Many of you probably will never have heard of the Asahi baseball team. It was a team created by Canadian citizens of Japanese origin in 1914. The team had its home base in Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver’s little Tokyo. The team was the pride and joy of Vancouver’s Japanese community.
As stated above, the Asahi team was established in 1914 by Japanese immigrants in Vancouver. They came to Canada, then still British territory, around the turn of the century to try their luck. Most Canadians thought the Japanese would not stay long. Many tried their luck in the fishing business. As they became successful, the Canadian government revoked a third of their fishing licenses. “Industrious intruders” was the most polite of the many names that were given to them.
The Asahi team was the brain child of Harry Miaysaki. His dream was to play and beat the Anglo-Saxon teams with tall strong hitters.
Many dreamed of being a member of the Asahi baseball team. Many of the Japanese in Vancouver went to church on Sunday, but when a baseball game was played on Sunday morning, they skipped the mass. To watch a baseball game was a community event. The whole Vancouver Japanese community came out to see a game. For most of the Japanese, (watching) baseball was a way to escape the harsh life as a foreigner for a while.
In the early days, Japanese teams played other Japanese teams, but Miaysaki wanted to prove that the Japanese were not inferior to the Canadians. He started to recruit the best players from Vancouver’s Japanese community. The Asahi stasted in 1914 as a youth team. But the Asahi were not the first Japanese teams in Vancouver. The first teams played in 1908. In 1910 the Vancouver Nippons were founded but after the team folded, the Asahi picked up their best players. From 1920 the team started to play in senior leagues but they were never strong enough to beat the tall Canadians as most hits never got out of the infield. In 1927, the Asahis were invited to join the Senior ‘A’ Baseball league at Athletic Park. The Asahis were very popular and drew big crowds playing in this prestigious league until 1929. When umpiring was unfair, sportswriters lauded the team for fighting “to the last inning without a squawk.” Despite their style, against sponsored teams bolstered with imported semi-pros the Asahi club could not win enough games to ever get out of the league basement. In the previous year, the Asahi had won the Terminal League to which the club would return in 1930. In that year they clinched the pennant once again. The team would clinch back-to-back titles in 1932 and 1933.
The Asahi won the Terminal League with a kind of baseball that the Canadians were not used to. The Japanese called it brain ball but nowadays it is called small ball.
In 1919 the team would win its first championship as it clinched the Vancouver International League championship. Two years later, in the summer of 1921, Dr. Nomura, the President of the Asahi baseball club, had the idea to tour Japan with a team from Vancouver. For the tour, he put together a team of a dozen Asahi players and four players from other city league clubs. Nine years later the Tokyo Giants, Japan’s first professional baseball club visited Vancouver and played a series of exhibition games.
In 1936 the Asahi would participate in the Commercial League for the first time and clinch the championship right away, as they did in 1937 and 1938. But in 1938 the team would participate in two other leagues and win those pennants as well, making them triple champions, winning the Commercial League, Burrard League, and Pacific Northwest Japanese championships. The team was Burrard League champions again in 1939 and 1940.
From 1928 through 1941, the Asahi club won eight of the eleven series of championship play for the Pacific Northwest crown. Against teams of Japanese descent, the Asahi won the title five years in a row from 1937 right up to their final season in 1941.
As war broke out in Europe in 1939, many Japanese volunteered to serve in the army, but they were refused. Perhaps this was an omen of what was about to come. From March to August 1941, everyone over 16 years old of Japanese descent was registered by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
On Labor Day 1941, the Asahi would play its final game against the Fife, Washington team, winning the Pacific Northwest Championship for the fifth consecutive year.
But after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and attacked the British crown colony Hong Kong, Canada was at war with Japan. All of a sudden, Canada’s Japanese citizens were seen as the enemy. Later that month of December, the Canadian government began to confiscate from “Nikkei” their boats, cars, radios, and cameras. By February 1942, under the War Measures Act, the government was empowered to remove all Japanese from the coast to points in the British Columbia interior and beyond. Men were removed first, forced to leave their families to work in road camps.All Japanese communities on the Pacific Coast were destroyed as all the people of Japanese descent were sent to internment camps. In those camps, baseball was played as well. Eventually, games between the camps were played with the permission of the Canadian Mounted Police.
When the war was finally over, the Japanese citizens were not allowed to go home. During their time in the internment camps, their property was sold. The restrictions were not lifted until 2-3 years after the war. And the citizens of Japanese descent had the choice of going east or repatriating to Japan. Many of the Asahi chose to head east and settled in East Canadian cities like Toronto, Hamilton and Montreal.
After the team was scattered it seemed that it soon would be forgotten. But eventually, in 2002, the Toronto Blue Jays honored the remaining members of the Asahi during a game.
One year later the club would be inducted into the British Columbia Sports Hall of Fame and Museum as they would be inducted in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame as well.
There is an impressive 50-minute documentary on the Asahi baseball team, named Sleeping Tigers. It is really worth watching it as it shows the history of the team from the start, through the internment camps until the end as the Japanese had to leave the Pacific Coastal area after the war.