Kerry Yo Nakagawa discusses Nisei Baseball on “Chatter Up!”
If you’d like to check out some of Nakagawa’s work and also support JapanBall, you can purchase his book, Through a Diamond: 100 Years of Japanese American Baseball, via this link or stream his film, American Pastime, via this link. If you do so, we receive a small commission.
As we present our 20th episode of “Chatter Up!” it’s easy to look back and find some of our favorite memories. We’ve talked about playing the game on the Japanese stage with former players and managers, we’ve talked about new projects, and dove deep into historical profiles being brought forward by several people. In all of these conversations, however, there remained one common theme: baseball, wherever it’s played, brings out the best in the human spirit.
This theme, among many others tying into it, was discussed by historian Kerry Yo Nakagawa during his visit to “Chatter Up!” on April 3. Nakagawa—who founded the Nisei Baseball Research Project (NBRP) to uncover, share, and preserve the stories of early Japanese Americans playing baseball and their impact on communities—discussed several critical points explored in his study of baseball’s role in Japanese American history, including the game’s ability to connect groups separated by language and cultural barriers. Nakagawa’s father’s experience was a perfect example of the power of sport, and of baseball in particular:
“My grandpa sent my dad to Japan for education, but he came back as a young teenager,” Nakagawa explained. “He really wasn’t accepted in Japan because he was foreign-born, and then when he came back as a teenager to the Central Valley, he had an accent… But he immediately broke down barriers by being such a great football player, sumo wrestler, and he threw a no-hitter… So he gained immediate respect, and I think through the sports arena, no matter what sport it is, no matter what color your skin is, if you can excel at a high level and keep raising that bar as an amateur, as a professional, you will gain immediate respect. I think that was what my father actually expressed to me… Maybe outside the lines of sports, the discrimination, a lot of the xenophobia of the times, would actually go away if you could prove you’re as good or better than anybody else in any sport. I think that was kind of the touchstone to allow our ballplayers to gain respect, to show their skills, to show their passion and to bring pride to their communities.”
Nakagawa, whose uncle “Johnny” Nakagawa played with Kenichi Zenimura during the Fresno Athletic Club’s tours of Japan in 1924, ‘27, and ‘37, first became involved in Japanese American baseball research when he realized he didn’t want the stories of important ballplayers like his Uncle Johnny and Zenimura to be forgotten over time. Searching for a way to get public attention, he quit his job as a documentarian for ABC network, and put on an exhibit at the Fresno Art Museum on the role of baseball in the lives of Japanese Americans; an exhibit, he explained, that would soon get national attention.
“We found out the Fresno Art Museum was doing an exhibit on Japanese culture and history, so I approached them with the idea of having a small exhibit on Japanese American baseball, and they said, ‘Well, baseball really isn’t part of this cultural month,’” Nakagawa recalled. “I said, ‘Well, if I can bring you some photos, I think I could convince you otherwise. It’s definitely been a part of our culture…’ So we did, and on the first day of the exhibit… CNN’s Rusty Dornan covered it, and it was running on CNN every hour on the hour. I remember Rusty saying, ‘You look at the legacy of Japanese Americans, you think it starts post-war, but I see all these pre-war images, and how great these ballplayers were throughout the country…’ So she says that this is an amazing story, and when she came and told us that, I knew that this was much bigger than just a few families that played baseball, and so we’re lucky enough to travel throughout many of the states, and then ended up in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and a year later, we’re at the [Japanese] Baseball Hall of Fame in Tokyo, which was incredible.”
The term nisei can be translated to “second-born,” but contextually means the second in the family to live in the United States—often the first in the family to be born “Japanese American.” Understanding this role, Nakagawa took the time to explain what he believes to be the critical impact these players had on the game, as well as the future of Japanese players in America.
“I think about Cooperstown and the Baseball America exhibit,” Nakagawa said. “Two poignant artifacts there are the Hank Aaron hate letter… and then, our wooden home plate that we got from the Gila River, Arizona, Pima Indian community. This was a very significant and engaging artifact… we’re lobbying with the Nisei Baseball Research Project to get Major League Baseball to recognize our pre-war American ambassadors that created this bridge across the Pacific, for great players like Murakami-san, Nomo-san, Ichiro-san, Matsui-san, Matsuzaka-san; to raise the major league bar even higher—to think about our great players that we had that were considered too small for Major League Baseball, but nobody says that about Jose Altuve or Dustin Pedroia, even though they’re small players, but they become MVPs in Major League Baseball. We’re hoping that much like the pride and the passion for the Negro Leagues that is permanent at Cooperstown, much like the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League that’s permanent, Latinos in Baseball, we’re hoping that Japanese Americans and Japanese Nationals that played baseball here, will be recognized with a permanent exhibit, not just one wooden home plate.”
“I know that on the timeline, ‘Baseball During World War II,’ Japanese Americans were very significant during that era, because America imprisoned their own Americans only because of their race at that time,” Nakagawa said. “So we’re hoping through the prism of baseball, to have these touchstones, artifacts of history of our legacy and players, so that we can educate more people on every coast and around the world, and to let them know that our Issei and Nisei ballplayers—many of the players today in Major League Baseball, they’re standing on the shoulders of those early Issei and Nisei that risked and crusaded… just to be ambassadors for our game.”
As Nakagawa told more stories, the JapanBall audience became more engaged, and even began telling their own stories of how baseball had played a critical role in their lives, within their own communities. Nakagawa was not surprised by this: he told the audience that baseball had a critical humanity to it – one, he added, that should not be ignored.
“It’s such a connective energy to our different generations,” Nakagawa said. “Just to be part of this to ‘play catch’ with all of you, I’m honored to be in your presence, and honored to share my stories as a storyteller, [because] that’s what we all are as filmmakers. We always felt that baseball would be immediate, it would grab women, men, it’s genderless. But like an onion, baseball, we can keep unraveling it like an onion skin, and get into more deeper levels besides baseball itself. So that’s the thing that I’m very appreciative of today, that we started with JapanBall and baseball, but like an onion, we kept unraveling to see a lot more social and deeper issues that baseball can bring out—and it can inspire, and it can educate, and entertain at the same time.”
In addition to these topics, Nakagawa took the time to discuss the many emotions that went into the production of his film “American Pastime,” his conversations with famed Negro League legend and baseball ambassador Buck O’Neil, and his important relationship with Oscar-winning actor Noriyuki “Pat” Morita (of “The Karate Kid” fame), who sang the national anthem at a number of MLB stadiums as part of an effort to raise awareness about Japanese American baseball.
In addition, Nakagawa took the time to discuss the role of the Japanese American internment camps in World War II, and their role in the lives and history of the nisei. Nakagawa, whose own mother endured the struggles and turmoil of one of these camps, explained the role baseball had in the internment camps, and what he believes to be the true nature of the NBRP:
As we push onward into our second year of “Chatter Up!” it’s important to remember those who laid the groundwork for future generations, and what they sacrificed in their efforts. Thanks to those like Nakagawa, learning about those important figures is much easier – and the world is better for it.