Observing and Participating in Obon in Cuba

Obon 2005 on the Isle of Youth – Tsukimikai leads the baseball dance, which is an instant hit with the Cuban Nikkei photo by Robert Yee

In three cultural exchange trips to Cuba with the U.S. Nikkei group Tsukimikai, I’ve learned that Cuba is a land where cultures and traditions interweave effortlessly — where every contribution is cherished and welcomed, and where people make do with whatever they have.

On the most recent trip in 2009 we celebrated Obon. Our Cuban Nikkei friends on La Isla de la Juventud (the Isle of Youth) served up a mix of shiisaa and santeria, aikido and eisa, rice with long grains, black beans that were not sweet, chicken that was not teriyaki, and rum instead of sake. As usual, Tsukimikai led the Bon Odori, with “Tanko Bushi” and the Cuban favorite, “Baseball Dance.”

The day started in the cemetery. U.S. and Cuban Nikkei laid flowers and origami cranes over the stone markers engraved with the names of ancestors, while the family names were read aloud.

The ceremony was led not by a Buddhist priest, but by the head of the Society of the Japanese Community on La Isla de la Juventud, Nobor Miyazawa. Even this most traditional of acts had was a unique Cuban twist. Miyazawa was one of the first outspoken supporters of the Revolution in the conservative Nikkei farming community of La Isla.

Obon on La Isla has changed dramatically since the first visit of Tsukimikai in 2005. Ellen Bepp compared her childhood memories to what she saw on the inaugural Tsukimikai trip in 2005:

“Our family always participated in the annual festival held right in front of the Buddhist temple in San Jose Japantown. When I was growing up in the ’50s/’60s, I experienced a fairly large community affair, all dressed up in kimono or yukata, usually with recorded and some live music, food and game booths, with colorful paper lanterns floating above as we danced around in a large circle.

“In contrast, the Obon we visited in Cuba was small and rather modest but a community event nonetheless. Once we started some Obon dancing, everyone got up immediately and no one was shy about joining in. People were enthusiastic about the music we introduced that year (taiko, shinobue, shamisen) and there was playing of sanshin music by a local young musician.

“Given the very different scale of these two Obon festivals, I felt the underlying intention and feeling was the same and thus I felt a very strong kinship through this exchange.”

There are stories of larger and more festive celebrations held in Cuba during the years before World War II, with singing and dancing led by Issei. At that time the Japanese farming cooperative on the Isle of Pines (later renamed the Isle of Youth) was producing fruits and vegetables for export to the United States. Nisei from smaller Nikkei communities elsewhere in Cuba remember Obon at the Japanese embassy in Havana. Traditional foods were served and Cuban Nikkei who had kimono or yukata wore them proudly.

These annual events started before World War II, continued in the postwar period and after Fidel Castro overthrew the Batista dictatorship in 1959, then came to an abrupt halt in the 1990s. With the collapse of the Soviet bloc and subsequent devastation of the Cuban economy — exacerbated by the United States embargo — Cuban Nikkei could no longer afford to take even short trips within their own country. The embassy decided to stop holding Obon celebrations.

Tsukimikai members who remembered the first trip in 2005 were amazed at the presentations by the Cubans at the 2009 Obon. They used the well-worn taiko we gave them in 2005. The shiisaa (used for the Okinawan lion dance) we left when we visited for Oshogatsu at the beginning of 2007 was revived with a new head created by a professional Cuban artist.

The shiisaa danced to a taiko beat and “fought” with an aikidoka who flipped the shisaa!  A group of youth performed eisa that one young woman of Okinawan descent had learned while attending the Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival on a scholarship provided by the Okinawan government. They wore colorful costumes given by Chodee Without Borders, an Okinawan American group that visited the Isle of Youth in October 2008 to participate in the 100th anniversary celebration of Okinawan migration to Cuba.

Ironically, one of the driving forces behind much of the artistry we observed in 2009 is not of Nikkei descent. He is a professional sculptor who has studied Asian art and martial arts for many years. Like many Cubans, he is also interested in music and dance, and is already working with Cuban artists who want to incorporate Japanese and Okinawan rhythms and movements into their music and dance.

But traditionalists need not panic. While Cubans love fusion, they also respect tradition. The Nikkei youth, mostly Yonsei and Gosei of very mixed ancestry, kept asking for instruction in Bon Odori. In particular, they remembered the graceful dance we did in 2005 — “Bon Odori Uta.”

I can only imagine what new artistry will greet us when we return for Obon some years in the future. However, I can rest assured that the day will begin properly — with respects to the ancestors.

As the son of Methodist minister Rev. Lloyd Wake, Steve Wake did not grow up celebrating Obon, but he respects all traditions. Tsukimikai formed in order to establish ties of friendship and understanding between U.S. and Cuban Nikkei. In semi-annual trips, Tsukimikai conducts both cultural exchange and social research.

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