The Asahi: remembering the past, and working on our future
Pitchers, like poets, are born not made. Cy Young
My earliest memory of baseball is my grandfather holding my hand, placing my fingers in position and then encouraging me to throw the ball. I did try to throw it, but the ball was too heavy for me. Maybe I was four or five years old. When I was older, I would turn the ball in my hand, looking at the seam, remembering what my grandfather said about where to place my fingers, and I would try to throw the ball. I would try, but the ball would not obey me as it would for him.
Luckily others in my family were more adept at the sport. Just like some of the other family representatives of Vancouver Asahi players who were being recognized at a ceremony at Nat Bailey Stadium before the Vancouver Canadians game on August 10th.
Jean Kamimura said her father John Nihei, a catcher, “lived to see his two great grandchildren.” One of them, Beth Kamimura, is also a catcher, and represented the family. Jean said her father was a fulltime student with a British principal who didn’t think much of the “American” sport of baseball so wouldn’t allow him any time off. She said, “He had no extra money for transit so he walked from the mansion “Killarney” on Point Grey Road in Kitsilano, across the railway trestle that spanned across False Creek and all the way to Powell Ground to play ball.”
Frank Yoshioka represented his father Tom (Sutejiro) Yoshioka, and his uncle Happy Yoshioka who was a pitcher. Frank was a pitcher and said his grandson Jared Power is also a pitcher. “With our three generations of players, our family has carried on the love for the game of baseball,” said Frank.
BC Sports Hall of Fame medals were also presented to Robert Ito, son of Junji George Ito; to Natalie Verhoeven, grandniece of Ed Nakamura; to Kanao Suzuki, nephew of Ken Suzuki; to Jean Matsushita, daughter of Mickey Terakita; to Hiro Yanagisawa, son of Otto Yanagisawa; and to Mae Oikawa, daughter (and me, granddaughter) of Kenichi Doi.
Growing up I knew my grandfather loved baseball. It wasn’t just his trying to teach me to pitch, it was also older Japanese Canadian men who would recite stats and tell me about a particular play of my grandfather’s. Apparently he got a record 23 strike outs in one game. It was long before I was born so I never saw him play, but he would show me his pitches. One in particular was mesmerizing, when he would throw the ball and make it drop as it approached the batter. My uncle says it was called a drop ball, just one of my grandfather’s pitches that would contribute to his pitching prowess. To my young eyes, it seemed like magic.
For Emiko Ando who coordinated the ceremony, it became a personal quest to find the relatives of the players when she found out there were unclaimed medals. She said, “It was like being on a treasure hunt through time, and each time I connected with a relative and heard their family stories I felt like I played a part in honouring their own family history.
“There is still more work to do including sending about a dozen medals to Eastern Canada and to Japan and trying to find the remaining relatives. What was also exciting was finding some Asahi players that had not yet been fully recognized, like Kenichi Doi.”
More people know about the Vancouver Asahi thanks to an exhibit, books, plaques, a painting on the side of Nat Bailey stadium, and films. Last year, the Asahi got international attention when award winning director Yuya Ishii launched his film, The Vancouver Asahi, at the Vancouver International Film Festival. Sold out and extra screenings and a fan favourite prize ensured that the story of the Asahi reached an even broader audience.
Also contributing to the ongoing recognition of the Asahi is the annual tribute game held in the former Powell Street Grounds, now known as Oppenheimer Park on unceded Coast Salish land. It’s where the original Asahi team played from 1914 to 1941 until Japanese Canadians were forcibly removed from the west coast and unjustly incarcerated.
I had the honour of announcing the 10th Annual Asahi Tribute Game on August 15th, and introducing Grace Eiko Thomson who was present at the first tribute game and the curator of the Asahi exhibit at the Nikkei National Museum.
Grace asked us to imagine the years when the Asahi played when “Japanese Canadians struggled daily with a racist society…” Japanese Canadians were denied the right to vote, paid less wages than Caucasian workers, and “were segregated in public places such as movie theatres and indoor swimming pools, and not allowed in some restaurants.” ”The Asahis were “the only ethnic team playing in the industrial leagues here in Vancouver.” The players were much smaller than the Euro Canadian players, and before they made a name for themselves they had to endure racial slurs in the stands and in the newspapers, and unfair treatment by officials.
“On the ball park, however, the Asahi in time levelled the playing field. The Asahis showed they were equals winning consecutive years of championships.”
Angela Kruger co-chair of the GVJCCA Japanese Canadian Young Leaders (JCYL) Committee which took the lead to organize this year’s game said, “we knew that we had energy, momentum, and a strong bond as a group, so we stepped up. But the coolest part was that we said we’d need help from the community, and right away, there it was.” She talked about the “people smiling and laughing. It made me realize how important it is for people to play, even adults…for once, everyone just wanted to play.”
Another member of the JCYL, Hikari Rachmat, said “This was my first time actually playing baseball and I really enjoyed bringing together the JC [Japanese Canadian] and DTES [Downtown Eastside] community.” He surprised everyone when he looked like he was going to bunt the ball. He admits he was thinking of trying to imitate the Asahi who played what was known as brain ball or smart ball to try to gain an advantage over their taller and bigger opponents. “I’m looking forward to playing at this event again next year and I encourage other JCs who weren’t there to come out and join us next year.”
“We hadn’t even left the field before we found ourselves brainstorming ideas for next year’s game.” Angela is excited about some ideas including perhaps “building a stronger educational component. We’ll see what happens.”
After a week of being immersed in the Asahi legend, it is clear to me that it is more than a game. It’s about remembering the past, and working on our future, and being inspired by those who found ways to fight back against racial discrimination, and bring people together.