Staff writer

Quietly and with little fanfare, Japan is celebrating the 100th anniversary this year of state-to-state contact with Cuba.

On May 20, 1902, the Cuban republic was founded with Tomas Estrada Palma as its first president. Three-and-a-half years earlier, the country had gained its independence from Spain as a result of the United States’ victory in the war with Spain.

Immediately after taking office, Estrada sent Emperor Meiji a letter expressing hope for friendly ties between Cuba and Japan. In reply, the Japanese ruler sent the Cuban leader a letter to the same effect. The two countries established formal diplomatic relations 27 years later.

Relations between Japan and the Caribbean region had started well before the 1902 exchange of the goodwill letters, of course. But they were not state-to-state.

It is said that the first contact between Japan and Cuba was made in the early 17th century, during the Edo Period. A mission to Europe then, led by Hasekura Tsunenaga, stopped in Havana on its way back home from a long voyage to Spain and the Vatican.

In 1898, the first Japanese emigrants stepped on Cuban soil.

With cooperation from the Cuban government, the Japanese Embassy in Havana has planned or already implemented various cultural events. Among those events are a photo exhibition of Himeji Castle — one of the most beautiful remaining Japanese castles — and displays of Japanese paintings and films.

Perhaps, the highest-profile commemorative event will be a trip to Havana this autumn by the Chunichi Dragons, the Nagoya-based professional baseball team. They will play goodwill games against a selected Cuban team, a steady medal winner in baseball at the Olympic Games.

Almost all these commemorative events either held or planned in Cuba are being kept low-key. However, no such commemorative events at all are planned in Japan.

The probable main reason for that is that Japan’s economic ties with Cuba are quite weak — even negligible — compared with those with China, for example. Trade and investment ties are so fragile that Japanese business circles have not been enthusiastic about chipping in for commemorative events.

The second reason is political. In the Cold War era, the U.S., Japan’s most important ally, regarded Cuba as a serious threat to its own security. Even now, relations between Washington and Havana remain chilly.

Japan no longer places restrictions on political and cultural contacts between itself and Cuba. As many as about 10,000 Japanese people now travel to Cuba annually.

The Japanese people’s perception of Cuba and its people seems to have improved a lot in recent years. But that improvement has been tempered by the inadequate promotion of human rights and democratic principles by the Cuban government of President Fidel Castro.

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