May 29, 2023

HER SIDE OF THE COURT | What Jaja Santiago’s choice to take Japanese citizenship says about PH sports

HER SIDE OF THE COURT | What Jaja Santiago’s choice to take Japanese citizenship says about PH sports
PVL | Saitama Ageo Medics | Art by One Sports

One of the best Filipina volleyball players active today, Jaja Santiago, will not play in the upcoming Southeast Asian Games in Cambodia. Philippine women’s volleyball team coach Jorge Souza de Brito confirmed this, saying that she is already processing her Japanese citizenship.

Santiago has been playing for the Ageo Medics in the Japan Women’s V.League since 2018. She helped the team to bronze medal finish in the 2019-20 season—a first for a player from the Philippines—and was awarded “Best Blocker” for the 2020-21 season. Last year, she also announced her engagement to Japanese volleyball coach Taka Minowa, who has worked with the Japanese national team.

Much has been said about Filipino athletes seeking greener pastures abroad. Chess grandmaster Wesley So left the Philippines after conflicts with PH sports authorities, going on to acquire US Citizenship and winning 3 US Chess Championships. Basketball players from the UAAP and NCAA now count Japan and Korea as viable alternatives to entering the PBA draft after college; which has kicked up quite the stir in Asia’s oldest basketball league. Fil-Japanese golfer Yuka Saso, who once played for the Philippine national team, has chosen Japanese citizenship as well.

Every case is different and comes with its own nuances, but there are common threads.

Part of it is financial. Athletes are humans: they have families, they dream of moving up in the world, same as everyone, and going international offers life-changing money. Part of it is self-actualization: Can you make it alongside a higher level of competition? How high can your star rise? Just how far can you go? (Cue the ‘Moana’ theme song here!)

In an interview with FIVB, Santiago talked about playing in Japan: "Above all, I learned to be a professional athlete by becoming more disciplined, being more focused and prepared for each match. I have learned a lot from this experience, but I will not stop here. Every opportunity is a challenge to conquer and every challenge is a chance to learn something new."

But another part of it is systems. How do we build better (not just more) semi-pro and professional leagues here, standardize best practices for national sports associations, and have our national teams be competitive so that Fil-foreign athletes, when faced with the choice of which team to play for, choose the Philippines—not because of blind idealism and pure “para sa bayan,” but also because it’s the practical choice “para sa sarili at sa pamilya?”

In an interview with the US Chess Federation, Wesley So once talked about the systems that helped him thrive as a chess player in America: “I love that anyone can strive to succeed. You are not held back by your color, lack of connections, or the amount of money you have. If you work hard, you have a better chance of making it here than anywhere else in the world. I came here ready to work hard, and it turned out just as I dreamed.”

Until the Philippines cracks that puzzle, my response to Pinoy athletes remains the same: You do you, get that bag, and see how far you’ll go.