LAST WEDNESDAY, April 24, I was part of a gathering of 200 in Burnaby for the unveiling of a Canada Post stamp commemorating the Vancouver Asahi baseball team.
The Asahi baseball team played in Vancouver and the Pacific Northwest from 1914 to 1944. For 30 years they played championship ball, at a time when Japanese-Canadians, who made up the Asahi roster, were openly discriminated against. They were revered by their community and respected by their opponents.
In 1944, the team was disbanded when they, along with 22,000 other Japanese-Canadians, were interred after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. The Japanese-Canadians lost their freedom and virtually all their possessions overnight, simply because of who they were and where they came from.
The stamp commemorates the athletic achievements of the team, and also the injustice of the internment of Japanese-Canadians.
There were many speeches given from various dignitaries, from the local MP to a number of Canada Post officials. There were other dignitaries in the audience as well, including George Takei, known equally for his role as Mr. Sulu on the original Star Trek, as for his vocal advocacy of human rights, including for the LGBTQ community, and for migrant rights. Takei, also of Japanese descent, was himself interned in an American camp.
But the place of honour, and the most important speech of all, was given by Kaye Kaminishi, aged 97, the last living player of the Asahi team. The stamp bears the picture of the last Asahi roster, of which Kaminishi was a member.
Kaminishi and his mother were shipped off from Vancouver to an internment camp in Lillooet. There he started a ball team and persuaded the camp officials to let the team play the Lillooet village team.
After the war, Kaye Kaminishi moved to Kamloops, where he has lived for close to 70 years.
At 97, Kaminishi is a link to our past, and one we need to not forget as hate speech, racialized violence, and othering rear their ugly heads with increasing frequency.
When I was a young girl, Kaye Kaminishi (or Mr. Kaminishi as he was then and still is to me now) was my next-door neighbor. He did not seem too remarkable. He was a middle aged man, and the most remarkable thing I knew was that he was an excellent gardener. His apricot trees almost broke their branches with their fruit. His junipers and conifers were shaped into beautiful bonsai.
And I knew that he was an excellent badminton player. In the BC Seniors Games, he captured first place in the men’s doubles category for 10 consecutive years from 1971 to 1980. In 1995, he and his partner won second place in men’s doubles at the All American Senior Games.
I don’t recall when I found out that Mr. Kaminishi had been interned at Lillooet or that he’d played championship baseball. He was low key about his life and his achievements. Throughout the almost 50 years I’ve known him, he has been humble and unassuming.
It was telling that Kaminishi chose to say his speech in Japanese, followed by his son saying it in English. The vast majority of the audience did not speak Japanese. Kaminishi did not say his speech in Japanese because he doesn’t speak English. Kaminishi was born in Canada and is fluent in English. He said his speech in Japanese to assert that his cultural background is as legitimate and as valid as any other in our Canadian mosaic. By choosing to speak in Japanese, he was asserting his right to preserve his identity.
From local sports celebrity to internee setting up ball games with the team from the village of Lillooet to seniors’ badminton champion, Kaminishi made a name for himself in sports.
But more importantly, even now at 97, Kaminishi excels against odds. He reminds us that diversity is something we must value and protect on the road ahead.
Nancy Bepple is a former City councillor of Kamloops with a strong interest in community building projects.