The Asahi Baseball Club: Vancouver Baseball’s Past, Present and Future

The Asashi Baseball Club in 1929, near the height of its powers. (via Vancouver Public Library Historical Photographs)

At the turn of the 20th century, the Japanese Canadian community in Vancouver was thriving. Since the arrival of the first Japanese person, Manzo Nagano, in 1877, the population of Japanese immigrants in the city had grown exponentially. Laborers of Japanese descent formed a large part of the Vancouver work force, and every year the number of immigrants coming from Japan grew.

With this thriving, though, came backlash, often in significant doses. The white residents of Vancouver and the rest of southern British Columbia had in the early days largely tolerated the presence of Asian immigrants, considering them a non-threatening supplement to the work force. The demand for labor was ever-increasing in this region and era, with Vancouver establishing itself as a nexus of rail and shipping. But as the numbers of Chinese and Japanese people arriving in Vancouver increased, so too did the hostility towards them.

Suspicions were raised, first in whispers, then in widely disseminated declarations, that Asian immigrants could never be “assimilated,” that they were plotting to steal jobs from white Canadians, that their presence was depressing wages, that their influence was poisoning BC’s cultural integrity.

For Chinese immigrants, the spread of racist fear-mongering manifested itself legally in the form of the Chinese Head Tax, but even for Japanese immigrants not facing government-enforced discrimination, the effects of this widespread and widely accepted racism were palpable. Even while their efforts in the work force contributed greatly to the region’s economic prosperity, the community was forced to insulate itself against the increasing threat of racially motivated attacks. The neighborhoods now known as Japantown and Chinatown—the latter centered around Pender Street, the former to the northeast around Powell Street—became the safe havens and hubs of cultural activity.

By the first decade of the 20th century, Asian immigration to the Pacific coast was reaching historic levels, and anti-Asian racism was reaching a fever pitch. In 1905, the Asiatic Exclusion League was established in San Francisco. Its stated aims were to protect the integrity of America as a “white man’s country,” and to implement a full ban on immigration from Asia. The movement had a great deal of social influence, with its members occupying high-ranking positions in the San Francisco labor force, media and government. The AEL lobbied for and achieved the segregation of all Asian children into “Oriental schools,” and in 1907 successfully pressured Congress into ending all immigration of Japanese workers to the United States.

Farther north in Vancouver, most white Canadians now identified themselves as against the presence of Asian immigrants in the city, and were heartened by the legislative successes of the AEL. In August 1907, five months after President Theodore Roosevelt had issued his executive order halting Japanese immigration, a Vancouver chapter of the AEL was formed with a mission “to keep Oriental immigrants out of British Columbia.”

On Sept. 7, a group of reportedly over 4,000 AEL members and sympathizers gathered outside Vancouver’s city hall to hear speeches rallying against the evil of Asian immigration. From there, the crowd moved to the streets, growing in number as it moved, until it arrived at Chinatown. There, violence broke out. Rioters swept through Chinatown, smashing the windows of Chinese businesses, kicking down their doors, beating random Asian passersby, all while chanting racist slurs and slogans. From there, the riot moved northeast to Japantown.

The rioters found themselves greeted by a group of Japanese Canadians armed with clubs and glass bottles. They had been warned about the riot rolling into their neighborhood. They were prepared to defend themselves. And while the crush of agitators still managed to do immense damage to Japantown, the riot moved no further.

The years immediately following the riot saw the AEL’s membership spike, then plateau; the Japanese government, in response to pressure from Canadian government concerns about further violence breaking out, enacted a limit on emigration to Canada. There would be no more mass violence in the next decade. But the memory of the riot, the sentiments that provoked it, still remained, still strong, if less strongly spoken of.

It was into this cultural moment that the Asahi Baseball Club was born.

When baseball was first played in Vancouver, around 1877, it was a rough-hewn, informal version of the sport, imported by Americans who had come north for the Fraser gold rush or for the opportunities offered by the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway. By the time of the 1907 anti-Asian riots, though, with a population that had ballooned to over 40,000, Vancouver had become one of the great hubs of baseball activity in Canada. There were teams for children, teams for amateurs, semi-pro teams, more than half a dozen leagues. There were immaculately maintained private ballparks, where the very best professional teams would play, and there were public ballparks, where anyone could go to hone baseball  skills. And one of these city-owned ballparks, an enclosed field that had previously been home to Vancouver’s semi-pro teams, was the Powell Street Grounds.

The Grounds were easily accessible to the residents of Japantown: they were along the very same street where they had built their homes and businesses. And in the year following the violence and trauma of the riot, a group of Japanese Canadians came together with a suggestion, a way to strengthen their young people and ease the feelings of isolation and loneliness that followed the attack. They put out a call for baseball players. Almost 20 young men responded. The Nippon Baseball Club was formed.

The club quickly became the beating heart of the community. Friends and family came out to watch the  games; afterward, everyone would go out drinking together, celebrating the wins and bemoaning the losses. Along with teachers of the Japanese language and the editors of the local Japanese newspapers, the club’s players formed a discussion group. Members of marginalized communities, particularly those facing acute, active discrimination, often deal with extreme feelings of isolation and loneliness: The forced disenfranchisement from the goings on of the broader society creates even more profound interpersonal disconnection. The Nippon Baseball Club became the antidote to this disconnection, a shared, reliable source of joy.

Koob and Groom Double Down for the Browns
Two days, three games, and 20 no-hit innings.

Even beyond its immensely valuable community-building effects, baseball proved an excellent way for the Japanese Canadians to connect with the broader population of Vancouver. The club organized games against other Japanese baseball clubs around the Pacific Northwest, and within a few years, the games were well-attended by Vancouverites of all backgrounds, rooting for the home team. The rioting was only a few years in the past. The AEL still boasted hundreds of registered members. But it was good baseball, and no one was going to miss good baseball.

By 1914, the demand for baseball was reaching peak levels: There were over 50 teams in BC playing in nine leagues. And at his store at 200 Powell Street, Matsujiro Miyasaki saw in the growth of the sport an opportunity. The time was ripe to create a Japanese Canadian team in Vancouver that could not only compete against other Japanese clubs, but against all of Vancouver’s best teams—and not only compete, but win.

Miyasaki formed the first iteration of the Asahis in 1914. In the beginning, they played anyone and everyone. Teams of firefighters, random groups coming up or down the river, dock workers—all were fair game, valuable opportunities to hone their skills. Miyasaki furnished the young players with food from his shop, and as they played these games, unheralded and unglamourous, even forced off the field by an enraged crowd in their very first game, they developed the strategy that would turn them into champions.

The players on the Asahi team were not the large, lumbering men who typically played baseball in Vancouver’s leagues. They only had one real power hitter in outfielder Tom Matoba, who would became known among English-speaking fans as “Slugger.” It became evident very quickly that their team would never be able to win by blowing their opponents out by sheer force. If they were not bigger or stronger than their opponents, they would have to outsmart them.

Over the next several years, the team developed a style of play that would come to be known as “brainball.” Employing the principles of what we would today call small ball, the Asahi teams practiced bunting, baserunning and defense to the point where, as one-time Asahi pitcher Mickey Maikawa described it, they “could bunt with a chopstick.”

Their strategy was honed with particular fervor under coach Harry Miyasaki, who took over leadership of the team in 1922. Miyasaki had his players practice these fundamental skills with almost regimental intensity. Players and opponents alike claimed that the Asahis would never miss a bunt, never misplay a relay throw. Al Moser, who played against the Asahis during the 1930s, said that you could never get a ball through the infield against them, and that the Asahis scoring two runners on a squeeze was a regular occurrence.

In a Vancouver baseball scene dominated by power hitting and power pitching, the Asahis played an entirely different game, adjusted to suit their unique skill set. They kept the opposition off balance.

As the team’s style of play developed, so too did its notoriety. Within a few years, the team was were no longer playing against teams of firefighters and dock workers: The Asahis were playing against the premier Japanese clubs in the area, and they were winning almost every time. Young Japanese Canadians from neighboring towns, even towns fairly significant distances away, came down to the Grounds to watch the team, dreaming of one day wearing the Asahi uniform. The Nippon Baseball Club folded in 1918, but its best players joined the Asahis, and the new team absorbed the work that the older club had done, rallying and uniting around baseball.

When the team won its first major championship—the International League title in 1919—it signified not a peak of success, a zenith to be followed by a decline. It was the beginning of two decades of utter domination.

In 1920, half of the players on the Burrard League All-Star team were Asahis. Asahi players were habitual batting title winners, often posting averages well over .400; they toured Japan, first traveling overseas on boats. Teams from Japan came to play against them. In 1936, they won their first championship in Vancouver’s Terminal League. They won that championship again in 1930, then again in 1932, then again in 1933. In 1936, they won the Commercial League championship in their first season playing for it. They won it again the next season, and the season after that, in 1938, they were champions three times over, taking the titles of the Commercial, Burrard and Pacific Northwest Japanese leagues.

There was no team—certainly not in Vancouver, and arguably not in the entire Pacific Northwest—that could rival the Asahis. Their dominance drew comparisons to the New York Yankees in the major leagues. From 1928 onward, the Asahis played in 11 Pacific Northwest Japanese championships. They won eight—five in a row from 1938 to 1941. This was dynastic greatness. And it all centered around those few blocks on Powell Street: around a community which, only three decades before, had stood down a crowd that wanted to destroy it.

Then, the war. On Feb. 25, 1942, the Canadian government announced that all Japanese Canadians would be imprisoned in work camps far from the coast for the duration. Their homes and businesses and possessions would be seized, becoming the property of the state. It was for the safety of all Canadians, the Justice minister said. Because, under the War Measures Act, Japanese Canadians—even those whose families had been in Canada from the very beginning—were no longer Canadians. They were “enemy aliens.”

The Asahis never won another championship. They never played another game.

Japantown as it was then doesn’t exist anymore. The property that was seized en masse from the Japanese Canadians imprisoned in 1942 was never returned to its rightful owners; the homes and businesses that once stood there were sold off and transformed. Many of the people who had lived there chose not to return. Many returned to Japan, but others had never lived anywhere other than Canada. They stayed in the rural areas where they had been forced to work during the war or moved to cities in the east, fearful of re-forming any perceivable community. Being together, after all, had been the means by which they were so easily recognized, so easily uprooted, their lives and livelihoods so easily and with so little consideration destroyed.

In recent years Vancouver has become known for its adoption of Japanese culture into the life of the city, particularly when it comes to food. If you go to a Vancouver Canadians game, the mascot race that you will see is between various types of sushi. But walking down Powell Street, there is a distinct sense of alienation, lost context, of a past forcibly removed. There was once a community here, resilient and vibrant, built and strengthened over decades in spite of immeasurable hardship. If any justice had been done, that community would still be here. Lining this street should be shops and schools with legacies dating back over a century. The force of racial discrimination, supported by the majority and formalized by the supposed justice of the law, has alienated generations of people from that history. Racism robbed Vancouver of part of its soul.

Very few pieces of old Japantown remain on Powell Street. There’s the Vancouver Japanese Language School and the Japanese Hall, two buildings that stand on the only piece of property in Canada that the government returned to Japanese Canadians. There is the Vancouver Buddhist Church, once the Japanese Methodist Church. And on the plot of land where the Powell Street Grounds once stood is Oppenheimer Park. There is nothing there like the packed stands and well-groomed diamond on which the Asahis once played and won. There is a playground, and a path to walk, and a basketball court. There is a green field, and on it, a small dirt diamond, empty save for some plastic bags and wrappers lying on it and seagulls dipping their wings in the puddles.

For 73 years, the Asahis didn’t exist either. Their players and fans, now scattered across the globe, still loved baseball, still played where they could. Many became coaches, league organizers; one even played in the minor leagues. But the flame of passion surrounding the team, while not snuffed out entirely, was not as concentrated as it once was. The years passed. People who remembered aged, then passed away.

Some projects tried to keep the memory of the Asahis alive: a documentary, a feature film, even a manga —a Japanese comic. Every year Oppenheimer Park hosted a game in the team’s memory, and the Asahis were enshrined in the BC and Canadian Sports Halls of Fame. Out of 74 medals issued by the BC Hall, 26 remained unclaimed, sealed away, their rightful owners too far away to find. The Asahi jersey, once so loved and treasured that young players refused to take theirs off, wore them to school and to sleep, now existed only behind glass cases, worn by no one. The team, like Japantown, had become a hollowness where there should have been something else: a sad reminder of what was and what should have been.

That is why, in 2014, a group of Japanese Canadian community leaders gathered once again to talk about baseball. It was time to bring the Asahi back.

The Asahi Baseball Association started with 15 players in 2014. Its now has over 120. The teams span multiple age levels, playing high-level youth baseball all around British Columbia. The players, coming from a diverse range of ethnic and social backgrounds, all bear the familiar logo of the old Asahi teams.

For past president and director Emiko Ando, the journey that the revived Asahi Baseball Association is one of profound personal and cultural significance. “The original Asahi club meant so much to the Japanese Canadian community prior to it being disbanded,” she says. “Reviving the Asahi club after 73 years felt like we were amending a past injustice and restoring a part of the Japanese Canadian community.”

The demands of adulthood—career, family—had limited Ando’s engagement in recent years. Reviving the Asahi has changed that. “The Asahi Baseball Association.” she says, “has given me and my son an opportunity to connect with other Japanese Canadian families through something we are both passionate about.”

That passion is, of course, baseball. Decades, generations of people, vast geographic distances separate the Asahis who were from the Asahis who are. The game still remains. The Powell Street Grounds are no longer what they were; the history that the Asahis would have built, had they not been destroyed, can never be recreated. But they can build something new. Ando speaks of the big plans that the organization has for the future: international skills camps, a competitive team for older players. And with every future player who dons the Asahi jersey, who attends one of the organization’s baseball camps, who plays baseball with and against the the Asahis there is another flame of memory ignited. There is another person who will not forget.

In 2015, the Asahi Baseball Association followed in the footsteps of the Asahi team of 94 years prior, making a trip to Japan. It was the fulfillment of a long-held dream of Ando’s, and the experience was by all accounts unforgettable, with the team welcomed by the Japanese embassy, hosted by a number of Japanese teams, getting to play against them on their home fields.

There was a moment in this trip that stood out, though, as of particular importance: the presentation of  a BC Sports Hall of Fame medal to the grandson of an Asahi player—a player who had remained unidentified in early team photos for over a century. It was a culmination of a devoted effort by Ando and the organization to track down previously unknown or unidentified Asahi players and their families, both in North America and in Japan, to give them the honors that they so richly deserved and that had so long been owing, filling in the gaps in the team’s history, restoring long-severed connections.

“I felt I helped reclaim a part of their family history and honour their relatives,” Ando says. That family had not known that their ancestor was an Asahi player: now, that gap in history, forcibly created, had been restored.

Of the 26 medals that had remained unclaimed for a decade, 20 have now been delivered. Ten new ones have been made and given, too, to players who had previously gone unnoted: spaces thought empty forever, filled by the combined efforts of a community united around baseball.

It is winter in Vancouver, and a walk by any of the hundreds of baseball diamonds around the city will just reinforce the dreariness of the season. Whether it’s a field belonging to the prestigious BC Premier League or just a fenced-off patch of dirt in a local park, most groundskeeping has long been put on hold for the winter; the grass is overgrown, muddy and lumpy with tufts of sod pulled up by hungry crows, and the infield dirt is hard and cratered with what has already been several months of rain.

Of course, this is still the province that has spawned more big leaguers than any province in Canada. Baseball hasn’t ceased entirely. But it has moved inside, to cages and gyms and high-performance centers, taking a form that is far away from the summer game of memory. It is hiding its face.

On a grey Sunday in mid-December, though, if you were to take an afternoon walk, you would have seem life on the diamond at Nanaimo Park in East Van: Representatives of the Asahi Baseball Association distributing vacuum-sealed packages of smoked sockeye salmon, raising funds for the 2019 Japan Tour. Some were members of league’s board; some were players volunteering their time. Sales were brisk, as they were last year, when the league first introduced this fundraiser. It is, after all, hard to imagine a more quintessential Vancouver dish than smoked sockeye.

It is harder still to imagine a history of Vancouver baseball without the Asahi. And the pride that they continue to bring to Japanese Canadians—not just through their legendary status, but through the living, vibrant embodiment of their legacy that has been working all winter, fundraising, hosting baseball camps, making plans. Almost a hundred years ago, the Asahis made their first trip to Japan; just over a year from now, a new generation of Asahis—not professionals, but youth—will be making a trans-Pacific trip of their own. The salmon fundraiser is just one of many that the club will be doing throughout this winter and the next.

On Jan. 14, the club came together to celebrate the 93rd birthday of Kaye Kaminishi, a member of the Asahi teams of the late 1930s, and the last surviving original Asahi player. Back in the summer, Kaminishi stood in the brilliant heat on a baseball diamond in his hometown of Kamloops. He was surrounded by beaming kids, presenting him with a trophy—they were champions of a provincial baseball tournament, and they were sharing the honor with him. And on their jerseys, shining red and white in the sun, was that familiar name: Asahi.

The grey rain continues to fall, as it always does during these months. But Asahi baseball is still here.

References and Resources

  • Pat Adachi. Asahi: A Legend in Baseball – A Legacy from the Japanese Canadian Baseball Team to its Heirs. Etobicoke: Coronex, 1992.
  • William Humber. Cheering for the Home Team: The Story of Baseball in Canada. Guelph: Boston Mills Press, 1983.
  • William Humber. Diamonds of the North: A Concise History of Baseball in Canada. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1995.
  • Osborne, Jari, dir. Sleeping Tigers: The Asahi Baseball Story. 2003; National Film Board of Canada
  • Patricia E. Roy. A White Man’s Province: British Columbia Politicians and Chinese and Japanese Immigrants, 1858-1914. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1980.
  • Howard Hiroshi Sugimoto. Japanese Immigration, the Vancouver Riots and Canadian Diplomacy. New York: Arno Press, 1978.


Rachael is the current dilettante-in-residence at FanGraphs. Previous work can be found at Baseball Prospectus, VICE Sports, and The Hardball Times.
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A wonderful, we;; research article as always Rachael. Wanted to share this link, which shows the 1919 Vancouver Asahi team:

https://www.ebay.com/itm/Asahi-Club-Vancouver-British-Columbia-Canada-1919-Baseball-Team-Picture/352219570608?hash=item5201ec21b0:g:H90AAOSwyGZaEMOB

ChippersJonesing
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ChippersJonesing

Very good read.

Eric Robinson
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Thanks for doing the research and writing this story. I learned a lot and it has been my favorite thing I have read in recent memory. Were there any other interesting teams with somewhat similar stories you learned about while researching Asahi?

marc w
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marc w

This is great, Rachael. I’d read about the Japanese leagues in the NW on the US side of the border, and saw some ephemera when the Wing Luke museum in Seattle had an exhibition on Asian-American sporting history. Seattle had its own Asahi team, and there’s some great old photos on line from the collection of their former manager, Frank Fukuda. They’re in the digital collections at UW. This photo is of the Vancouver and Seattle Asahi teams in a pre-game ceremony: http://digitalcollections.lib.washington.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/social/id/651/rec/1 It sounds like many of the teams in the Japanese leagues here made visits to play amateur… Read more »