VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA - Koichi Kaminishi, the last living member of a storied Japanese-Canadian baseball team active from 1914 until Canada’s mass internment of Japanese during World War II, reflected on the team and his wartime experiences at a celebration of his 96th birthday this month near Vancouver.
The gathering, put on by a new incarnation of the Vancouver Asahi baseball team, brought together youth players of the “New Asahi” with the guest of honor at the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre.
Kaminishi, a native of the western Canadian city who spent part of his childhood with relatives in Hiroshima, debuted as a third baseman for the Vancouver Asahi in 1939 at age 17.
Though the team was the pride of the Japanese immigrant community and earned respect in local leagues for its gritty play and sportsmanship, it was disbanded in the wake of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, when the Canadian government forcibly relocated over 20,000 people of Japanese descent, including Kaminishi and his mother, from the west coast to remote inland prison camps.
“It was an awful place,” Kaminishi said in an interview with Kyodo News, referring to the camp some 250 km northeast of Vancouver where he was interned in 1942.
“We had to live in a building that was like a pigsty, with no water or electricity. It was only tolerable because I was together with family.”
Baseball and softball games were sometimes organized in the camps, but the Asahi players, dispossessed and scattered by internment and subject to restrictions imposed on Japanese-Canadians after the war, never re-established the squad.
Decades later, stories of the team’s grace amid harsh anti-Japanese sentiment began to come out in books, oral histories and documentary films. A Japanese feature film dramatizing the team’s history was released internationally in 2014.
In the same year, which marked the centennial of the team’s founding, a Canadian group now called the Asahi Baseball Association was formed to revive the team’s legacy and promote its values of respectfulness and fair play through youth baseball.
The club currently fields teams in five age brackets with a total of more than 120 players, the majority of whom are elementary and junior high school students.
Speaking to Kyodo at the birthday event for Kaminishi, 14-year-old Taiki Suzuki expressed admiration for his predecessors, including the venerable former infielder.
“Kaminishi-san is a legend,” Suzuki said. “The original Asahi team never talked trash or insulted their opponents — they cared about sportsmanship.”
“Lots of people in Vancouver know about the Asahi,” Hilo Yamamoto, 16, added. “The team’s history has even inspired some Canadians to learn more about the war.”
Founded by Harry Miyasaki, the proprietor of a dry cleaning shop in Vancouver’s prewar Japanese district, the baseball team made up of young men of Japanese descent faced bigotry from its earliest days, when Asian immigrants were scorned as “industrious intruders” stealing jobs from white locals.
It also struggled in the beginning to compete in local leagues against bigger and brawnier opponents. But by the time Kaminishi was an eager spectator in the mid-1930s, Miyasaki, serving as manager, had already implemented the team’s signature style of play known as “brain ball.”
The strategy took advantage of defensive prowess and quickness on the base paths, relying on frequent bunting and daring suicide-squeeze plays at the plate to make the difference in low-scoring contests.
With an increasingly winning record and a reputation for clean — as well as thrilling — play, the Asahi won a large fan base beyond the Japanese-Canadian community. They were voted the city’s most popular team after their first Terminal League championship in 1926.
The team continued its winning ways even as circumstances for Japanese-Canadians grew more precarious with the approach of war. They captured the Terminal League title multiple times in the 1930s while also dominating the Pacific Northwest Championship, an annual cross-border series against the champions of a regional Japanese-American league. They won the latter in each of their last five seasons in existence.
“I thought the team was finished once the war came,” Kaminishi said. “But I’m so happy that it’s been revived and that young people are carrying on the spirit of fair play.”
Following his release from internment in 1947, Kaminishi married in the early 1950s and earned a living through various jobs including several years as a motel owner.
Some 40 years after his release, in September of 1988, the Canadian government officially apologized for its forced detention of people of Japanese descent and made a symbolic reparations payment to survivors, following a similar gesture by the United States for its own wartime internment of Japanese.
“The Canadian government’s letter of apology brought me more satisfaction than anything else,” Kaminishi said. “Apologizing as a country made a clear statement, so that everyone could understand internment was a mistake and must never be repeated.”
The Asahi were inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2003 and British Columbia’s Sports Hall of Fame in 2005.