Being Ken Yada
When Ken Yada took part in the first annual JCCA Community Bowl-a-thon in February of this year it was a multigenerational affair, with his son, daughter and grandson all taking part. Ken himself did more than take part – he won the prize for most pledges collected for the fundraising tournament, a reflection of both his passion for sport and his life-long dedication to the betterment his community.
Born in Vancouver in 1936, Ken is the eldest son of Frank Genichiro Yada and Kuniye Yada (nee Uyesugi). In 1942, following the bombing or Pearl Harbor, when Ken was six, the family relocated to the Bridge River self-supporting camp and then to Devine, BC, where they remained until the wartime restrictions were lifted.
In 1949, the family came back to the coast, among the first Japanese Canadian families to return to Vancouver. Ken attended Lord Byng secondary school and then King Edward, where he was named captain of the basketball team.
Ken graduated with a Commerce degree in Business Administration, having played basketball and football for UBC and winning the BC Junior Championship with Ex West Vancouver.
Starting with Mitsubishi Canada, Ken worked a number of different companies over the course of his career, as well as acting as owner-operator of a Bino’s Restaurant and two Baskin & Robbins ice cream outlets. While working for Flyer Hooks, he made many trips to Japan, including a memorable one to the 1998 Nagano Olympics, where he was able to meet some hockey players from Team Canada. He also worked as an interpeter/driver for TV Tokyo in the 2010 Winter Olympics.
After career and family, sports has always had a priority in Ken’s life. He spent many years coaching amateur baseball, was a scout for the Pittsburg Pirates and served as a board member with BC Amateur Baseball. From coaching championship teams and youth bowling leagues to serving as interpreter for the Japanese Amateur baseball team and the Vancouver Canucks, he has seen the power sports has to make lives better. He has also used sport as a way to support causes he believes in, organizing many fundraising tournaments over the years and raising thousands of dollars for worthwhile causes.
Ken met and married Dorothy Kirk while in university. The couple have been married for over 50 years and have two children, Stephanie and Ken (Kenzo). They have two grandchildren, Ashante and Matthew.
Ken Yada sat down with The Bulletin to talk about his life.
Ken Yada – the Bulletin Interview
Your family went to a self-supporting camp. What was that like?
We evacuated to Bridge River, and I know I was only 6 years old, but I know how hard it was on my mom and dad, because I don’t think I ate meat for a whole year! But, you know, we had a little garden as well as raising chickens, and stuff like that. But that was being young, I guess. When you think about it now, about how my dad and mom worked so hard those years. I think we were one of the first families to move back into Vancouver, and I was enrolled at Lord Byng High School.
What was that like?
I didn’t know this at the time, but my friends told me when we graduated that the principal had an assembly, saying that this Japanese Canadian kid was coming to school and needs to be treated, like, fairly. And I said oh, yeah, tell me another one. So to me that was quite an honour, that all those years, when I was at Lord Byng high school . . . I didn’t even know about this assembly, because nobody mentioned it. That was something that I always will remember.
So when you came back to Vancouver, I guess your family had to start over.
Before we left, my dad had a store on the corner about Cassiar and Hastings, of all places. As you know a freeway goes through there now, but I always remember from the upstairs I could see the race track and everything, and Hastings Park, and I know the evacuation, they had, as you know, they were using the barns and everything for the Japanese, when they were all evacuated out of the city, but my dad was lucky, he had lot of friends before he left, mostly Caucasian friends that lived in the neighbourhood, and you know they really treated us well when we came back.
But your dad didn’t get his store back.
No, no. We actually moved to 41st and Balaclava, which is in the Kerrisdale area, and we had a little corner grocery store, and even though I was still in high school I had to work in the store. My dad started selling insurance for Crown Life, and my mom and I were basically looking after the store, and then eventually – my dad was kind of an entrepreneur – and he bought another place on 371 East Hastings, he was buying Japanese goods from Japan in large quantities. So we had to go down there and pre-pack everything into jars, and stuff like that … and I remember one of my Caucasian friends came down to help me, and we had what you call takuwan, which is a Japanese pickle, and it smells like crazy, and we had to pack this, and I remember him saying, “Oh my gosh, you guys eat this?”
There weren’t many Japanese stores in those days.
Oh, no. Our main customers were the fishermen in Steveston, so I remember I had to go out with Bill Uyesugi to deliver groceries out there, and basically that’s where I learned to drive, because I’d be so anxious to get my driver’s licence, and Bill would tell me, if you deliver these groceries you can drive back, so I really worked really hard.
You got involved in sports in high school.
When I was at Lord Byng I played basketball and I played soccer. We made the high school tournament. That was a big thrill. And then eventually at UBC I played football as well as basketball. I also played baseball. My kid brother Mickey was quite a ball player, and I was coaching him in the Marpole and then Fraserview areas. But I have to tell you the most incredible story about baseball. One day I get a phone call. See, I had a good left-handed pitcher named Steve Herbert, and this fellow says, “Well, when are you pitching Steve?” And I looked at my schedule, and I told him. “I’ll be throwing him such and such a night. “And sure enough, in the stands I see this guy sitting there with his book out, taking notes, and after the game was finished, he comes up to me and he says, “Can we go for coffee? I want to talk to you.” So I said, “Sure, no problem.”
So I go there, for coffee, and my mouth just about dropped when he said, “We’re looking for an area scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Would you be interested?” And I said, “Would I? Of course I’d be interested.” And he said, “But you have to take a week off, fly back to Pittsburgh, you’ve got to talk to all the key scouts and everything.” And I said, “No problem.” So I became an area scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Yeah! I became a scout for basically western Canada. But I used to go down to Seattle to help out the scout there. He used to come up to Vancouver when I had my try-out camp, to help me.
You must have been young.
Well, I was out of school, and I just graduated from university, and because my kid brother was playing, and they were looking for coaches, so . . . In fact my son also played baseball, later, and I coached him also. This is in the Little Mountain area. I also became director of BC Amateur Baseball and took a team to Chatham, New Brunswick for the Canadian finals, which we ended up winning. That was quite a thrill.
I didn’t realize that you started the JCCA golf tournament way back when.
It’s funny, because I never golfed till I joined Mitsubishi after I graduated from university, and I remember sitting at my desk, and the manager comes over, and I think he threw a hundred dollars on my desk, and he says, “If you work for Mitsubishi, you have to golf, so go buy yourself some golf clubs.” And that’s how I got involved with golf. Henry Wakabayashi and Arthur Hara and myself, we were pretty avid golfers, because when you work for Mitsubishi, they have what you call a Konwakai tournament, where all the trading companies from Japan, lots of them would come over and golf, and I became part of the committee there, so I had to book all of golf courses for the whole year for the Konwakai group. And then Mitsubishi had tournaments against Seattle, Portland, and so golf became one of my, shall we say, my biggest sport. And the thing that I couldn’t believe too, was in those days the prizes that they used to give out for having been in the low net finals, were quite substantial, and the trading companies used to put up quite a bit of money. For the JCCA, for our first tournament, we were looking all over the Lower Mainland, but in those days it was easier for us to go out of town, so we booked Chilliwack, and I remember we’d booked a hotel the night before, and lot of the guys I know were playing poker, and then golfing the next day at Chilliwack – the first JCCA golf tournament.
And so lately you’ve helped organize the golf tournament for the Nikkei Centre. What was the impetus behind that?
My wife’s niece and partner were figure skaters, a dance team, and they represented Team Canada at Turin in Italy in the Winter Olympics, so my wife and I got to go there. Because they were just students, I’d have golf tournaments to raise funds for them. They’re now coaching at Burnaby Rinks, and I was asked, can you start a tournament for the Nikkei, so I said, “No problem.” Because when you have that many tournaments, you get to know all these staff, and they really treated you well there at Green Acres, so we just continued to have a golf tournament there. And as you know, we’ve raised quite a bit of money for Nikkei Centre.
It sounds like sports have been really a big part of your life.
Oh, yeah. Sports has been a big part of my life. Henry Wakabayashi and I are probably best buddies, and we’ve had season tickets for the Canucks for 40 years. I also have seasons tickets for the Lions. I’ve also been a member at Quilchena Golf and Country Club for over forty years. I bowl five-pin every Friday with the Fuji League and I bowl ten-pin on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
What do you enjoy most about sports?
Well, the thing about sports is my grandson is involved in basketball now, and all my brothers and my kids, they’re all into sports. ….to me I think sports, if you’re involved with sports, you don’t get mixed up in other activities as well. There’s so much going on with these young kids, but if they’re playing sports, I think it’s really good, because they concentrate on that.
So basically it keeps you out of trouble.
Yeah, it keeps you out of trouble, exactly.
As one of first people to come back to the coast after the interment, you’ve seen the community really change over the years. And now, so many years later, what are your thoughts on the community?
You know, the JCCA and Nikkei Centre . . . Tonari Gumi . . . to me, I really feel it’s great that we have this still continuing on, especially the JCCA. They’ve been around for so many years and Japanese Canadians all know about JCCA. They have their joint golf tournament with Tonari Gumi now and they had the bowling tournament. I was very honoured to be able to raise the most money at the tournament, but it was especially wonderful, because my son and daughter and my grandson and myself were all involved – that’s three generations. I think you guys, JCCA, really started something that I think should be continued on.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I’m glad that, you know, this Asahi baseball thing has gone over so well, apparently. And for young people, I still think that being involved in sports is the best way, shall we say, to grow up well. You have to study too, of course!