Nikkei in Cuba
What do they do?
Nikkei Cubans can be found in all occupations: including doctors, fishermen, engineers, computer scientists, artists, mechanics, teachers, farmers and government workers. Almost all have an agricultural background in the family and some still run family farms. One prominent agriculturalist is Olga Oye, who runs an organic farm named El Japonés after her father Saburo Oye, one of the agricultural pioneers of Cuba. Her “organopónico” is a producing, experimental and teaching organic farm located in Havana. However, younger Nikkei Cubans may be choosing other careers. It seems that Cuba’s free education opportunities and government emphasis on higher education, have combined with the traditional Japanese emphasis on study to create many professional opportunities for young people of Japanese descent. Some, perhaps most, would rather pursue professional careers than inherit farms currently run by Nisei (second generation).
Immigration to Cuba
When did they come?
In 1915, when there were fewer than 60 Japanese in Cuba, 67 Japanese (56 males and 11 females) established the first Japanese agricultural producers’ society in Carmelina, near Cienfuegos in Central Cuba. It had a short life and was eventually taken over by sugar cane plantations.
In 1916, a total of 262 Japanese arrived. Most had been recruited to harvest sugar cane. The work, climate and living conditions were extremely hard on the Japanese so they soon left the cane fields. Some returned to Japan while others found work in the villages and towns. A few made their way to the Isle of Youth where some families eventually established fruit and vegetable farms. Immigration slowed down for the next eight years, averaging about 30 per year.
Partly due to the cutoff of immigration from Japan to the US in 1924, the period 1924-26 was the only boom period of Japanese immigration to Cuba. Over 600 Japanese arrived, only three of them women. Of these, 382 Japanese were brought by the Overseas Company of Japan to work as contract laborers on the sugar plantations of central Cuba. Because of harsh living and working conditions, most could not fulfill their commitment to work 3 to 6 months in the cane fields. Many returned to Japan or moved on to other Latin American countries. Those who stayed found various kinds of work, and some joined the growing Nikkei farming community on the Isle of Youth. After 1926, immigration again slowed considerably.
How many came?
As of 1943 a total of about 1,200 Japanese had immigrated to Cuba, including about 200 Okinawans. However, only 68 women and 345 men remained. Immediately after WWII some returned to Japan and some left soon after the 1959 revolution. Over 25 came after WWII, including 10 who came since the Cuban Revolution.
World War II Incarceration at Presidio Modelo
Why were they incarcerated during WWII?
In April 1942, the Batista regime started incarcerating all adult Nikkei males in the Presidio Modelo (Model Prison) on the Isle of Pines (today called the Isle of Youth). Women and children were left to fend for themselves. A few women were imprisoned in a separate facility for up to six months. In early 1943 the roundup was complete. 341 Issei and 9 Nisei (Cuban citizens by birth) were locked up in the Presidio Modelo. Batista was more selective with other “enemy aliens,” incarcerating 114 Germans and 13 Italians, a fraction of all immigrants from those countries.
In Cuba there was no military, political or economic rationale, nor popular pressure for a move against the Nikkei Cubans. They were not large in number and were separated from their ancestral homeland by a continent and an ocean. Like most Nikkei at the time, many maintained cultural practices and celebrated traditional holidays like the Emperor’s Birthday and Navy Day, but that did not mean they were spies and saboteurs. In fact, some had left Japan in part to avoid military service. Nikkei Cubans were not a threat to national security. Nor were they perceived as economic competition since they were struggling to survive along with the majority of other Cubans. Also unlike some other countries, there was no mass hysteria directed against the Nikkei Cubans.
Nevertheless, Batista moved swiftly in cooperation with a larger enemy alien program initiated and paid for by the US government. Accused of being a potential threat to national security, over 6,000 persons of German, Italian and Japanese ancestry (both citizens and residents) from 15 Latin American countries were forcibly deported to the U.S. and incarcerated in U.S. Army and Department of Justice camps. These included over 2200 Nikkei men, women and children kidnapped from 13 Latin American countries to be used as hostages in exchange for U.S. citizens caught in the Far East war zones. Batista, however, did not hand over the Nikkei Cubans and maintained his internal detention policies. Today, former internees and groups such as the Campaign for Justice: Redress NOW For Japanese Latin Americans! are working to hold the U.S. government accountable for its key role in these WWII war crimes and crimes against humanity.
What was the incarceration experience like?
It was very different and in many ways more cruel than what happened in the U.S. Incarceration of all the Nikkei men meant that their wives had to find the means to support the family. Women in farming families had to do double work and enlist even more help from their children. Others found work as cooks, laundresses, seamstresses, barbers, servants, etc. Cuban neighbors helped in many ways: as employers, customers, providing credit, food and other forms of support. For a while, the Japanese government gave small monthly cash allowances to some families via the Spanish embassy, but many never knew this was available. Impoverished families lived on sweet potato and sewed clothes from flour sacks. Some children died because the family could not afford medical care. A few families faced reprisals from landowners, like a cut off of water and electricity and the suspected burning of a home.
Life in the Presidio Modelo was also harsh. The food was so bad the men petitioned to cook their own meals. They grew vegetables, and wives were sometimes able to bring fish and other foods to supplement their diet. Nine died, most due to complications resulting from colds, and several deaths were attributed to stomach cancer. Many more might have died if not for the care of one of the prisoners who was a doctor, and other prisoners that took on nursing duties. Visits were allowed once a month for 15 minutes. Husband and wife sat at opposite ends of a table with a guard standing in-between. They could not touch and had to speak in Spanish, a language unknown to some of the Japanese wives. Many could never afford the trip across Cuba and the boat ride to the Isle of Pines.
The prisoners were not all released when the war ended. The last group was released in March of 1946; over six months after Japan surrendered. It is ironic that in some ways the incarceration drew the community closer together. Friendships among men and mutual aid among women provided a foundation for community building after WWII.
Weaving with Cuban Society
What about intermarriage?
Even with this high out-marriage rate, in certain communities intermarriage was frowned upon for many years after WWII. Noboru Miyazawa, current president of the oldest Japanese association in existence, the Society of the Japanese Colony of the Isle of Youth, told us two contrasting stories of out-marriage in his family. His older sister married in 1959, months after the victory of the Revolution. Her Issei father knew the Cuban groom, approved of the marriage, and invited everyone in the sizable and tightly knit Japanese farming community, but no one from the community came to the wedding. However, when Miyazawa and his Cuban wife were married in 1975, the entire Nikkei community came to the wedding.
What about discrimination?
The worst case of discrimination was, of course, the imprisonment during WWII. This was a government action for which there was no popular outcry. On an interpersonal level, some Nisei remember being chided, “Chino, chino!” in a derogatory way during the pre and post-WWII period. Movies and posters from the U.S. depicting Japanese as cruel beasts and losers were common during the time. While the term “Chino” has long been used in a neutral, descriptive, or even affectionate way in Latin America, this was not the case at the time.
Such instances are the exception rather than the rule. The strict color line that is familiar in the U.S. is not a part of Cuban culture and history. Most Cubans show various proportions of African and European ancestry. Since the Revolution in 1959 the government has actively tried to overcome all forms of discrimination. Today, Nikkei Cubans are often seen in terms of a familiar positive stereotype: hard working, loyal, studious and family-oriented.
Since they are so few, have Nikkei Cubans had any influence on Cuban society?
When asked this question, our primary contact in Cuba, Francisco Miyasaka responded: “Cuba is a crucible where many nationalities, ethnic groups and races have mixed, each offering their best qualities (and at times some bad ones), independent of the number of immigrants that each has contributed.” We experienced this sense of acceptance and gratitude for whatever we had to offer many times during our trip: when Nikkei Cubans and other Cuban friends joined in the Obon dancing; when non-Nikkei we had just met did the same at a Committee for the Defense of the Revolution block party; exchanging rhythms with the top Cuban percussionists of the Conjunto Folklorico Nacional. This gracious attitude that says the act of contributing is more important than being a star infuses Cuban culture and thinking today. Thus, Miyasaka concluded with pride and sincerity, “it is possible to say that in practically every aspect of Cuban society there exists a grain of sand contributed by the Japanese, although there hasn’t been a President, a Minister, a rich businessman, nor a famous artist of Japanese origin.”
How is the Nikkei Cuban identity evolving?
The Isle of Youth is undoubtedly a center of Nikkei Cuban culture. It is the only community where Obon is celebrated, and home of the only government recognized Japanese association. When an immigrant arrived from Japan several years ago and offered to teach Japanese, local Sansei and Yonsei flocked to her classes. A Yonsei of Okinawan ancestry attended the annual cultural festival in Okinawa in 2004 on a scholarship from the Okinawan government and took sanshin lessons. She performed with Tsukimi Kai members at the 2005 Obon festival on the Isle of Youth and has since had numerous requests to play for the Nikkei community.
Miyasaka is currently organizing the National Society of Cuban Japanese. This would absorb the Isle of Youth society and open additional chapters in Havana, Cienfuegos and other cities. Miyasaka periodically organizes seminars on Nikkei history and Japanese culture that are attended by Nikkei from all parts of Cuba. As with Nikkei everywhere, their identity is constantly evolving. Visits like ours cultivate Nikkei identity for all involved.
- Japoneses en Cuba, Rolando Álvarez and Marta Guzmán, Japan Foundation, 2002.
- Presencia Japonesa en Cuba, Rolando Álvarez et al, Fundación Fernando Ortíz, 2003.
- La Sociedad de la Colonia Japonesa de la Isla de la Juventud, Nancy Oropesa Barceló, Ediciones El Abra, 2005
Since most Americans know very little about Nikkei Cubans, we in Tsukimi Kai decided to produce this paper, even though our knowledge of Nikkei Cubans is still preliminary. We have tried to read as much as possible, and interviewed over 50 people from 20 families during our trip in August 2005. The historical parts of this paper are factual. The parts about Nikkei Cubans today are mostly first impressions. We chatted with Nikkei at social events and got to know some better through interviews. Not all Nikkei Cubans chose to go to Obon or to parties with visiting Nikkei from the U.S., so our impressions could be skewed. Also, we only visited three communities, and there are Nikkei in every one of Cuba’s 14 provinces.
For simplicity’s sake, in this paper we use the term Nikkei to refer to all people who emigrated from Japan or Okinawa, and their descendants. More Nikkei Cubans came from Okinawa than from any single prefecture in Japan.
Tsukimi Kai, an intergenerational group of predominately Nikkei artists, dancers, students, educators, and researchers share a goal: to explore and celebrate the parallel histories of Nikkei in Cuba and the U.S. We wish to reach across boundaries of history and politics to exchange, through art and dialogue, stories of our migrations from Japan and Okinawa and our adaptations to a new land. Central to this exchange is the performance of music, dance and ceremony associated with the Japanese festival of Obon, an homage to our ancestors linking both communities with our common heritage.
The word "tsukimi" suggests the circumstance of people divided by distance yet appreciating the beauty of the same bright moon. Through our exchange, Nikkei in the U.S. and Cuba are forging a better understanding of our divergent paths and shared culture.
This paper was written by Steve Wake with valuable input from other members of Tsukimi Kai.
- "Relaciones Bilaterales" (Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores de la República de Cuba)
- Brief review of bilateral relations between Japan and Cuba, extending back to the first contact (1614) and the first arrival of immigrants in 1898.
- Available only in Japanese. This site includes the list of Japanese immigrants to Cuba before World War II and memoirs of those immigrants. The entire 『峠の文化史 (touge no bunkashi)』 (PMC出版、1989年), which is a history of Japanese immigrants to Cuba but was already out of print, is available through this site.
- Documentation of international exchanges between Los Angeles-based multicultural performance group Great Leap and delegations of Nikkei from Cuba. Includes useful background information on Cuban immigration to Cuba in the 19th century.
- Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress documented the exchange of visits between members of the Nikkei communities in California and Cuba in 2000. Francisco Miyasaka, head of the non-governmental Colonia Japonesa de Cuba, visited California at the instigation of Judy Ota, whose father was Cuban.
- Arnaldo Musa, "Otorgan Medalla de la Amistad a Goro Naito, símbolo de la inmigración japonesa". Diario Granma, Año 8 / Número 347, 12 de diciembre de 2004.
- Publicizing a dance performance by Tsukimi Kai, a Bay-area (California) based ensemble that explores the parallels of Japanese-American and Japanese-Cuban experience.
- Josefina Ortega, "Kaiyu-Shiki-Teien". La Jiribilla (2004).
- Article about Japanese migration to Cuba.
- Natalie Obiko Pearson, "Japanese Window into Cuba". EarthTimes.org (posted March 26, 2002)
- Article looks at the social and economic distance between contemporary Japan and the Nikkei in Cuba.