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Our Legendary Asahis —The Movie Version Invaluable Publicity vis-à-vis Japanese People of Today

Travis Takashi Ishikawa of the San Francisco Giants recently made a lot of Japanese North Americans feel proud when he said: “I never give up because my grandfather was interned during the war.” This after he belted a walk-off home run in the bottom of the 9th against the St. Louis Cardinals to take the Giants to the World Series.

When I first moved here 17 years ago, I heard from some Yonsei guys they only found out about the WWII forced internment of west coast Japanese Canadians in their high school history class because their parents had never told them. Could it be they were still ashamed, even though they were the victims? So for Ishikawa, a Yonsei himself who had struggled in the minors before emerging again as a starting left fielder, to express his pride in his grandpa’s spirit of gaman and ganbari (endure and gut it out) seems an exemplar attitude for today’s Japanese Canadians and Americans, not to mention people back in Japan.

Back in October, the 33rd Vancouver International Film Festival aptly saw the world premiere of the Japanese film The Vancouver Asahi (Bankūbā no Asahi), directed by Yūya Ishii, at a venue not far from Oppenheimer Park, once the home ground of the legendary Asahis. What with the attendance of two popular stars in the leading roles, Satoshi Tsumabuki and Kazuya Kamenashi, along with the director, the screening was generally well received by the 1,800 or so crowd that noticeably included a large number of young women. Their laughter was the loudest in comical scenes like the guys practicing bunting. I thought the gaman and shikataganai mentality of those folks who toiled day after day for their wives, kids and children, and parents usually at manual labor for wages less than the Caucasians, living in their humble quarters of the pre-WWI Powell Street area, was well depicted. It should be noted in this regard that some Japanese Canadians in those days also lived in areas like Kitsilano and Mount Pleasant, enjoying a lifestyle equivalent to the Caucasians.

The move is a fiction based on fact, so the script takes a lot of artistic liberties, such as condensing decades of Asahi’s history into a single year, or young Japanese-speaking Nisei guys forming the Asahi team practically on their own. But the most significant thing in my view is that the film featuring popular stars will enable a whole new generation of Japanese people to learn about the legendary Asahi and what the club meant to Japanese and other Canadians in pre-WWII Powell Street neighborhood.

Even allowing for artistic license, though, there are a few technical points I’d like to raise.

From the standpoint of a baseball fan of over 50 years, the scene about the players accidentally discovering bunting as an effective strategy against bigger and stronger Caucasian teams is rather unconvincing. The ball hits a checked bat and unexpectedly rolls erratically toward third base and the batter is safe at first. Bunting as a tactic was already in common use by 1920, according to my usual sources.

Also we saw the boys practicing how to line up their bats to bunt against imaginary pitches, but that’s not the way to practice bunting. As baseball has been loved for a long time on both sides of the Pacific, among other places, a lot of people appreciate finer technical aspects of the game. As the Asahis’ bunting strategy is a key point in the storyline, I wanted to see the players practice by actually making contact with real pitches thrown by live pitchers.

From the standpoint of historical accuracy with regard to the formation process of the real Asahis over decades, the pioneering role played by experienced managers, who helped start elementary and middle (high) school teams out of which they recruited good players for the Asahi ball-club, was all but ignored probably, because of the focus on central characters.

Some older members of the Nikkei audience pointed out that the young Nisei guys playing with the Asahis would have spoken English, not Japanese, but given that the film is made primarily for Japanese movie-goers, it was probably more practical than the other way around, i.e. characters speaking English with Japanese subtitles.

The history of the Asahis is an integral part of the Japanese Canadian experience going back to the late 19th century. Will the movie re-ignite enough interest in Vancouver to bring more tourists from Japan? Will Oppenheimer Park, assuming it can be kept up to the standards necessary for community spaces, develop as a tourism site? Maybe that’s too optimistic but business interests aside, I hope this movie will have some impact on the Japanese public awareness.


* This article was originally published on Geppo The Bulletin: A Journal of Japanese Canadian Community, History + Culture on December 22, 2014.


© 2014 Masaki Watanabe; The Bulletin

baseball Canada film nisei prewar sports Vancouver Asahi