Jaja Santiago: Chasing Her Dreams in Japan

Jaja Santiago had no idea she ranked as the world’s number 1 female volleyball player.

“Nagulat po ako noong nalaman ko. Everything was surreal!” Jaja Santiago told ALL-STAR.

In early March 2024, her name topped Volleybox’s list of the world’s best female volleyball players after she won Japan V.League’s Best Attacker, Best Blocker, and Fighting Spirit Award.

Santiago credited her teammates and coaches for the triple awards. 

“Dahil na rin po sa teammates ko iyon, lalo na yung setters namin sa team, they are really working hard na magkaroon kami ng good connection. Every practice, kinakausap nila ako, and yung coaches namin, marami talaga silang binibigay sa aming mga middle blockers na videos kung ano ang pwede naming gayahin for blockings. Malaking tulong po iyon,” said Santiago. 

These awards catapulted Santiago to the top of Volleybox’s world rankings of female volleyball players. She ranked number 1 on March 7, 2024. According to Volleybox, the rankings are based on two things: the positions of players’ teams in the tournaments they played in 2024 and individual awards won by players in 2024. Each award won has a base value, multiplied by the placement finished by the team in the league. 

But not all league awards have the same weight. For example, awards given at the South American Volleyball Championship have more weight than those given at the Japan V.League, since the site’s global administrators consider the former a more prestigious tournament. As of this writing, Jaja Santiago is placed at number 2, while outside hitter from Russia, Sofya Kuznetsova is at number 1 even though Santiago earned more awards during the season. 

“Yung sa pagiging rank 1 po, actually hindi ko po alam siya kung paano inaachieve!” Santiago laughs.  “I’m really happy and overwhelmed sa result na iyon. When I came to Japan, yung pangarap ko lang is to play the highest level na kaya kong ilaro.”

Jaja smiles as she relishes her achievements. But her story was very different when she first transferred to Japan.

Jaja Santiago
Photo: Jaja Santiago / Instagram

It’s been six years since Alyja “Jaja” Santiago left the Philippines to pursue her volleyball career in the Land of the Rising Sun. Now one of the world’s top female volleyball players, Jaja Santiago opens up about loneliness, giving up, and finally finding her step in Japan, now her second home. 

“Playing here is very tough, you face many different challenges,” Santiago tells ALL-STAR

According to Santiago, her first struggle was the language barrier. 

“Noong pumunta ako rito, siguro language barrier ang pinakamahirap,” she said. When she took the language proficiency exam, she was convinced she would fail. One day, when she was walking with her husband at a mall with her friends, she screamed as she saw her name among the passers. Her husband, NXLED coach Taka Minowa, Director of Volleyball Operations for Nxled and Akari Chargers in the Philippines, also shouted in jubilation. 

“Sobrang hirap po talaga ng exam. Hindi ko po talaga ineexpect kasi alam ko po na nahirapan talaga ako doon sa exam,” said Santiago. 

According to Santiago, her teammates are very accommodating when it comes to talking with her outside games. But when it comes to the games, she is treated like a Japanese player. “When they make a shot call, they shout in Japanese.” 

But more than the language barrier, it was changing her citizenship that Santiago considers her biggest sacrifice.


Jaja Santiago’s biggest sacrifice is changing her citizenship.

Changing citizenship is often a sensitive issue in sports, and for many athletes, it’s the ultimate sacrifice. As of this writing, Santiago is undergoing the process of naturalization in Japan.

“Yung changing of my citizenship, iyon ang pinaka sacrifice ko. Mahirap magpalit kasi sa puso’t isip ko, Pilipino pa rin ako,” said Santiago. 

“Tumatanda na rin po ako, I really want to play the highest level na kaya, which is to play for the Olympics. I think malayo pa tayo doon sa Pilipinas. Eventually, makakalaro tayo but until when ko kaya makukuha ang pangarap na iyon?”

Santiago is just one in the long line of Filipinos who embrace the citizenship of foreign countries to improve their talents and climb higher in their sporting careers. Cavite-born chess grandmaster Wesley So now represents the U.S. in international play. Proudly hailing from Bulacan, Yuka Saso chose Japanese citizenship in 2023 by Japanese law. Cue legend Alex Pagulayan switched to Canadian citizenship. Top fencer Maxine Esteban changed her citizenship to Ivorian also in 2023. The list goes on. 

“Ang hirap i-sacrifice mo ang citizenship mo kasi lumaki ka sa Pilipinas, marami kang sinacrifice, marami kang nilaro para sa bansa mo pero because of your dream na nakikita mong tumatanda ka na at tumatagal na pero hindi mo alam kung makukuha mo ang goal na iyon,” said Santiago. 

“Marami rin pong mga Pilipino na nagme-message at nagsasabi na tinalikuran ko yung country ko. Masakit lang po na marinig iyon kasi hindi naman po nila alam kung ano ang nararamdaman ko ngayon,” she added. 

Santiago chose to remain silent amid the criticisms she received, saying she understands what her countrymen felt and she doesn’t blame them. 

“They are still part of my journey, kahit masama man o mabuti ang sinasabi nila, I always take that as an inspiration para mag improve so I can reach my goal… If ever magretire ako sa volleyball, I can help both Japan and the Philippines. I will be able to share my experience with the younger generation not only in Japan but especially in the Philippines. I can be a coach, di ba? Pwede ko madala lahat ng experience na iyon sa atin pag-uwi ko kung mag-retire na ako.”

Right now, Santiago is focused on improving her chemistry with her teammates in JT Marvels, and she doesn’t want them to treat her as a foreign player. 

Jaja Santiago doesn’t want to be treated as a foreign player. 

Photo: Jaja Santiago / Instagram

When you’re a foreign player in Japan, you get a sort of special treatment when it comes to pre-practice regimen: You’re not asked to mop the floors, fix the nets, or check the balls for air. But Jaja insisted on doing the same routine as her Japanese teammates. 

“They mop the floor, lahat sila gumagalaw, they check the weight of the ball, the air inside the ball, the net, lahat sila gumagalaw. During practice, they are well focused, walang nagtatawanan, unlike sa atin may mga nagtatawanan diba. Every after practice, sabay-sabay silang maglilinis, mop ulit ng floor,” said Santiago. “The players here are very disciplined and systematic.”

Even as kindergartners, Japanese students would clean not only their classrooms but also their surroundings even if they were not told to do so. This discipline is rooted in the Japanese culture of Wa, which means harmony. It dictates that one should put order above anything else, and also explains why the Japanese are so orderly even in times of calamity. 

Santiago insisted on mopping floors, fixing nets, and checking the balls’ air pressure, just like her teammates, and they allowed her. Perhaps it was this eagerness to learn their culture that endeared Santiago to her teammates quickly. 

“Nahirapan ako adjusting to their system but they were very accommodating because they helped me. I felt comfortable kasi yung mga teammates ko, sobrang gaan nila kasama, in spite of the language barrier,” said Santiago. 

It would take Santiago two years to adjust to Japan’s very fast playstyle, and five years to pass the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. 

But living in a foreign country for so long also takes its toll on you, no matter how well you speak their language. 

“Did you ever get lonely?” We asked Santiago. 


How loneliness nearly forced Jaja to quit Japan

Jaja Santiago with her dog Ahava
Jaja Santiago with her dog Ahava

Jaja Santiago laughs as if to hide her sadness when she answered the question.

“Sobrang lonely po. Minsan, sa sobrang pagod, sa sobrang stressed, nahirapan ako makipag communicate minsan. Parang sumusuko ka na lang po at wala kang masabihan minsan.”

She momentarily closes her eyes as if remembering her lonely days. The most painful ones are on Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve, which she had to celebrate alone for some years. 

In Japan, these holidays are not celebrated the way Filipinos do in the Philippines. Christmas is not celebrated at all, and on New Year’s Eve, they just have a quiet dinner. 

There were times when pressure, stress, and homesickness nearly convinced Santiago to quit in Japan. 

“Maraming hindi nakakaalam ng mga pinagdadaanan ko rito. There were a lot of sacrifices and failures. Unang una yung language barrier, at maging malayo sa pamilya. Nagka pandemic noon at walang ibang kaya magpunta rito, tapos ikaw lang ang mag-isa. Minsan kasi kahit naglalaro ka o nagte-training ka, may mga times na mafu-frustrate sa result ng performance mo or may hindi ka makuha. So minsan wala kang makausap,” Santiago told ALL-STAR

But it was her family in the Philippines who motivated her and reminded her of her dreams. 

“May times na ayaw ko nang maglaro, nabuburn out na ako, gusto ko nang umuwi ng Pilipinas, pero noong makausap ko na ang family ko, they pushed me. Talagang minotivate nila ako na kaya ko ito. They reminded me that this is my dream. They made me look back on the sacrifices I made for me to be able to chase my dream. That’s what inspired me to push harder, to be brave here in Japan.”

Today, part of what keeps her brave in Japan is her husband, Taka Minowa. When we showed her a photo of her and her husband toasting to the New Year, she beamed from ear to ear. 

“That’s when we celebrated the New Year together, and my family in the Philippines was on video call,” she said. 

No longer lonely: “Being with him is already enough for me.”

Jaja Santiago and Taka Minowa
Jaja Santiago and husband Taka Minowa celebrate the New Year in Japan.
Taka Minowa, Ahava, and Jaja Santiago
Ahava the golden retriever cuddles between Taka Minowa and Jaja Santiago. Photo: Jaja Santiago

She recalled what her first Christmases in Japan were like. 

“Every New Year, every Christmas, iyon ang sobrang mahirap. I felt lonely noong mga times na iyon. Christmas, New Year, mag-isa ka po. Hindi po kasi nila sine-celebrate, tahimik po dito. Sa screen ko, yung family ko nagse-celebrate, tapos ako, dito, nakahiga na, matutulog na po. Ang lungkot lang po. Kasi no one is celebrating Christmas po dito.”

But now that she’s married, she is satisfied spending time with her husband even if there’s no fancy celebration. 

“Being with him is already enough for me.”

Getting a boost from Annie Drews

Jaja Santiago was palpitating. It was during a tough match in the Japan V.League, but somehow, she lost her composure and felt nauseous and extremely nervous. 

“Last season, may mga times na mahirap yung laro, or sobrang kinakabahan ako. One time, nagpa-palpitate ako, nasusuka ako at parang hindi ako makahinga,” said Santiago. 

It was at that moment when her teammate, American volleyball player Annie Drews, steadied her.  

JT Marvels volleyball team. Annie Drews and Jaja Santiago on the upper right. Photo: Annie Drews / Instagram

“Annie Drews gave me an advice na hanggang ngayon ay nagpapatapang sa akin. She told me, imbes na mastress ka, kabahan ka, why not think about how grateful you are to be here where you are?”

When they placed silver and failed to win the championship in the V.League, she embraced Annie Drews. 

“I was heartbroken na hindi namin nakuha iyon. I cried and I hugged Annie because that was her last game here in Japan.” 

Jaja’s prayer to God

A thought that has always been on the back of Santiago’s mind is the day she can no longer play volleyball. But even as she collects various recognitions and accolades, there’s only one thing she ultimately hopes to happen. 

“Hindi ko alam kung hanggang kailan ako maglalaro ng volleyball but when I wake up in the morning, laging pinagdarasal ko kay God is I hope I can inspire a lot of people. I hope the way I play today inspires them to move forward not only in volleyball or in sports but also in life. I hope I can inspire them to be strong, and not to give up.  Kahit anong hardship man yung pagdaanan mo, you will continue striving for success to reach your goal. Walang taong hahadlang sa iyo in reaching that goal. I hope I can inspire them to continue reaching for  that goal.”

Despite the accolades and acclaim, Jaja remains tethered to her roots, and amid the silence of past loneliness, her determination to inspire others leaves an indelible mark on the world.

Ahava the golden retriever with Jaja Santiago
Jaja carries her puppy Ahava, whom she bought as a gift for her husband Taka.

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