Thursday, January 17, 2013


by Alma R. H. Reyes and Dennis Sun

Sorry to disappoint you but not everything you read in the pages of history books is true. There are half-truths, fabricated myths, and still some that were omitted due to a variety of reasons: political, religious, economical, or personal. You will get disappointed to know that they didn’t actually happen. Or, there were some things missing in between. You’ll be surprised that what we were taught in school were actually censored. Yes, not only in movies, but even scenes in history books had to be repressed and suppressed.

This is basically what Dr. Ambeth R. Ocampo, our renowned historian and professor from Ateneo de Manila University, and now visiting lecturer at Sophia University, is actually preaching. And, because of this, he is both hated and loved. He will disappoint you by telling you with all frankness and justification that some of what you have been taught in school are lies.

Disappointed? Dis- enchanted? Others get excited, though! Ambeth’s lectures and workshops are, indeed, a wake-up call. They open your mind and ask you what the truth is.

But wait, even Ambeth’s name is an enigma. Sorry to disappoint you again, but Ambeth is not his real name. Ambeth is actually a nickname that he had used all his life, and he is known by this name rather than the one written in his birth certificate. “I am seriously considering a change of name so my passport will carry Ambeth Ocampo,” Ambeth discloses.

Ambeth, your multi-awarded Filipino educator is also your favorite stand-up comic. He would use materials and ideas deemed non-conventional by other academes to spark reaction, response and reciprocation from his audience and students. Ambeth believes education doesn’t have to be boring. He admits he would use humor to get his message across.

Perhaps, because his lectures are too captivating and seductively intriguing, he had to take a pause and infiltrate the monastic life when he entered the Benedictine Abbey of Our Lady of Montserrat in Manila where he was known by, don’t be surprised, another name: as Dom. Ignacio Maria, OSB. One wonders if he has infected the whole monastery with his recognized wit, humor and fun.

Ambeth served as Chairman of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (2002 to 2011) and Chairman of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (2005 to 2007). He is the most famous living Filipino historian of our generation, and an expert on Jose Rizal. He writes a bi-weekly editorial page column for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, and boasts more than twenty published books.

We are blessed to have Ambeth Ocampo in Japan with us as he uncovers more interesting chapters and connections between Japan and Philippine history. During one of his lectures in Sophia University, he explained that teaching history should go beyond dates, names, places and facts. He stressed the need to look into the “how and why” more than the “what, where and when.”

Ambeth Ocampo’s stories, whether you read them in books or in his newspaper columns, or hear them in his lectures, remind us that our heroes are simply human beings like us. So be prepared to  be shocked when Ambeth brings to life an episode in history, and unfurls you the skeletons inside the closets of our heroes!


JP: When and how did you start to focus on your research study on Rizal? Why this subject?
AO: I did not plan to be a historian. I started as a journalist who wrote history, and ended up as an academic. Why Rizal? Because he’s there; because he wrote a lot for a nation that does not read him; because he left me with twenty-five volumes of writing to perpetually mine for new insights relevant to Filipinos of our time.

JP: They say that the Americans chose Rizal over Bonifacio to be our National Hero because Bonifacio was too aggressive and violent compared to Rizal. What's your comment on this?
AO: The question regarding “who should be our national hero” is not a historical but an ideological question. Rizal AND Bonifacio are National Heroes, so are other 19th century figures, like Emilio Aguinaldo, Apolinario Mabini, Emilio Jacinto, the Luna brothers Antonio and Juan, and even women like Gregoria de Jesus (Mrs. Bonifacio), Rizal’s mother Theodora Alonso, as well as Rizal’s sisters. To say the Americans chose Rizal as our National Hero is saying that Filipinos are so gullible and stupid they would venerate Mickey Mouse if he were chosen as a hero for us. For the record, there is no law declaring Rizal our National Hero. Heroes are not made; they are not legislated; they are there because people put them there; because people see something in heroes that inspire us to be heroic ourselves in our time, in our way.

JP: Rizal was well travelled. How do you think Rizal would have promoted the Philippines to the world should he be appointed as Tourism Secretary?
AO: Rizal will never be appointed Tourism Secretary because he is not a politician. If you read Rizal’s travel impressions, he would always compare what he saw abroad with what he saw back home. I’d like to think that Rizal was like many overseas Filipinos today who learn to love their country more when they are abroad. You see, there is truth to the saying that absence makes the heart grow fonder.

JP: If Rizal was a woman, how do you think Philippine history would have changed?
AO: It would be written from a woman’s point of view, and instead of being HIS-story, it would be HER-story.

JP: If you were Rizal, how would you plan your death the way he did?
AO: I’m not scared of death; that's where we will all end up some day. If I could plan it, I would want it to be quick and painless.


JP: As the most popular Philippine historian in this generation, how would you rewrite the history of the Philippines if given the chance? What aspects would you change?
AO: I write for a wider general audience, I don't write for academic historians, there is no fun preaching to the converted. I want history to be engaging not boring. I want people to find connections between events, and find the past relevant in their lives. I want a history that is fair and complete. For example, we study both the good and bad aspects of the Spanish, American, British, and Japanese colonial periods because these made us what we are today. There is no sense blaming the past for the present; what is important is that history gives us the perspective to guide us into the future. It is useless to even consider returning to the bahag and baybayin of the pre-Spanish past. History gives us the base from which we understand the present—a perch from where we spring to fly into the future.

JP: As a historian, writer and educator, which of these professions are you first, the closest to you, and enjoy being the most?
AO: I am basically a teacher; history is my subject area. Thus, research gives me my material, and I disseminate this by lecturing in a classroom or writing for the newspapers. I have been fortunate to have a job that I truly like, so it does not seem like work to me.

JP: How would you want history to remember you when you die?
AO: I want to be remembered as a historian who took history from the ivory towers of academia, and returned it to people where it also belongs.


JP: You have been coming back many times to Japan. How many times? Do you think it's "more fun" in Japan? Why?
AO: My first trip to Japan was to visit the Expo ’70 in Osaka. I was only eight years old then, and it made an impression. For the past decade, I have been coming to Japan almost every year. I wouldn't say it’s “more fun” in Japan. That's like comparing Rizal and Bonifacio! Japan is a beautiful country with a lot of history that may be that is why Kyoto and Tokyo are some of my favorite cities in the world, together with: New York City, London, Paris, Madrid, Hong Kong, Bangkok, and of course, Manila which is home, the city of our affections.

JP: What are some Japanese traits, beha-viors or aspects of Japanese culture do you admire, and not admire?
AO: I admire the Japanese sense of order, their cleanliness, discipline, and their aesthetic sense—the way they embrace moments of silence and solitude. I am fascinated by the way something so unnatural like a bonsai is made to look natural. On the other side of the coin, I see that in daily life this sense of order is so rigid they have a hard time adapting to things that are not in the script. They have difficulty thinking out of the box or dealing with issues spontaneously.

JP: What are your particular observations about Japanese students?
AO: Students are the same everywhere. I have always wondered why young people at the peak of their physical powers should sit in a classroom instead of enjoying all that life has to offer. Japanese students are quiet and not as participative as Filipino students who like to talk a lot either in recitation or during a lecture! I was told that Japanese students don't want to recite because that is seen as showing off. Japanese students will not ask questions as that would appear like challenging a teacher. What I had to get used to were students who sleep in class. This is unacceptable in the Philippines, and would merit being thrown out of class, but here we are told it is not meant to be insulting to the teacher, and that I shouldn't take it personally.

JP: If you were to bring one (1) item from Japan to the Philippines, what would it be?
AO: One item only? Gosh, there are many things I’d like to bring home from Japan. One inexpensive thing? It would be a furoshiki whose print reminds me of Japan; it is also a simple object with many uses. One expensive thing? I’d like to bring home a piece of Namban pottery from the 16th or 17th century—blue and white ceramic with a Jesuit symbol on it.

JP: If you were trapped in a Tokyo subway for six (6) hours during an earthquake, what three (3) things would you want to have?
AO: A book(s), a bottle of water, and a fan.

JP: Name three (3) things you would like Filipinos to learn from the Japanese.
AO: First, stay on one side of the escalator so others can go ahead on the other. Second, when the MRT or LRT stops, or when in an elevator, let people get off first before going in. Common sense as you know is not common, and in Manila I always wonder why people rush into a packed train without knowing that you cannot get in if you don't let people out. Third, don’t litter.


JP: You were in the monastery one time in your life and left. What made you enter the monastery and why did you leave?
AO: I was in a Benedictine monastery living a life of prayer, work, and silence. In retrospect, those were the happiest and most productive years of my life. Why did I leave? Because there was much I needed to do outside the cloister. My community was very patient with me, and allowed me to write and research, but it was taking a toll on me and them, so to simplify things, I allowed my vows to expire. Technically, I may return any time and should be accepted because I was not asked to leave. Neither did I break my vows of: obedience, stability and conversion of life. I often think of returning, but not yet.

JP: If you were not a historian now, what would you have been?
AO: Let’s put it this way. If I could live my life again, I wouldn't live it too differently. If I could live life again, I wish that I would have my present mind in a toddler’s body. 

Toddler or not, Dr. Ambeth R. Ocampo opens our eyes to the many ways by which we can view history not merely as the seed of our past, but more importantly, the cradle of our present and future. He will be with us in Japan until the end of his teaching tenure at Sophia University in March 2013.

Hopefully, he would pursue to extend his stay so he could continue telling us more historical surprises!

No comments:

Post a Comment