The Spirit of Okagesama and Fair Play Transcends Generations: Last Member of Legendary Asahis Speaks Out
NEW SERIES: JAPANESE CANADIAN PIONEERS
This is the first instalment of a semi-regular new series called “JAPANESE CANADIAN PIONEERS” featuring Nikkei men and women, young and old, who have made significant contributions in their respective fields, as recognized by their peers and the general public alike. The series will run intermittently for a while. We hope you’ll find in it something enjoyable and meaningful vis-à-vis your own experiences.
Within minutes of meeting Mr Kaye Kaminishi, I who consider myself a “seasoned reporter,” could not help being awe-struck by the aura of the man, now aged 93. He was like an old Zen monk who had found enlightenment — completely at peace with himself and with those around him. One could sense that the man has pursued a singular passion throughout his life. One could also feel his gratitude, expressed in a few simple words, toward all those within the Nikkei community as well as Canadians in general, who have supported him and his buddies, and who made it all possible for them.
His passion is baseball. He is the last surviving member of the legendary semi-pro Asahi team that was the pride and joy of the pre-Word War II Canadian Japanese community. The issei, nisei, men and women, young and old in their thousands, their differences in cultural values for once all but forgotten in their wild enthusiasm, would flock to Powell Grounds (now Oppenheimer Park) for home games and to ballparks around Vancouver for away games.
I was happy to find the last surviving member of the Asahis to be sprightly and in excellent spirits for this interview. His recollection of past events including specific games was crystal clear…or should I say at least as good as a “relative youngster” like me at 70. His eyes would light up the moment he started talking about the passion of his life, baseball…about the excitement at witnessing the formation of the New Asahis, comprising adult and boys teams. “What has made me very happy in recent years is the formation of the New Asahis,” he said. On the presence of many hapa boys and youths on these teams, formed by Nikkei and ijusha prime movers who recruited young Nikkei and ijusha players, he said, “That’s a good thing.”
Coincidentally, this recent “return of the Asahis” has taken place just about a century since Mickey Kitagawa and his two brothers (a.k.a. the “Three Kitagawas), Mtsujirō Miyazaki, Tom Matoba and others first got together to form the Asahi team way back in 1914. It was not long after the world premiere in Vancouver of the Japanese movie The Vancouver Asahi (Bankūbā no asahi) that the present coach of the Vancouver Asahis (adult team), who had been dreaming of “reviving the Asahis,” was invited by the Canadian Nikkei Youth Baseball Club to work together. As for the movie, a fictionalized account based on the exploits of the real Asahis, its main significance is that it informed the Japanese general public about the pre-WWII existence of the Asahis.
It was in 1939 that Mr Kaminishi joined the Asahis. “The time I was given that red Asahi uniform, I couldn’t sleep a wink that night with excitement. After all, I’d worshipped them since I was a kid in elementary school, going to watch their games and so on,” he said. But the team would soon have to be dissolved with the forced relocation and internment of Nikkei people. “It was one of the greatest disappointments of my life. I’d only played for three years. I felt like a player nipped in the bud.” It was the end of the Asahis’ glorious history.
With their forced relocation and interment on the way, Mr Kaminishi was ordered to report to a “road (construction) camp” at Taft, and was issued with a one-way train ticket. “But there was no way I could leave my mother behind alone by herself. She was a manager of a ryokan (Japanese-style inn) near the Powell Grounds that was owned by a Caucasian Canadian. So I hid in there for a couple of weeks. There were 60 rooms in the three-storey building, so I would hide in one of these rooms every time policemen came around looking for suspicious characters,” he said.
“Eventually, we were given permission to go to a relocation site of our choice, so we decided to go to Lillooet.” Straddling the Fraser River in the interior, the town’s houses and shops were located in East Lillooet, while the Nikkei people were forced to live in shacks they had to build by themselves in the relocation site across the river. The aforementioned Japanese movie The Vancouver Asahi gives the impression that the Nikkei were mostly poor, low-class people bunched up in a ghetto-like community, but as it is well-known (at least among Japanese Canadians), there were many Nikkei people leading middle-class lives in places like Mount Pleasant, Kitsilano and, indeed, around Powell Street too. “We had to pay for our own train fares to Lillooet, as well as for materials to build our shacks,” Mr Kaminishi said.
As ever devoted to baseball, Mr Kaminishi was the only ex-Asahi player at the Lillooet internment site. “I think I was the only one who brought a glove and a bat,” he recalled. So the Nikkei internees got a softball team together and challenged the RCMP to a friendly game. The town folk, who had never seen people of Japanese ethnicity before, were at first afraid of the internees who lived in an area across a river straddling the town. But when RCMP vs Nikkei games started being held both at the internment site and in town on alternate weekends, the town folk at first were astonished to hear “the Japs” conversing normally in English.
Eventually, the Nikkei people were given permission to shop in the town’s stores when they were there. The storekeepers welcomed them because they always had cash to pay with. The sad background to this situation was that most of the town’s large First Nation population, being poor, could only buy things on credit.
Like Mr Kaminshi, other former Asahi players cultivated friendly relations with the mainly Caucasian local people through baseball at every internment camp they were sent to. There were many former Asahis at Lemon Creek and Slocan, for instance, so they organized serious hard-ball games between Nikkei teams, as well as against other local teams.In 1947, when Mr Kaminishi had to leave Lilooet to move to Kamloops, some of the town folk he had become friends with shed tears as they bade him farewell. Friendships between some Nikkei and local families continue to this day over several generations.
After he became a free man with the defeat of Imperial Japan in 1945, Mr Kaminishi at age 25 had gone to Kamloops instead of returning to Vancouver because – as one might guess – “I wanted to play baseball.” He joined the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) team there. His participation gave a boost to the local squad, which went on to capture the Okanagan League championship in 1949.
Back in February, 2003, former Asahi players who had contributed so much to the progress of amateur baseball, even as they endured the humiliation of forced removal and internment, finally received the honour of entering the famed Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. Just seven men – Messrs. Kaminishi, Ken Kutsukake, Kiyoshi Suga, Bob Higuchi, Mickey Maikawa and Mike Maruno – now remained of the total of 74 men who made the Asahi roster over a few decades.
Mr Kaminishi, then aged 81, told the local newspaper The Daily News, Kamloops, “It’s a great honour, you bet … When I got the Asahi uniform when I was 17, I couldn’t sleep all night. Now…the same thing again – I couldn’t sleep again I was too excited.…this is the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. That’s wow. I just can’t describe it. We were only amateurs, you know, yet we get inducted in this Hall. It’s really an honour.” .. It was an honour bestowed 89 years after the team Asahi came into existence.
There must be a vast number of fascinating episodes about both baseball and the history of the Nikkei folk in his memory that remains crystal clear. If one were to add in all the details, one might easily end up with a few volumes. As this column space is limited, here is the last question I put to him about the lifelong issue for many Nikkei people, the question of self-identity. He replied: “Of course I’m a Canadian born in Canada. But at a deeper level, I would sometimes wonder to what extent I’m Japanese.”
In that context, he went on: “The most important things are the spirit of fair play and sportsmanship.” He was around 25 to 26 when he was playing before the outbreak of the “Pacific War.” There might have been umpires who looked down upon Nikkei people in those days, especially when they were playing away games at ballparks such as Con Jones Park. There, on one occasion, an Asahi runner who was clearly safe at home was called out, so Asahi fans including many Caucasians among the spectators rushed out into the playing field causing havoc, requiring police to intervene. “We must respect sportsmanship, so no matter how unfair an umpire’s call, we must accept it humbly and never do things like protesting it,” was the manager’s strict order.
The interview was conducted mostly in English with Japanese words and expressions mixed in. One Japanese expression “I find hard to put into English,” he said, “is okagesama.” I think I understand. While English and other Indo-European languages evolved and became more complex and sophisticated over millennia mainly through logical thinking on the part of religious leaders and other guardians of language, the Japanese people always seem to prefer emotions to govern their language.
For example, ashi has always been the Japanese word for “reed” that grows in river and lake shallows. But just because the sound “ashi” sounds like the word meaning “bad” as in “yoshi ashi (good and bad),” some people way back then started to write it with the antonym alternative word 良し instead of the original 葦 just because it sounded bad. In today’s dictionaries, both are considered acceptable. How logical is that?
In the life of a pro baseball player today, for example, he owes his existence to everyone, whether he knows them or not, from the spectators young and old, male and female, who pay to attend his games, to his team manager, coaches, gear and equipment maintenance people, trainer, interpreter (maybe), seasoned craftsman with a sports equipment manufacturer, who makes his custom bats and gloves and ground-keepers, not to mention his wife and kids who always support him. Hence he must feel and say okagesama, meaning roughly “thanks to everyone under the sky.” In the majors today, too, first class players who are both respected and liked are like that.
Even today, the soon to be 94-year-old “old warrior” devotes his passion to teaching baseball to boys and youths of his grandchildren’s and great-grandchildren’s generations. He is living his life, which has more or less been all about baseball, to the full. As I thanked him for the interview and got ready to leave, I said: “Sensei, you have made even my life a little richer.” It was no hollow compliment, I meant it.