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Tokyo, Japan – Victor Rodriguez, a Cuban musician, had planned a short stay in Japan with his band to try and make money teaching salsa dance to desiring Japanese. But 11 years later, he finds himself married to a Japanese woman, father to a toddler, and so settled down he has even brought over two of his nephews.
In Cuba he was a member of an uber popular singing group called Los Cativos, now the group is uber popular in Japan.
“Japan is the future. Cuba is the past,” said Josiel Rafoso, the youngest member of the band. He wears his hair like a halo — the center of his head shaved and a crown Afro surrounds his head like one of the rings of Jupiter. “There’s always something new here,” he said.
The differences are huge when it comes to a Latino way of life, or more specifically a Cuban way of life, compared to Japanese lifestyle, Rafoso said. “Cuba has 24 hours in the day, in Japan it seems like there are only 20. In Cuba people have time to learn about love – he continued. The feelings here in Japan are different. Japanese people have a lot to learn about love and human connection. Cubans really feel the music. Japanese people enjoy it, but it’s automatic. It’s a bit robotic for them,” Rafoso said.
Despite the differences, an affinity for all things Latino has boomed in the last 10 years in Japan. Rodriguez says that when he first came to Tokyo there were maybe three or four Cubans teaching salsa dance, now there’s too many to count.
Clubs have opened up all over the city, with names such as El Paraiso, El Café Latino, Salsa Caribe, in neighborhoods like Roppongi and Shinjuku. Los Cativos play gigs all over Tokyo, from nightclubs to festivals and underground pop-ups.
There’s even an annual Cuba-Japan festival in Tokyo, held in Ueno Park. The theme this year was “Japanese Dance Cuba!”
Kumiko Koba, cosmetics brand copywriter and salsa aficionado, said Japanese people resonate with the Latin vibe. "We’re farmers. We’re all about family. We live in harmony with nature. It’s in our DNA," she said.
"When I first heard Latin music and started dancing salsa ten years ago, I felt it was an epiphany. This is what we lost,” said Koba, who is also a yoga instructor.
But living in Japan has its challenges for a Cuban musician/singer. “Japanese people don’t like loud music. I can’t even sing in the shower,” Josiel said. “If I walk on the roof, they yell at me to be quiet,” he says.
“The future of our music is to build a music studio here in Japan. Make new music for the younger generation. That means a mix of Reggaeton, Electric Music, Hip-Hop, and Salsa," said Yasni, a singer in Los Cativos group, who says he taught himself English through movies he saw in Cuba.
"The younger Japanese have a different mindset. They want different things and they want it all faster. Japan is changing and we’re changing with them,” he added.
“Maybe because Cuba and Japan are both island cultures, and isolated, both developed a pure culture. Latin culture is so different from Japanese. We’re about discipline. We learn everything in a very determined and rigorous way. The Latin culture gives us the outlet to be less in control,” Kumiko said.
The guys of Los Cativos say they all want to return to Cuba some day. They say playing gigs in Tokyo ups their value and their price tag in Cuba, but to really make it, they talk about the U.S.
“The guys in Miami all want to come here. There’s too many of them in Miami, and they all want to meet Japanese girls. We want to go to the U.S.,” says Josiel. “I’ll cut my hair when I reach my goal. If not, I'll let it keep growing,” he said.
Josiel’s goal, he said, is to be the next Michael Jackson.