Obon en Cuba--My Summer Vacation
by Jennifer "Emiko" Kuida

I used to take summer vacations in places like Mazatlan, Ixtapa, Cancun, Greece, France, Italy and Switzerland. I had taken two very meaningful trips to Japan, at a time when I was developing a sense of my Japanese American identity, but for the most part, I was a tourist in the home of my grandparents. But now that I am more politically active, I want my vacations to be more than simply laying on a beach, going parasailing or visiting old cathedrals and museums.

Last year, I spent my summer vacation in Detroit. An unlikely vacation spot, my husband Tony and I had a great time. We stayed in a Catholic Worker House with a few homeless women. We worked with teenagers from Detroit Summer to help design a mural. It was an exciting trip, learning what community activists and young people are doing to rebuild inner city Detroit, creating community gardens, painting murals, and rehabbing old buildings. This is the kind of trip that is more engaging to me now.

This summer, we plan to go to Cuba. When I first heard that NCRR-Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress (formerly the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations) was planning a cultural exchange to Cuba, I was interested, but skeptical. After all, I didn’t know a whole lot about Cuba, but I had heard stories of activists who went and came back all aglow about their trip. In 1999, community artist Nobuko Miyamoto went to Cuba with a delegation of Black yoga teachers, and regaled us with stories about the unbelievable spirit of the Cuban people.

As I attended planning meetings, I started to get really excited. This will be the second official exchange between Japanese Americans and Japanese in Cuba. Last August, a man named Francisco Miyasaka of Havana came to California and spoke to Japanese American communities in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Although I didn’t get to meet Mr. Miyasaka, I have learned that Japanese emigrated to Cuba over 100 years ago, like they did all over the Americas (U.S., Canada, Latin America and South America). I also never knew that Japanese men in Cuba were also interned in camps during World War II.

One of 1100 Japanese Cubans, Mr. Miyasaka speaks Japanese, English and Spanish, and is the National Representative of the Association of Japanese Cubans. He hopes to keep the Japanese culture alive in spite of the community’s dispersal, and in the face of material and economic obstacles.

During his visit, the idea of sending a delegation from the JA community to the Isle of Youth (Isla de la Juventud) during the Obon season was conceived. Since this is the only occasion that Japanese in Cuba get together as a community, it was a perfect time to go. Their obon is much different than ours in America. It consists of visiting the gravesites (ohaka mairi), a community potluck, karate and origami demonstrations, but there is no dancing or religious ceremony.

So, our delegation of 17 people will participate in a cultural exchange this August between NCRR members and friends and the Japanese Cubans. We will take a 10 day trip to Havana and the Isle of Youth to celebrate Obon, share our experiences, obon dancing and music. Nobuko Miyamoto, who has written and created several Obon dances and music, will join our delegation. I can’t think of a more relevant way for me to go to Cuba.

In advance of our trip, I am reading and learning about the political history of the Cuban Revolution and about present day Cuba. Because of the US embargo against Cuba, the country is in serious need of basic medical supplies, things that we take for granted and buy at the local Savon or Rite-Aid. So, we are having a fundraiser to raise money for medical supplies such as Tylenol and Advil. We are also planning to take Japanese foods such as nori, dried noodles, shiitake mushrooms for the Japanese in Cuba.

We invite people to join with us for a send off party on Saturday, July 7th, 4pm at the Union Center Courtyard in Little Tokyo, 116 Judge John Aiso Street (formerly San Pedro St.). Tickets are $15. We will eat Cuban food, with entertainment by Nobuko Miyamoto and members of the Afro-Cuban music group, Los Angelitos. We will also have a salsa lesson by Louise Mita Jung.

If you can’t attend, we will also gladly accept donations. Checks can be made payable to NCRR and sent to NCRR, 231 E. Third Street, #G-104, Los Angeles, CA 90013, with the notation "Delegation to Cuba" on the check. For info or reservations, call Sandy Maeshiro at (310) 837-7989 or Mayumi Masaoka at (323) 665-5616. I’ll end my column here--I have to go to Obon practice and learn to salsa.

Jennifer "Emiko" Kuida is a Sansei who writes from Los Angeles. She and her husband Tony wrote the original "101 Ways to Tell You’re Japanese American." Reprinted from "The Rafu Shimpo" July 2001 with permission of the author. Copyright 2001.

Updated:  12/17/01