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Dr. Josefa Saniel, former dean of UP Asian Center, dies at 98

Isagani de Castro Jr.

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Dr. Josefa Saniel, former dean of UP Asian Center, dies at 98

DEAN. Dr. Josefa Saniel, a former dean of the UP Asian Center, in her home in Quezon City in 2007. She died on December 21, 2023.

Takushi Ohno

(1st UPDATE) A pioneer in Japanese studies in the Philippines, Dr. Saniel was conferred the Order of the Precious Crown in 1986 by the Japanese Emperor and the Japanese government, an award given to ladies for ‘meritorious services’

MANILA, Philippines – Dr. Josefa Saniel, a former dean of the University of the Philippines (UP) Asian Center in UP Diliman, passed away during the Christmas holidays at the age of 98. 

Known as the “grand dame of Japanology,” Saniel established the foundation for Japanese studies in the Philippines back in sixties when most Filipinos still despised Japan over the atrocities, destruction, and hardship during World War 2 and early post-war years.  

It would take around half a century for Japan to reverse that animosity, but only after becoming the Philippines’ largest aid donor, one of the biggest sources of foreign investments and trade partners, liberalizing the entry of Filipinos in Japan, expanding cultural exchanges, and most importantly, opening its labor market to Filipinos that expanded people-to-people ties.

The UP Asian Center shared with Rappler on Friday, January 5 its internal announcement on Saniel’s death on December 21, four days before Christmas.

AT WORK. Dr. Josefa Saniel (left) as a young dean of the UP Asian Center with her then-student Jocelyn dela Cruz in the seventies in UP Diliman, Quezon City. Takushi Ohno

“It is with a heavy heart that we announce the passing of Professor Emeritus and former Dean of the UP Asian Center, Josefa M. Saniel, Ph.D. She was a remarkable leader and an inspiring mentor, known as the ‘grand dame of Japanology’ in the Philippines. Her contributions to academia and her unwavering commitment to the development of Japanese Studies in the country have made a lasting impact on our community,” the school said. 

One of her early Japanese graduate students, Takushi Ohno, recalled Saniel’s familiarity with Japanese culture by not initially correcting him in his letters that the dean of what was then the UP Graduate School of Asian Studies was female, not male.

“Before I entered UP’s Asian Center in 1970, I corresponded with the [Asian] center from Tokyo by letter, and the professor responded to me as ‘Dean’ [Dean of the Graduate School of Asian Studies]. ‘Dean should be a man,’ I thought so, and always addressed my letters as ‘Mr. Saniel,’ but my teacher didn’t bother to change that,” recalled Ohno, in an email to Rappler.

“In order to save on travel expenses, I took a cargo ship from Yokohama to Manila, and when I arrived at UP a few weeks later of academic schedule to registration, she greeted me with a smile and said, ‘Oh, I’m Mr. Saniel.’  It was her style of humor that was based on her thorough understanding of Japan’s social background, behind the assumption that ‘people in high positions are men’ at that time,” he said.

Ohno, now a retired journalist, said it took him five years to finish his master’s degree from the UP Asian Center, and he would not have been able to do it had Saniel not helped him through his poor English. 

“Meeting her enriched my relationship with the Philippines ever since. When I think of ‘great Filipinos,’ Dr. Saniel always comes to mind,” Ohno, a former Manila bureau chief of the Japanese broadsheet, Asahi Shimbun, said.

Another of her graduate students, Dr. Ed Tadem, professor emeritus of Asian Studies and an Asian Center professorial lecturer, said he and Saniel shared a common Visayan heritage: Saniel was from Carcar, Cebu, while Tadem’s father was from Duero, Bohol, and they “always conversed in Cebuano.” 

“Through the years, Dean Saniel constantly monitored my academic progress. When my studies lagged after my course work, she kept reminding me to do my thesis quickly. She was overjoyed when I finally got my degree nine long years after. I will always remember Dean Saniel as a uniquely warm, caring, and compassionate person,” Tadem said. 

“I didn’t know Dr. Saniel but found her so endearing every time she’d come to the Asian Center and attend one of our activities,” Professor Antoinette Raquiza, assistant to the Dean for Public Affairs of the UP Asian Center, told Rappler. 

In its tribute, the UP Asian Center said: “She was known for her warm personality, her willingness to listen, and her ability to motivate and guide her students. Her passion for research and dedication to her work were unparalleled. She set an example that many aspired to follow.”

Saniel finished her Bachelor of Science in Education at the UP, graduating magna cum laude in 1949. She got her master’s degree in history at the University of Chicago in 1953 through a Fulbright Smith-Mundt grant, and her doctorate in Far Eastern Studies at the University of Michigan in 1961. John W. Hall, an authority on pre-modern Japan, supervised her in her graduate studies.

“Just as Professor Hall played an influential role in the development of Japanese Studies in the United States, so did Dr. Saniel in the case of the Philippines. She helped establish area studies as a field of study, and develop Japanese Studies as a graduate degree program, in the University of the Philippines,” said the UP Asian Center in its profile on Saniel. 

“…she wrote on modern Japanese history, with particular emphasis on the second half of the 19th century; Philippines-Japan relations; Japanese culture, society, and literature, and Japan’s foreign policy in Southeast Asia. Some of her publications were translated into Japanese and published in Japan,” reads a biography of Saniel published in the Asian Studies, a journal of the UP Asian Center. 

The school said that her pioneering book, “Japan and the Philippines: 1868 to 1898,” which is based on her PhD dissertation and published by the UP Press, is her most-cited work.

“The greatest achievement of the author’s research is the opening of a new field so far neglected by Western scholars…. One must praise Dr. Saniel for what must have been the extremely difficult research involved in detailing the activities of the shishi, Japanese military officers and civilians who were sent to the Philippines despite the official hands-off policy of Japan,” the biography says. 

Saniel also worked for a time as consultant for Japan Affairs of the Department of Foreign Affairs. She started her career in the academe by teaching history in the state university in the 1950s, and rose from the ranks to eventually become dean of the UP Asian Center from 1980 to 1985, and professor emeritus in 1993. The school’s library has a Saniel Collection which consists of 1,773 books, mostly on Japanese studies, that she donated. 

In a special feature, “Meet the female scholar who helped pioneer Japanese Studies in post-war Philippine,” for International Women’s Day in 2022, the UP Asian Center honored Saniel for her contributions to Asian studies. 

Citing several studies of Saniel on the Japanese family system, state building, and modernization and how they compare to the Philippines, the Asian Studies journal said what emerges is a “contrast between the two countries.” 

“Meiji Japan had social cohesion, ‘strong and responsible leadership,’ a ‘political system stable and powerful enough to channel cohesive social action in the attainment of national ends,’ and ‘strong national group consciousness and solidarity.’ (Saniel 1965a, 143–45). By contrast, there was social and political fragmentation in the Philippines, and the prevalence of partisan interests that militate against nation-building. Advocating for ‘national cohesion’ and loyalty to the ‘nation,’ her conclusion in the discussion the Treaty of Amity, Commerce and Navigation, resonates today,” wrote the introduction to an Asian Studies special issue, “Area Studies and Nationalism: Japan the the Philippines in the Writings of Dr. Josefa Saniel,” published in 2018. 

“The crucial need of the Philippines today is the transcending of personal and small group interests which impede the channeling of loyalties to the larger community –– the nation state. Once national cohesion is reached, it would be difficult for any country or people to bargain for any arrangement detrimental to the country and its people. The sooner this is realized by the Filipino leaders, the faster can national goals be reached, and the easier it will be for the Filipino political leaders to negotiate for mutually beneficial arrangements with another country, say Japan….,” wrote Saniel in 1971. 

Due to her work on Japanese studies, Saniel was conferred in November 1986 the Order of the Precious Crown by His Majesty the Emperor of Japan and the Japanese government. According to the Philippines’ Official Gazette, the Order of the Precious Crown, established by Emperor Meiji on January 4, 1888, is given to ladies, Japanese and foreign, for meritorious services. 

In a statement on Tuesday, January 9, the Japanese embassy condoled with Saniel’s family and friends. 

“Dr. Saniel’s unwavering commitment to the development of Japanese Studies has rightfully earned her the title ‘grand dame of Japanology.’ Her impactful contributions to fostering cultural understanding between Japan and the Philippines has left an indelible mark on our shared academic landscape,” the embassy said. 

“May her legacy continue to inspire generations of scholars, and may she rest in eternal peace.” – Rappler.com

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Isagani de Castro Jr.

Before he joined Rappler as senior desk editor, Isagani de Castro Jr. was longest-serving editor in chief of ABS-CBN News online. He had reported for the investigative magazine Newsbreak, Asahi Shimbun Manila, and Business Day. He has written chapters for books on politics, international relations, and civil society.