Recovering a community’s rich history and identity

Japanese American Baseball in California : A History

Japanese American Baseball in California: A History

Japanese American Baseball in California : A History 

By Kerry Yo Nakagawa (Charleston, S.C.: The History Press, 2014, 224 pp., $21.99, paperback) 

One of the real pleasures of studying Japanese American history is a capacity for being endlessly surprised by the richness of the subject — I love discovering the unexpected paths that Nikkei communities and individuals have taken, and regarding their real contributions to American life. In this respect, Kerry Yo Nakagawa’s book “Japanese American Baseball in California: A History” is both particularly fun and illuminating. 

Nakagawa carries an interesting story himself: he became interested in the subject of Japanese Americans in baseball when he was coaching his son’s Little League team some 20 years ago, and founded the Nisei Baseball Research Project. Under its auspices, he led a team that put together the travelling historical exhibition “Diamonds in the Rough,” which was featured in such diverse locales as the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York and the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in Tokyo. Out of this exhibit, Nakagawa then spun off the 2001 book “Through a Diamond: 100 Years of Japanese American Baseball,” to which his new book represents an updated version.

“Japanese American Baseball,” as its name indicates, traces the long and enthusiastic commitment of Nikkei to baseball. With the assistance of a generous helping of photos and artifacts, as well as introductions by the late actor Noriyuki “Pat” Morita and Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver, Nakagawa traces the exploits of ethnic Japanese players on the diamond. He traces its story, in a somewhat nonlinear fashion, from the prewar Nisei ball squads who went on goodwill tours of Japan, to the baseball teams in early Hawai‘i sponsored by the Rev. Takie Okumura as part of his larger mission to Christianize the immigrants, to the mushrooming of Issei teams in Japanese communities throughout the West Coast after 1900. 

What is particularly interesting is to discover that the major founder of Issei baseball was Chiura Obata, who would achieve fame not as an athlete but as a modern painter and art instructor at University of California (there is a nice symmetry as well in Obata’s son, the celebrated architect Gyo Obata, contributing in recent decades to the design and construction of baseball stadiums in numerous American cities). The work goes on to tell the now-familiar story of how Nisei in War Relocation Authority camps during World War II played baseball to overcome the malaise of arbitrary confinement. The story ends with the postwar entry of Nikkei players into organized baseball, and eventually the Major Leagues.

Beyond recovering this part of community history, Nakagawa’s story has a larger purpose. Since baseball is both an American and Japanese national pastime, baseball teams not only contributed to the development of thriving Japanese communities in the United States, especially in the first half of the 20th century, but have been an essential vehicle for Issei and (especially) Nisei hampered by prejudice to assert their identity as equal citizens.

The book is well-timed, as it appears just as a Japanese-made feature film appears on the Vancouver Asahi, the legendary prewar Japanese Canadian team. Viewers of the film will be able to see the parallels with the stories of Nikkei south of the (Canadian) border that Nakagawa so lovingly tells.

 

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