Professor honors Japanese American baseball in research

By Gabrielle Nomura
Northwest Asian Weekly

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Asahi, the 1917 Japanese Baseball Champions (Photo from J. Arai Photo Collection/Wing Luke)

Long before Ichiro, Seattle’s Japanese American community had other baseball heroes. But they weren’t Mariners. They were the Asahi, Cherry, Lotus, and Cavaliers, to name a few.

With great dignity, people of Japanese ancestry took an American sport and turned it into an art form. At least, that’s how Seattle University Professor Marie Wong describes it.

“In the turn of the century, baseball was far more than a sport to Japanese Americans,” Wong said.

This is clear from the black-and-white photographs that Wong has spent digging up for her research at the Japanese cultural center, the state archives, as well as the University of Washington’s special collections library. Images from as early as 1910 show handsome male faces peering beneath baseball caps and striped uniforms. Some look on stoically, while others smile.

Photographs from the 1940s also show thriving community baseball, even from behind barbed wire. While incarcerated during World War II, Japanese Americans could take only what they could carry. Bats, mitts, and gloves were often some of the few precious items that made the cut.

This fascinates Wong, a person who weaves her background in industrial design with Asian American studies in her research and teaching. She is the author of “Sweet Cakes, Long Journey: The Chinatowns of Portland, Oregon.” Additionally, her book on the history of Seattle’s pan-Asian community and life in the residential hotels will soon be released.

Japanese-American baseball in the Pacific Northwest is her latest project. She hopes to turn her findings into a book in the next several years.

Baseball had, in fact, entered Japan in the late 1880s, before many of the first waves of immigrants arrived in the U.S. By the time issei — the first Japanese to immigrate to the United States — began establishing themselves in the Pacific Northwest, the sport helped bridge a cultural divide between them and their American-born children.

Wong became hooked on this topic after looking through old copies of the Japanese-American Courier, a newspaper founded by former star athlete, James Sakamoto.

Sakamoto became known for publishing the first all-English, Nikkei newspaper in the U.S (the word Nikkei refers to Japanese immigrants and their descendants that reside outside of Japan), in addition to a sports league he created for his community. Because Japanese Americans were not allowed to play on white athletic teams, Sakamoto started “The Courier League.”

In addition to providing an organizational structure, The Courier provided plenty of media coverage for these teams, which has allowed Wong to step back in time to do her research. Wong’s project has captivated board members of the Japanese Community and Cultural Center of Washington (JCCCW), who chose to explore baseball as a theme this year.

Kurt Tokita, Board President of the JCCCW, said he wanted to explore a topic that would unite Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans living in Seattle.

“I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a baseball game in Japan, but it’s crazy — they celebrate baseball in a whole other way. It’s almost like sumo,” Tokita said.

As part of this theme, the cultural center’s NW Nikkei Museum will showcase memorabilia and artifacts from three time periods: pre-World War II, Japanese Internment, and from afterwards to present-day.

The center is planning an event on Sept. 28 that will feature community stories, museum displays, and various speakers, including Wong. The center has also partnered with the Mariners, who will be available for pictures at the September event, in addition to providing JCCCW groups insider tours of Safeco Field.

Most importantly to Wong’s research, the JCCCW has created a series of workshops where community members can come to contribute their own stories and photographs in an effort to preserve the legacy of Nikkei baseball.

These sessions have allowed Wong to collect information, scan photographs, and hear stories from community members such as Tyrus Okata, a nisei, whose father was a manager of the Taiyo baseball team in The Courier League. As he remembers it, his dad mainly wanted to keep young people out of trouble, even organizing a trip for the athletes to travel and play against a team in Japan.

“Back then, I was just a tot, but when I grew older I played,” said Okata, who brought in an old Taiyo baseball uniform. “Everyone played either baseball or basketball back then.”

Okata said the hard part of Wong’s task is the increasingly shrinking pool of people like himself, who are able to provide the firsthand stories of baseball from their own perspective, or watching their relatives play.

But that won’t deter Wong from her quest: to tell an important story to the community that has “embraced her as one of their own” in this process.

Fans admired Ichiro because he brought precision, dignity and respect for the sport, Wong said. These very same qualities allowed his predecessors to transcend the confines of community baseball. (end)

If you or a friend has Nikkei baseball club uniform items, historic equipment, or photography related to Nikkei baseball and would be interested in loaning them, the NW Nikkei Museum would be thrilled to consider them for inclusion in the upcoming exhibition. Please send a brief description of the items and any digital photos of them to info@jcccw.org.

Gabrielle Nomura can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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