Friday, May 8, 2015

Cuba Part 4: Japanese Cubans

“Bluish waters of the adorable Antillas Mayores
The fishing boats sailing before the wind
The squaring-off procession never tired me
the occupant behind the bar”

…wrote Tomas Honma, a Nisei Japanese Cuban during WWII, inside the Presidio Modelo, on La Isla de Pina, now called Isla de la Juventud, the island of the youth. The island is 100 kilometers south of Cuba Proper across the Batabano Gulf. The notorious Presidio Modelo, consisting of two rectangular buildings and four round buildings (known as “panopticon”). Jose Marti was imprisoned in Modelo. As soon as then Cuban President Fulgencio Batista declared war against Japan, Germany and Italy, he imprisoned 350 Japanese Cubans, 114 German Cubans, and 13 Italian Cubans.

Of the 350 Japanese Cubans, 9 of them were born in Cuba, 57 were from Okinawa, 42 from Hiroshima, 38 from Niigata, 29 from Fukuoka, and the rest from other prefectures (figures from “A 100 years of Japanese Cubans ” by Rolando Alvarez and Marta Guzman - 2004).

An autonomous committee was formed among the Japanese Cubans in Modelo. Those of the second floor were represented by Jinichi Iwato, third floor by Tadao Kubota, fourth floor by Kiichi Ogawa and fifth floor by Hideichi Kato. Kato was elected Committee Chair to negotiate with prison officers. Internees all suffered greatly from acute shortages of food, illness from unsanitary conditions and endemic influenza. More than a dozen succumbed and are buried in Nueva Gerona Cemetary in the early stage of vacuation. Dr. Osawa, an internee himself, volunteered to provide medical service, training men and women as nurses.

The biggest change came half a year later when permission was granted to the prisoners to cook for themselves, along with getting minimum basic provisions. Also they were allowed to cultivate vegetables in a garden outside. Wives were allowed to work at the islanders’ homes. It should be noted that the Spanish Legation, acting and holding properties on behalf of the Japanese Consulate in Cuba, gave internees minimal financial help (3 pesos per month). Same as in the American Concentration Camps, internees handmade numerous artifacts, wood carvings, brush paintings, dolls and embroideries and musical instruments. Activities expanded to include sporting events, language lessons for children, music concerts, and on rare occasions, a one-day outing to the main island to meet relatives. German and Italian Cubans were released earlier than the Japanese Cubans. In time, the Japanese Cubans were released in groups. Some stayed on the island to live. The Surgidero de Balabano was the port of the release for the Japanese Cubans, when they were freed at the Isla de la Joventud.

I read about Francisco Miyasaka in an online article by “Discover Nikkei.” He graduated from Havana University Commercial Science after the war and was sent to Tokyo in 1965 as a young commercial attaché to the Cuban Consulate representing the Ministry of Foreign Trade. He must be about my age.

Miyasaka recalls the time when he met the Showa Emperor. The ambassador took him to present his credentials to the emperor. “Emperor Hirohito seemed surprised that a Japanese Cuban was a Cuban diplomat.”

Miyasaka also recalls the time when he was serving a Spanish- Japanese interpreter for Fidel Castro during negotiations. A surprised Castro asked, ‘Where did you learn to speak such good Spanish?’ Francisco Miyaska told him that he was born a Cuban.

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