockpiling location for copies of overseas editions that the US published for post-liberation distribution. And while copies of the armed services editions, which were intended to keep soldiers occupied during downtimes (ibid.; Hench 2010, 104), undoubtedly made their way into the hands of some Filipinos, there is little evidence that these books made much of an impact on the conduct of war against the Japanese in the Philippines.

More evidence is available that Americans viewed books not as weapons, but as products to be sold to Filipinos. In 1943, Publisher’s Weekly (PW) reported that the Philippine Education Co. (or PECO)—“the largest book and stationery firm in the Philippines, and the largest American firm in [that] business in the Far East” (Tribune 1939, 46)—had been “stripped and padlocked and never reopened” (PW 1943, 29). In 1947, PW proclaimed that the Philippines was the No. 1 importer of US books, and noted that while this was due in part to textbook purchases for public schools, almost 75% of recent orders were for trade books, not textbooks. The same article goes on to lament the destruction of Manila’s publishing facilities during the war, lauds PECO’s successful reopening, and notes the great conditions in the Philippines for American publishers, including favorable trade regulations and the widespread use of English.

Perhaps most striking of all, in hindsight, is that all except one of those quoted in these stories, as well as the names of those reported as missing, were Americans. Of the five PECO officials alluded to in the 1943 article, three were mentioned again in the 1947 article: Verne Miller, who was on vacation in the US when war broke out, was PECO’s president when he died of illness in 1943; and David Gunnell and Robert Miller, who were among the Americans interned at the UST prison camp in Manila, resumed work at PECO as president and vice president, respectively, after the war ended.

Not all American civilians in Manila, however, were businessmen. Leila Maynard, another internee at UST, later wrote about her experience during the war as one of the few given the opportunity—in addition to their camp assignments—to review and catalog previously uncatalogued books that were found in UST’s Library, and how the library served as a sanctuary from “semi-starvation, monotony, and petty persecutions” (Maynard 2001, 562). The books she catalogued were among the few that survived the war. Outside Manila, Edith Carson, the wife of Silliman University’s president, recalled fleeing to the mountains of Negros, and—along with the Americans and Filipinos with their group—found comfort in the few books they were able to bring with them. She later learned that books from the Silliman University Library, which had been hidden in a vault, were “subsequently found by the Japanese and flooded with water” (Carson 1945, 139).

Perhaps the most tragic book-related story was that of Hugo Miller, who began working in the new US colony as a teacher in 1906 and worked his way up the hierarchy in the public school system, while also writing textbooks. In 1917, Miller joined Ginn and Company as its Philippine representative, and was responsible for hiring the first Filipino authors who wrote textbooks specifically for the Philippine market. Since the textbooks were tailored for Filipino students, their adoption for use in all public schools, as well as Ginn’s subsequent dominance, was practically guaranteed. After the war broke out, Miller joined the US Navy, and in 1944 was captured, beheaded, and buried in a shallow grave by Japanese soldiers. No one witnessed his execution, but the facts were established later by those who recalled that after Miller disappeared, dogs were observed digging holes near a tree and dragging bones away (Supreme Court 1958; Testimony 1946).


Sources that establish how Filipinos involved in the book trade died during the war have not been found, but there are a few that tell us what happened to the Filipinos who survived. A Brief History of the Philippines by Leandro Fernandez, published by Ginn and commissioned by Miller, was one of the first textbooks written by a Filipino that was adopted for use in all public schools. It was also one of the few titles that the Japanese Military Administration specifically prohibited Filipino students from using. Fernandez began teaching at the University of the Philippines (UP) in 1914 and was its history department’s first Filipino and longest-running chair, serving from 1922 to 1948. What Fernandez did during the war is uncertain, but it is clear that his house—along with his collection of rare books—burned sometime before 1945, and that he died of hypertension in 1948 (Totanes 2012, 97, 108). His educational background and contacts as a UP professor probably helped shield him from Japanese aggression. Many others had no such luck.

Fig.2 Placido Urbanes, Jr., escaped a massacre in 1945 and went on to become a successful publisher of trade magazines. Photo by Albert Ravenholt, courtesy of UP Diliman Main Library.

In January 1945, Jun Urbanes was 16 years old when he and about 300 other men in La Union were rounded up, tied with rope, and marched to the beach, where the Japanese began bayoneting the Filipinos and using their swords to behead them. Urbanes recalled that “When the man in front of me was bayoneted through the stomach, the blade came out behind and cut the rope on my wrists. I jumped aside and ran toward the sea. A Jap officer chased after me, chopping me with his sword like I was an animal.” He fell into the water and lost consciousness, which probably saved him because when he awoke, the Japanese officer was gone and he was able to run and hide (Ravenholt 1968, 4–5).

Collecting his father’s life insurance and some war damage payments from the US made it possible for Urbanes to finish his schooling, and get into publishing as a messenger, proofreader, correspondent, and eventually a successful publisher of trade magazines. War reparations from Japan later helped him acquire offset presses and other equipment. The article ends with him saying, “there are enough ordinary people who have confidence, who remember how we have risen since the war, and who believe that this country can keep moving” (ibid., 15).

While the Japanese Occupation was devastating for Filipinos in many ways, the reconstruction that took place after the war made it possible for Urbanes and other survivors like him to enter businesses like publishing, which were previously dominated by Americans. Perhaps the most successful of the Filipinos who ventured into the book business after the war were Jose and Socorro Ramos. Before war broke out, the Ramoses met at what would eventually be known as the original National Book Store (NBS), which was not really a store, but a rented corner in a larger shop (de Manila 1977). Theirs may very well have been one of the bookstores that the Japanese Propaganda Corps observed selling not only books, but many other kinds of merchandise as well.

While Socorro Ramos does not attribute her success to the Japanese, the NBS story that she tells always goes back to her experiences during the war, when she learned to sell her goods by approaching Japanese shopkeepers who tended to shout at her, and negotiated a deal with a Japanese wholesaler that paid huge dividends after liberation. When asked why she works so hard, she has been known to reply that “Maybe it’s the fear of being poor again …” (ibid., 27).

NBS was not mentioned in either of PW’s 1943 or 1947 articles on the Philippine book industry, but 50 years later, PW reminded its readers that the Philippines was again the No. 1 importer of American books, recognized the family-owned NBS as “the country’s biggest chain” (PW 1997, 17), and named Socorro, her children, and grandchildren (Jose died in 1992), along with other Filipinos, as the leaders of the book industry in the Philippines. In contrast to the 1947 article, neither PECO nor the names of any Americans are mentioned in the 1997 update. This, perhaps, was a sign that the Philippine book industry had developed significantly over the past five decades.

However, it is also worth noting that PW had also become more sensitive to local concerns. Instead of highlighting reasons for American publishers to consider the Philippines as a market for their books, the article observes that the local publishing industry was struggling to “gain a foothold against an avalanche of U.S. titles” (ibid.) which were imported duty-free and sold for less than their cover price in dollars, unlike local titles, which could be printed only on heavily-taxed imported paper and were thus more expensive than their foreign counterparts of similar length and print quality.


Many, if not most, Filipinos are not avid readers, so why did the Japanese Military Administration crack down on books and other printed matter—as well as the Americans and Filipinos who published, distributed, and read them—during World War II? Were the Japanese just being paranoid? Perhaps. But it is also quite possible that they understood Filipinos in a way that has yet to be fully explored by scholars.

Caroline Hau argues that the influence of Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere—the best-known work by a Filipino ever to be banned by any government— stems not so much from its impact on the few who understood it, but its effect “on those who could not and did not read it” (Hau 2000, 51). Hau elaborates further by asserting that the controversy surrounding the book, while effectively limiting the distribution of Rizal’s novel, actually encouraged the dissemination of Rizal’s ideas in the form of rumors.

By regulating the distribution of books and other printed matter, the Japanese effectively limited the number of Filipinos who could read them, as well as the number of Filipinos whom they could tell about what they read. And with the Filipino penchant for chatting on trains, as Rodriguez observed in 1935, or for going to beauty parlors (and chatting there), as the Japanese noticed in 1942, an unauthorized publication read by one Filipino could very well—and probably did—prove that Roosevelt was right when he asserted that books are weapons.


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