Q&A: Japanese-American history, love affair with baseball
Special to Prospector
Editors Note: Distilled from a question-and-answer session, Chuck Jaffee and Kerry Yo Nakagawa talk about Nakagawa’s connection with a Community Asian Theatre of the Sierra (CATS) event at the Nevada Theatre. As part of CATS ongoing 2012 season’s cultural focus on Japan, the nonprofit arts organization will present a double-feature — “Diamonds in the Rough” and “American Pastime,” — at 2 p.m. Sunday. Nakagawa will also speak at the special event.
Chuck Jaffee: There’s a photograph of Kenichi Zenimura — the so-called father of Japanese-American baseball — standing side by side with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. What makes this a historic snapshot?
Kerry Yo Nakagawa: It was probably the first time Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig met and competed with Japanese-American ballplayers. It was the first time West Coast fans got to see the Babe and Lou play in California.
It wasn’t ’til 1958 with the Dodgers and Giants that California entered the major leagues.
CJ: There was no one with Japanese ancestry who played American Major League Baseball until Masonori Murakami in 1964. There are more than a dozen currently active today. What does this tell us?
KYN: It tells me that we had many Japanese-American ballplayers that could have played and starred with prewar Major League Baseball teams but never got a chance. We could have had a Nisei ballplayer before Jackie Robinson if it hadn’t been for World War II.
CJ: During World War II, the United States government “relocated” more than 100,000 Japanese people into internment camps. More than 60 percent of these people were United States citizens. Citizens or not, didn’t we have good reasons to do this?
KYN: The reason was “protective custody” and military necessity of these so-called “enemy aliens.” All the concentration camps had guard towers with the machine guns pointed inward. That blows the protective custody theory.
I feel it was more economics than military necessity. People lost their homes and businesses, their civil liberties and constitution.
My grandpa immigrated in 1886, and if it wasn’t for the kindness and generosity of the Raven and McClurg families, we would have lost our 20-acre farm. My grandma’s restaurant and general store were gone by the time they got back. America imprisoned their own Americans only because of their race.
CJ: Shifting away from the heavy background, why are Japanese people so in love with the game of baseball?
KYN: [Baseball] was exported to Japan by 1872. It spread like wildfire. It’s even part of Japan’s educational curriculum. It’s Japan’s pastime as much as America’s. The early Issei immigrants to America knew the game and wanted to prove how well they could play it. The rules were the same and if you could win … you would gain immediate respect.
In America, baseball is just one of many [sports]. In Japan they are “baseball crazy.” It is the primary sport of choice, and you’re not restricted at a pro level because of size. If you have heart, passion and desire, you can compete at the highest levels. Japan has won the last two World Baseball Classics. Going to a pro game in Japan is like college football here in the states.
CJ: What caused you to make your documentary film, “Diamonds in the Rough”?
KYN: As the founding curator of the traveling exhibit “Diamonds in the Rough,” I wanted to make the exhibit as multi-media as possible. I recruited my godpapa Pat Morita [star of “The Karate Kid”] to narrate, host and co-write the documentary with me. He was 11 at the Gila River Internment Camp in Arizona.
CJ: Your film has been promoted as a tool to be used in the classroom. Has that born fruitful educational experiences?
KYN: Absolutely! Seventy percent of this country is unaware of internment, and that is scary. We have our curriculum and film in libraries in Arizona, Nevada, California, and the goal for our nonprofit NBRP (www.niseibaseball.com) is to bring awareness and education about Japanese-American internment through the prism of baseball and our multi-media projects. We would like to educate and entertain diverse audiences about never allowing this to happen again.
CJ: You also were involved in the Japanese internment film “American Pastime.” What were some of the surprises being on the set of this film as an actor and as one of the producers of the film?
KYN: We had a scene where [one of the sons] volunteers to fight for our country and has to say goodbye to this family. My son Kale and I are in the scene, and I couldn’t control my emotions because I felt my grandma’s spirit so much. She died in the Jerome, Ark., camp.
It was pure utopia for me going to the set every day, knowing this film idea went from one person to 65 passionate cast and crew members working in the Utah desert for 35 days.
In 120-degree heat, I asked a former Nisei soldier to take a break under the shaded canopy. He refused, saying “My mom was at this Topaz camp, and if she could take four years of this, I can take one day.”
CJ: Your film, “Diamonds in the Rough,” is a documentary. “American Pastime” is a feature-length narrative tale. Your film was made shortly before Sept. 11, 2001. “American Pastime” was made not too long after 9/11. Why is it valuable to see both of these films?
KYN: After 9/11, Japanese Americans didn’t face racial profiling or hate crimes, but if you were Armenian, Sikh or Arab American, it was a different story. Near my hometown, a Sikh American was shot and killed at his store. He was wearing a turban. He and his culture had nothing to do with 9/11.
I’m proud of both our films because of universal themes of tolerance, patriotism, and redemption. Mainly, humanity is the key. I wish we all could embrace each other’s diverse cultures and customs and treat everyone like we would want to be treated.
Chuck Jaffee is a Nevada City resident and film critic who appreciates independent filmmakers.
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