The image of José Laurel that emerges from one bundle of correspondence is far from the collaborator attempting to help realize a Japanese vision of the Philippines as part of a pan-Asian empire, but rather as an opportunist in a position of power. The bulk of the correspondence contained in this bundle of letters that José Laurel wrote as Commissioner of Justice in 1942 are primarily requests from contacts of Laurel, and Laurel’s own requests and intersessions on his own and others’ behalf to other Philippine authorities, the Japanese authorities, and private businesses and citizens.
Many letters are directed towards other Philippine civil servants, as in the case of the letter to Leon Guinto, the mayor of Greater Manila, who is asked to ensure police investigate the looting attempts against a Chinese merchant living on Manga Road, San Francisco del Monte, dated March 30, 1942 (Letter 19). In letters received and sent by Laural, requests for the removal for sale of goods from warehouses, dozens of job placement requests for friends and their family members, and requests for car permits were made, including those for Laurel’s physicians as well as himself. Rarely, such requests noted the esteem held in the Japanese community for the benefactor of such requests, as in a letter to Laurel from the Governor of Davao, R. C. Quimpo, dated May 7, 1942. In requesting Laurel look into the appointment of two individuals he notes of one that he would be “of much help in our pacification program” and of the other he was one of those who “surrendered early to the Japanese” (Letter 32). It is impossible, of course, to judge the consideration that these “qualifications” were given by Laurel, and no reply seems to be included in this bundle of correspondences. The bulk of such correspondences are instead like that sent by Laurel to the city mayor Manila, Leon Guinto, on August 10, recommending one of his office’s typists for a job as a “census enumerator” (Letter 79).
Such personal intersessions were common, and were sent not only to Philippines but also Japanese authorities. One such letter was sent to the Japanese Military Adviser based in Manila, a Mr. Kodaki, on April 10, 1942 requesting that the Military Administration connect with his personal friend, Dr. Nicanor Reyes of the Far Eastern University. Dr. Reyes was concerned about the preservation of materials and equipment, no doubt wishing to protect them from the ravages of war, and was requesting either assistance or permission from the Japanese authorities to do so (Letter 22). On May 23 of the same year Laurel sent a letter to a Col. Wanatabe, Commander of the Imperial Japanese Forces in Southern Luzon, to intercede in the investigation against Mareele Miranda, mayor of Bacoer. In this correspondence, Laurel vouched for his character as his friend, and suggested that the antipathies of local politics were behind his “harassment.” Laurel requests the colonel not be “carried by local political differences” (Letter 39). In another letter, dated July 11 of that year, Laurel asks that the military authorities allow one Isidra Filarf, a former student of Laurel’s, to testify on her brother-in-law’s behalf, who it seems was arrest by military authorities (Letter 59).
Laurel was not merely an opportunist, however, and this is reflected in some correspondence regarding administrative matters. On April 24, 1942 correspondences note that given that the American Red Cross were no longer welcome in the occupied Philippines that organizing a local Red Cross was required (Letter 26). Letter 56, on July 4, 1942, outlines the judicial reform that had been implemented. Perhaps most interesting is a letter dated August 10, on the same day he asked a a job placement for one of his typists, and this letter is addressed to the Director-General of the Japanese Military Administration (Letter 80). In this letter, Laurel makes the case that clear “spheres of jurisdiction” need to be outlined between the Philippine civil administration and that of the Japanese Military Administration. Laurel notes that the “supremacy of the Military Administration must be recognized as the source of powers and concessions granted to the civil administration.” He then references Order Number Two, issued by the Commander in Chief of the Japanese Imperial Military Forces, on education in the Philippines. Laurel’s point is clear enough—while one may rule by decree, one must also have some way of implementing such decrees. I read Laurel’s argument here as a subtle move to try to ensure more “powers and concessions” are granted to the civil administration. One the face of it, this is because such concessions are necessary for implementation of Japanese policy. And as latter exchanges show, there was an initiative afoot to rationalize this relationship. But given the context, in which Laurel seems to be navigating the system to maximize its benefits for his own benefactors, it seems difficult not to read this as an attempt to create more “elbow room” in which to allow civil authorities to navigate and continue a system of patronage, albeit one now under a new foreign regime. As so often is the case, and individual in a position of power is making the case to preserve or strengthen that position. Given what we know about Laurel’s own aristocratic tendencies, this is unsurprising.