The story of the Vancouver Asahi isn’t just a baseball tale. It goes far beyond the playing field. It’s about gaining access to social space. It’s about transcending numerous demographic divides. It’s about excelling in spite of oppressive odds.
The historic team of Japanese Canadian baseball players became a symbol of hope, of how the seemingly impossible could be attained through hard work, dedication, and cooperation.
On the team’s centennial anniversary, its legend will hit the big screen in a major Japan-Canada coproduction. The Vancouver Asahi (Bankuba no Asahi, formerly titled The Rising Sun Over Vancouver), directed by Ishii Yûya—starring an all-Japanese cast and shot in Japan using sets that re-create Vancouver—will have its world premiere at the Vancouver International Film Festival with the filmmakers in attendance.
Just as Julia Kwan’s documentary Everything Will Be takes a look at this city’s Chinatown (which neighboured the former Japantown) and its connections to the past, The Vancouver Asahi offers a unique perspective on Vancouver’s ethnic heritage.
The team’s unexpected and unprecedented success occurred at a time when anti-Asian sentiment was overt in the city, including racially segregated seating areas in movie theatres and restaurants, and apartment buildings that would not admit “Orientals”. Japanese Canadians couldn’t vote (until 1949), couldn’t obtain citizenship, and were excluded from certain professions, which restricted them to working-class jobs. Anti-Asian riots hit both Chinatown and Japantown in 1907, with people attacked and businesses destroyed.
The Vancouver Asahi originated in the Powell Street neighbourhood. Beth Carter, Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre director-curator, explained by phone that the area—known as Poweru Gai by local nikkei (people of Japanese descent) and, later, Japantown by others—became the focus for nikkei in the late 1800s. The area was near Hastings Mill, a sawmill that was one of the largest employers of Japanese Canadians.
“It was a comfortable place for people to be because they could speak their own language,” she said. “Then by 1906, a real community was starting to develop. Women started to arrive. Families started to grow up.”
The neighbourhood’s “heyday”, Carter said, was from 1910 to 1941, as everything from manju (a type of sweet) and tofu shops to communal sento (traditional public bathhouses) cropped up.
“The streets were spotless and they were swept, but still it was a real working-class, family neighbourhood,” she said, emphasizing how this contrasts with the area’s poverty today. (A tent-city protest in Oppenheimer Park, drawing attention to the city’s homeless problem, displaced this year’s Powell Street Festival celebrating Japanese Canadian culture.)
Grace Eiko Thomson, curator and founding executive director of the Nikkei National Museum, organized an exhibit in 2005, Levelling the Playing Field, about the team.
Thomson, whose father was an Asahi fan, said by phone that during her research she discovered that when baseball was introduced to Japan in 1872, there was no word for “sport” in Japanese. She explained that it was therefore taught as a martial art, a discipline, as opposed to recreation or for fun.
Baseball caught on in the country, synchronizing with many Japanese cultural values, particularly wa (group harmony).
In Canada, however, Japanese Canadians, like many other ethnic minorities, weren’t allowed to play in the major baseball leagues, so they formed their own team.
The National Film Board of Canada’s 2003 documentary Sleeping Tigers: The Asahi Baseball Story, written and directed by Jari Osbourne, explains that the Japanese Canadian players, who were physically smaller than white players, had trouble hitting home runs. What they lacked in strength they made up for with killer strategy and speed—they played “brain ball”, becoming masters of the bunt and stealing bases.
They soon became not only a source of pride for the community but a unifying force.
Within the community, Thomson said, the team was an intergenerational bridge between the Japanese-speaking issei (the immigrant first generation) and the English-speaking nisei (second generation). Baseball, she said, “became a common language” between parents and children.
Even more impressively, the Vancouver Asahi crossed over to the mainstream as they gained white fans and became the city’s most popular team. Their successes snowballed, not stopping until they ruled the region by winning the Pacific Northwest Championship five times in a row.
In spite of all this, racist sentiments of the time persisted.
“Even when they played a good game and they were praised in the newspaper, they were still called Japs and Nips in a derogatory way and referred to as members of the Rising Sun, meaning that they were Japanese, not Canadians,” Thomson said.
Then 22,000 lives were abruptly changed forever.
An aftershock from Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 during the Second World War hit the B.C. coast: Japanese Canadians, whether they were born in Canada or not, were classified as enemy aliens. Under the War Measures Act, the government seized their homes, businesses, and possessions, and Japanese Canadians were interned in camps outside a 160-kilometre-wide zone along the Pacific coast of Canada.
Although the team dissolved due to the internment, the game’s power continued to break down barriers as former Asahi players started playing ball in the camps. In fact, the game helped to desegregate Lillooet, when Japanese Canadians were allowed to cross a bridge (which racially divided the town) in order to play against an RCMP team.
The team has since been honoured numerous times, including induction into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2003. In 2013, Parks Canada erected a plaque about the team in Oppenheimer Park, and Nat Bailey Stadium unveiled a Vancouver Asahi painting on the north wall on August 15 of this year. One of the last surviving team members, Kaye Kaminishi of Kamloops, is shown during the closing credits of The Vancouver Asahi film.
As testimony to the team’s influence, its story hasn’t just lived on but thrived, both here and in Japan, even being retold a century later.
“This is not just about baseball,” Thomson said. “The story of Asahi was a vehicle for talking about the struggle.”
The Vancouver Asahi screens at the Vancouver International Film Festival on September 29 (6:30 p.m.) and October 4 (2:30 p.m.) and October 9 (3:30 p.m.) at the Centre for the Performing Arts, and on October 10 (1 p.m.) at the Vancouver Playhouse.