While it may be the Year of the Pig, it may also be the Year of the Asahi in Canada.
For those who may be unfamiliar the Vancouver Asahi, this local Japanese Canadian baseball team launched in 1914 and rose to great success with their strategic approach in outwitting opponents. But after Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbour, the team was forced to disband when, in 1942, all Japanese Canadian citizens along coastal British Columbia were removed from their residences and interned in the B.C. Interior.
Their story has previously been told in books and films, such as the 2003 National Film Board of Canada documentary Sleeping Tigers: The Asahi Baseball Story and the 2014 Japanese feature film Vancouver Asahi (Bankuba no Asahi), which had its world premiere at the Vancouver International Film Festival along with its stars from Japan.
But some new national efforts will continue to raise awareness about them.
Canada Post announced on December 14 that it will release a national stamp this year to honour the Vancouver Asahi (the date is yet to be determined).
By coincidence, Historica Canada, which creates public-service announcements about Canadian history, will be bringing the story about the team—and both local and national history—to audiences across Canada with the release of their latest Heritage Minute on February 20.
Historica Canada broke new ground last June when it launched its first LGBT Heritage Minute and once again, this new release will also mark a first: it will be the first Heritage Minute to be issued not only in English and French but also in Japanese.
The production by Vancouver-based Point Blank Creative included consultants from the National Association of Japanese Canadians, the Nikkei National Museum, and the Tashme Historical Society, as well as authors Pat Adachi (Asahi: A Legend in Baseball) and Joy Kogawa (Obasan), who also provided voiceover.
The last surviving member of the team, Koichi Kaye Kaminishi who is now 97 years old, also took part in the project.
Filming of the one-minute vignette took place from October 9 to 14 in Vancouver (including Woodland Park and City Hall) and at the site of the former Tashme internment camp outside Hope, B.C.
Historica Canada CEO Anthony Wilson-Smith, who flew out from Toronto for the shoot, told the Georgia Straight by phone that the local actors played baseball on the original field where the Asahi played, and they even used original bats, gloves, and other equipment supplied by a local museum.
Although the story may have been told before, Wilson-Smith opined that the Asahi and the Japanese Canadian internment tend to remain closely associated with Vancouver and B.C., and lesser known on a national level. As the Heritage Minutes are so brief, they're intended to inspire Canadians to find out more about the subject matter, such as at the Canadian Encyclopedia website where there's an entry about the Vancouver Asahi.
Wilson-Smith had previously told the Georgia Straight that because the Asahi story is multifaceted—covering aspects such as sports, civic history, and ethnic communities—it can appeal to a wide range of viewers. In addition, he said that they are careful not to editorialize in order to allow audiences to draw their own conclusions.
“What the Minutes are really about is the human experience—the Canadian human experience—and there are a lot of different experiences in Canada,” Wilson-Smith stated. “We try very hard to make Minutes that don’t finger wag, that allow people to look at the story and say, ‘That’s a remarkable story and here’s what I think of it’.”
Although he acknowledged that Canada is a much more open and inclusive society today, he observed that the fear of the unknown still persists.
“History is seldom far away as we think it is,” Wilson-Smith said. “When you do something from another era like this…you’re reminded that we think of history as being a bunch of old black-and-white photographs and people were different and thought differently and behaved differently and yet…all the gadgetry aside, people were not that different then than now.”
Despite Vancouver’s embrace of modern-day diversity, addressing assumptions about and prejudices against Asian Canadian communities remains an ever-present challenge, as the city continues to witness when it comes to debates about current hot-button issues such as real estate, money laundering, and more.
In the case of the Asahi, people from different communities gained the opportunity to overcome differences and become acquainted with each other over a common interest, and the team’s success across the Pacific Northwest helped them garner fans from all backgrounds.
As Wilson-Smith pointed out, the Asahi story can be interpreted in many ways, including serving as a marker for how far Vancouver and Canada have progressed over several decades.
“It’s a story that’s uplifting in terms of people who rise above, meaning members of that team and Kaye and others,” Wilson-Smith said. “It’s a story also of fear and therefore discrimination and that does form a backdrop of overcoming it. And it’s also a story of a city that was this way 70 years ago that is multicultural and the home of people from around the world. So there’s all sorts of things to draw from it.”