Giants to celebrate Fuji Athletic Club on Japanese Heritage Night

Chiura Obata. courtesy of Kimi Hill

Chiura Obata. courtesy of Kimi Hill

As part of their annual Japanese Heritage Night on May 16, the San Francisco Giants will honor the history of Nikkei baseball with a nod to the Fuji Athletic Club, one of the first Japanese American teams that played in the city during the early 1900s.

The Fuji Athletic Club was founded by Chiura Obata, the famed artist whose paintings captured both the natural beauty of California as well as the tragedy of his community’s wartime incarceration. Long before his work hung in the Smithsonian, he was hurling fastballs in his spare time while contributing illustrations to various publications around San Francisco Japantown.

Born in Okayama in 1885, he studied art in Tokyo before relocating to San Francisco in 1903 to broaden his horizons. In America, he became enamored with baseball, inspiring him to form a team.

Most available sources credit him with starting it the same year he arrived, and Giants promotional messaging touts 2023 as the Fuji Athletic Club’s 120th anniversary. The veracity of the 1903 founding date feels a little shaky, however, given that Obata didn’t find his way to San Francisco until October of that year. By then, the regular baseball season had already passed, and as a teenager in a foreign land, the new arrival may not have had the network or resources to organize a team.

His own words call the matter further into question. In a 1965 interview with Nichi Bei Times journalist Masuji Fujii, Obata seemed to indicate that he first became interested in baseball because of a game he witnessed in 1905, when visitors from Waseda University took on Stanford University. As he told Fujii, “This baseball game left an impression on me. I thought it was a good sport for young people. I was the first one to propose a Japanese team. It happened in room number five at the Mie Church.”

Obata named three more teams that subsequently popped up in the city: Harbor View, Wakayama Kenjin Kai and Yamanashi Kyoyu Kai. In total, he said San Francisco ended up with five, resulting in an eight-team league that included one representative each from Oakland, Alameda and Berkeley.

Obata’s granddaughter Kimi Hill, who wrote a book about him and serves as historian for the Obata family, recently chatted with Nichi Bei News about his love of baseball and the legacy of the Fuji Athletic Club.

“These young Issei guys that were over here living in the Bay Area, of course they were working hard; they were trying to figure out what the heck they were doing here in a land that was so discriminatory to them,” Hill explained, pointing out how these tough circumstances necessitated a recreational outlet. “They had so much joy and fun with active sports like baseball,” she said.

Based in part on family photographs, Hill speculated that her grandfather played with the Fuji Athletic Club for at least seven years, but likely longer. “He was playing consistently for sure from 1905,” she said, and even after his marriage in 1912 “he was still playing with the team.”

As a child, Hill visited her grandfather’s Berkeley home on a weekly basis, and often witnessed his love for baseball. She described how “I have very clear memories of him, sometimes watching him paint, but often relaxing, maybe with a transistor radio in his pocket and listening to a Giants game. It was such a part of his life, following the season and the Giants, especially when Masanori Murakami became one of the players.”

Hill mentioned that her older sister Mia accompanied their grandfather to at least one Giants game. Attesting to his interest in sports in general, she also noted that he took her uncle Gyo to see Jesse Owens compete in a track event at UC Berkeley right before the legendary athlete won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Both Chiura and Gyo Obata are recognized in the Giants’ Japanese Heritage Night promotional messaging, as Gyo founded the architectural firm that designed the team’s stadium. Gyo’s son Max, who happens to work in the city as an architect himself, will throw out the ceremonial first pitch on May 16, according to Hill. She suggested her cousin as an alternative to herself after being invited to do the honors by Kerry Yo Nakagawa, director of the Nisei Baseball Research Project.

NBRP, along with the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California, are to receive proceeds from the event, which will feature a pregame yosakoi performance by San Jose’s Uzumaru and the singing of the national anthem by JCCCNC-based Chorale May. Promotional tickets to Japanese Heritage Night come with a souvenir bucket hat, and can be purchased through the Giants Website. Concurrently, the JCCCNC is selling Fuji Athletic Club replica jersey T-shirts, which can be ordered by calling (415) 567-5505.

To order game tickets, through the Giants, visit http://ow.ly/KGaU50Ok0bm.

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Correction
Accuracy is fundamental in journalism. In the May 11, 2023 issue of the Nichi Bei News, the article entitled “Giants to celebrate Fuji Athletic Club on Japanese Heritage Night” erroneously identified Max Obata as Kimi Obata’s nephew. He is her cousin. The Nichi Bei News regrets the error. To contact the Nichi Bei News about an error, please e-mail news@nichibeiweekly.org, write to P.O. Box 15693, San Francisco, CA 94115 or call (415) 673-1009.

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