Viva La Comunidad

World War II changed everything for the Japanese in America and in Cuba. Now some are connecting - across an ocean and an embargo - to exchange experiences, fears and hopes.

January 11, 2010

STEPPING OFF THE COBBLESTONE STREETS OF Havana Vieja, Yeneit Delgado Kios melts into the pitch-black shadows of her apartment building's entryway. There, the cool, damp air seems miles away from the merciless sun bearing down on this oldest and most historic of neighborhoods in Cuba's capital. Her footsteps echo in the windowless corridor as she dodges puddles and gaps where steps used to be in the concrete stairwell of the government-owned tenement. She emerges from the darkness into a sunlight-flooded apartment, with white stucco walls, doors flung open to the balcony, and the smell of coffee beans and sugar wafting from the kitchen as her mother prepares a pot of sweet Cuban cafe.

"I don't look Japanese, right?" said Kios, a 27-year-old computer programmer whose first name is pronounced "Yenay" and whose last name is the Cuban Spanish transliteration of Kiyose. With a ready smile, olive skin and sun-kissed brown hair, Kios looks more like Eva Mendes than Kristi Yamaguchi. "In 1 91 0, my great-grandfather came to Cuba from Kumamoto via Mexico - that's almost all I know." "

But she wants to know more. Unlike many of her Japanese Cuban compatriots, she took the initiative to study Japanese, and it was her Japanese teacher who introduced her to the leaders of the Asociacion Cubano Japonaise de Cuba, a fledgling organization for Japanese Cubans.

Japanese Cuban associations are hoping to entice more like Kios: young, smart and outspoken, with deep roots in the Japanese community, but without much knowledge about the ethnic group's history. Holding up two Japanese*Spanish dictionaries that she won in a language contest, Kios radiates an independent drive to learn more about her heritage, making her unique among most Japanese Cubans, who have now lived in Cuba for four or five generations and no longer have strong connections to their Japanese roots.

This disconnect makes Japanese Cubans similar in many ways to Japanese Americans, who have grappled with similar issues of cultural retention. Their harrowing experiences in internment camps during World War Il spurred many to abandon cultural traditions in order to prove their American loyalty. Japanese Cubans, however, have a much smaller population and higher rates of intermarriage not to mention less anxiety about both issues.

In recent years, with the help of a few enterprising Japanese Americans from California, both groups have begun to meet and exchange histories - a process that has revealed that the concept of racism, while heavy in Japanese American vocabulary, is a distant term for Japanese Cubans.

While modest compared to Japanese immigration to the United States or Brazil, the first large wave of 329 Japanese migrants arrived In Cuba between 1915 and 1916. Primarily arriving via Mexico in search of sugar profits, most of the 1 ,200 Japanese and Okinawan Issei who arrived in the late 1 9th and early 20th centuries intended to return to Japan after securing their fortunes on the Island. And most did stay but temporarily: Only around 400 remained after World-War, II.

In many ways, internment for Cubans of Japanese descent was much more difficult than for their American counterparts. In the Unit ed States, whole families were uprooted together and sent to the camps. In Cuba, President Fulgencio Batista decided to imprison only the adult males of the family; women and children were left to struggle on their own. Conditions for the incarcerated men were also crueler than in the United States.

Luis Kato's father was sent to prison in 1942. The 70-somethihg Kato, vice president of the Asociacion Cubano Japonaise de Cuba and a retired government worker, speaks with the reserved composure of someone who has long come to terms with the injustices of World War II. "The police came and told my father that all the Japanese went to jail and he had to go with them," Kato said, with a matter-of-fact air. "They didn't have any bad manners. They just politely came and told him they had orders to take him to jail."

Kato's family was living on Isla de Pinos, now called Isla de la Juventud or "La Isla," a separate island municipality ,62 miles from the main island of Cuba where Japanese men were incarcerated in the Modelo prison. La Isla remains home to most of the Japanese Cuban community today.

Separated from her husband, Kato's mother did laundry, cut wood, cooked and took up a job as a barber in order for her four children to survive. Once a month, using the money she earned cutting hair, she ordered a taxi to transport her children, bearing oranges and grapefruits, to visit their father at the distant Modelo prison.

Compared to the United States internment camps, where a very small percentage of internees died due to camp conditions, circumstances in the Modelo prison were harsh. "Where he was, was very small - 1 Vi meters by 1 Vz meters," Kato recalled. "He had to sleep in that small cell. But no bed, no nothing - just one hole." Thanks to one prisoner who happened to be a doctor, only nine of the 350 incarcerated men died.

After the war, Japanese Cubans under Batista, unlike Japanese Americans, did not have the option to repatriate to Japan. In fact, according to Barbara Wake, a Japanese American activist who studied the history of Japanese Cubans, far more than 50 percent of Japanese Cubans who were interned never saw Japan again. Postwar conditions were particularly difficult for the single men, who often found themselves jobless and, with their prisoner pasts, targets of discrimination in the sugar cane fields.

However, evidence also indicates that for many Japanese Cubans, racial animosity simply did not exist in the postwar era. "A lot of the motivation around the United States internment was racism, both as a land grab and racial hysteria," Wake said. Most Japanese Americans returning from the camps found strangers squatting in their homes and struggled against a tide of discrimination. Japanese Cuban men, however, upon returning to their wives and children, found their families well suRported by neighbors and friends, who helped defend their property ahd find them jobs. "For the most part, the Cuban neighbors knew that the only reason the Japanese were being interned was because the American government told Batista to do It," Wake said.

Now those Japanese families and their children are sharing that neighborly spirit with Japanese from Cuba's less-than-supportive neighbor, the United States.

IN 1999, JUDY NISHIMOTO AGUILERA, a Japanese American who was visiting Cuba, spotted a group of Japanese at the Havana Airport. Intrigued, she approached them, and learned they were from the Japanese Consulate. They referred her to Francisco Miyasaka, a Japanese Cuban community leader who is now president of the Asociacion Cubano Japonaise de Cuba.

Aguilera happened to be the sister of Kathy Masaoka, co-chairperson of the Los Angeles-based Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress (NCRR) - the primary organizing muscle behind the Civil Libertps Act of 1988, which secured reparations for the World War Il Internment of Japanese Americans (Nikkei refers to the Japanese diaspora around the world).

At the time, Masaoka and her group had a moment of respite after ensuring that all interned Japanese Americans had received their checks, and she saw an opportunity to make connections with another community of Japanese. "We were at a point where we had a little bit of time," Masaoka said. "We were looking forward to being able to learn and not always struggle for things."

NCRR brought Miyasaka to Cali- fornia in 1999 for a speaking tour on the experiences of Japanese Cu- bans, efforts to sustain Japanese culture among the youth and how Cuba's 1959 revolution promoted racial equity on the island. Miyasaka's goal, according to Masaoka, was to raise money for TVs and VCRs "so [Japanese Cubans] could see videos of Japanese cultural things."

An NCRR delegation of 1 8 Japanese Americans traveled to Cuba in August 2001. The observations and lessons for them as well as other Japanese Americans who have subsequently visited have been simple but profound: solidarity, unity, equality. The revolution transformed an economy dominated by US companies into one where companies became the property of the Cubans. Every life took on a sense of value for the greater good, and everyone, regardless of race, age, ability or ethnicity, became equal. Cuban companeros today are intimately connected, and each is expected to contribute to society in some way.

Almost as evidence of this, Kato pulled from a plastic bag a long typewritten list of each of the 1 ,400 Japanese Cubans living on the islands, from lssei to Gosei - first to fifth generation - including address, date of birth, next of kin and hometown. Each living Nikkei descendant matters greatly for the small Japanese Cuban community, and the list is integral to keeping everyone connected to the association. "Here we have Shimazu Miichiro, in a home on Isla de la Juventud," Kato read casually. "Last lssei alive. 1924, Dec. 7, birthday."

That the last living lssei in Cuba was born on the day Pearl Harbor was bombed (albeit 17 years earlier) is of little consequence to most Japanese'Cubans, illustrating a key difference from Japanese Americans. "Japanese Americans' push for identity comes out of our experience here being treated a certain way, .,and because of racism," Masaoka said. "For Cuban Japanese identity, I don't think it's coming out of oppression,.= It's coming out of a desire to keep and maintain some of that culture. Francisco was worried about the younger generation losing their cultural identity."

ONE MONTH AFTER THE NCCR GROUP TRAVELED TO CUBA, 9/1 1 and the subsequent tightened travel restrictions derailed the group's plans to bring speakers from Cuba to California. It wasn't until 2005 that an intergenerational group of 19 Nikkei artists, performers, educators and scholars went to Cuba and named their group Tsukimi Kai; according to the organization, tsukimi suggests "a people divided by distance yet appreciating the beauty of the same bright moon."

Many participants_saw the trip as an opportunity to connect with Nikkei in Cuba while flouting the travel ban and embargo - and by extension, the American government that orchestrated the internment of both communities.

"Just the act of going to Cuba is a political statement," said Barbara Wake's 24-year-old daughter, Amanda, one of 21 members of Tsukimi Kai Dos, the second and most recent group to make the trip in 2006. "To connect with this specific ethnic and cultural community is a huge action."

Their trip makes a doubly strong statement considering that since internment, many in the Japanese American community have been more concerned with assimilating into American culture than breaching US foreign policy. Tsukimi Kai Dos was not approved by the Office of Foreign Assets Control, the branch of the US government that administers economic and trade sanctions.

For Masaoka, who has spent 39 years organizing the Japanese American community around issues of redress, reparations and interethnic support, connecting Japanese Americans and Japanese Cubans was just another seamless part of a life of activism, albeit taking place an ocean and a political economy away. "Sometimes people think there's such a thing as an activist phase, a period of people's lives that ends," she said. "Some of us are not seeing it that way. It's like you are who you are, and your beliefs are what they are, and you take them With you, wherever you go."

THE REBELLIOUS EXCHANGE has revealed a radically different perspective on belonging and authenticity, particularly for younger multiracial Japanese Americans. While Japanese Americans have one of the largest out-marriage rates of all Asian ethnic groups, community leaders have tended to scapegoat this phenomenon - and the resulting multiracial children - as signals of cultural dilution and downfall. But the vast majority of Japanese Cubans - at least 70 percent, Kato estimated - are multiracial. Data compiled by Tsukimi Kai estimates that as early as 1 945, 38 percent - or 42 of out of 1 1 0 Nikkei-lssei couples in Cuba - were* mixed. Japanese Americans would not reach these out-marriage levels until the Yonsei (fourth generation), in the 21st Century.

"In Cuba, I felt that folks who didn't necessarily 'look Asian' were less lfely to be contested when they wanted to feel proud of their heritage," safd Colin Ehara, a Japanese American graduate student of mixed descent who participated in Tsukimi Kai's last trip. "It felt really refreshing to see folks who are ethnically ambiguous being able to take full ownership and pride over their Asian heritage and not having their authenticity questioned in the same way I have as a mixed-race Asian American."

Even many full-blooded Japanese Americans experience a sense of isolation from mainstream society that Japanese Cubans do not. "Growing up, I did feel I had less value as a Japanese American than if I had been blonde and beautiful and all those things," Barbara Wake said. "I don't see that much at all in Cuba. The idea that everyone is Cuban, regardless of what their eyes look like, that everyone is valued. It's subtle but very important."

Cubans often characterize the United States as an exclusive society, while Cuban society is an inclusive society; no mattellbw one looks, one receives equal opportunities in Cuba.

"Our life is, the same as all the Cubans," Kato said. "There [ua difference. From when-l was a child, to this moment, after the revolution." Seventy-five-oear-old Rita Enomoto agrees, saying "the revolution made everyqfe equal: Chinese, Japanese, no matter what."

Japanese Cubans, similar to Cubans in general, have mixed feelings about the revolution. Those who disliked it left the island, while others fought for it. "I was with the revolution when I was young, and I worked very hard for It," Kato said. "I think it is both good and bad, but more good than bad."

For the Japanese Americans who visited Cuba, race remains a prominent issue, and so the Japanese Cubans' disregard of race was difficult to comprehend. "Their framework around race is something we're barely able to grasp," Barbara Wake said. "In the United States, being non-white affects everything - your skin color and appearance determine your future. In Cuba, particularly since the revolution, It makes some difference, but it doesn't have such profound effects."

"In the US, I've definitely had that experience of 'Go back where you came from,' " she continued. "So growing up here, I knew that I was not 100 percent American, whereas I don't get that sense from Japanese Cubans. They have a different cultural background, they have a different history, but that doesn't affect if they'll be shot by the police or can go to medical school."

To Japanese Cubans, their Cuban identity is not a question at all; it's a comfortable truth. For Japanese Americans, scarred by discrimination and the internment, questions about racism often led nowhere. "We had to think of very creative ways to talk about race," Amanda Wake said. "You can't just say, 'Do you experience racism?' or 'How do you identify?' It's a question they don't really think about."

Yet despite having an understanding of race different from Japanese Cubans, many Japanese Americans would still be able to Identify with the story of Gora Enomoto, a Nisei soldier who fought alongside Che Guevara and his militia during Cuba's revolution.

"The contingent would joke around and call him Chino, like 'Hey, Chino' in a loving way," Amanda Wake said. "But Che pulled him aside at one point and said, 'You're Japanese - you should be proud of your Japanese heritage. It's a strong race.' "

Writer Emily Leach

Emily Leach isa freelance writer of mixed Japanese American descent/n San Francisco. She last wrote in Hyphen about the disbanding of the Hapa Issues Forum.