Kaye Kaminishi turns 102 years old on Thursday. The City of Vancouver is marking the occasion by proclaiming Jan. 11 “Vancouver Asahi Day.”
Kaminishi is the last survivor of the Asahi, a legendary baseball team that was the pride of Japantown from its founding in 1914 until its last game in 1941.
After Canada went to war with Japan on Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese-Canadians were sent to internment camps in the B.C. Interior or back east. The Asahi never played another game.
But the team’s legend has only grown. The team was adopted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2003 and the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame in 2005. It was the subject of a 2008 documentary, Sleeping Tigers, and a 2014 Japanese movie, The Vancouver Asahi.
In 2019, the team inspired a Heritage Moment on TV, narrated by Kaminishi. That same year the Asahi were honoured with a Canadian postage stamp.
The modest Kaminishi demurs when asked what it’s like to get your own day in Vancouver.
“It’s not my day, it’s Asahi Day,” he said at his daughter’s home in Burnaby. “Not only me, all the Asahi people.”
Kaminishi also notes he wasn’t one of the team’s stars, he was more of a utility player. But that was probably because he was so young — he joined the team when he was only 17.
He played third base, which was a tough position at the Asahi’s home field, the Powell Street Grounds (today’s Oppenheimer Park).
“The balls came pretty fast,” he said. “In those days there were pebbles all over the ground — you don’t know which way the ball goes sometimes. Coach would say, ‘If you can’t stop (the ball) by hands, stop by chest.’ ”
Kaminishi grew up across the street from the Powell Street Grounds at 143 Dunlevy Ave., in a rooming house operated by his family. Cleaning the rooms, he could watch baseball games out of the window.
“Powell Grounds seating capacity was pretty small, 300 to 400,” he said. “So everybody was standing up (along the baselines), about six deep watching the game. There were people standing up on Powell Street, Jackson (Avenue), six deep to watch the games. Outfield too.”
His family had immigrated to Canada from Hiroshima, Japan — some of his relatives were killed when America dropped an atomic bomb on the city on Aug. 6, 1945.
The family initially thrived in Canada. His father, Kanosuke Kaminishi, owned the Royston Lumber Company on Vancouver Island, but died in 1933 when Kaye was only 11. His mother then ran Dunlevy Rooms until the family was interned in Lillooet.
Asked what it was like in the Lillooet camp, he replied “it wasn’t good. There was no baseball.”
After the war he heard a team in Kamloops was looking for players.
“I went to try out for the team,” he recalls. “(They said) ‘You come right away!’ So I accepted it and moved to Kamloops.”
Ironically, the former internment camp resident got a job at a Canadian Forces’ ammunition depot. But he said it was a good job, and during a visit to Kelowna, was introduced to his late wife Florence.
He still lives in Kamloops — his son Ed comes from his home in Calgary to help take care of him. After a few months, he comes to the Lower Mainland and stays with his daughter Joyce.
He still follows baseball, and like the rest of the world is wowed by Japanese star Shohei Otani. The Asahi had their own left-handed power hitter/pitcher like Otani in his day, Kaz Suga.
The Powell Street Grounds had a short right field, so came up with a unique ground rule — if you hit one of the street trees on Cordova, it was a double, if you hit it over the trees it was a home run.
“(Suga) hit quite a bit to the undertaker (across Cordova), on top of the roof,” Kaminishi said with a laugh. “Quite a few times.”
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In his playing days, Kaye Kaminishi was barely over 5-feet tall and weighed 118 pounds. But what he lacked in size he made up for in skill, and nerve. Playing third base for the legendary Japanese-Canadian baseball team the Asahi, he would do anything to stop the ball.
U. Morimoto & Co. dry goods rented a storefront at 328 Powell St. for only two years, in 1920 and 1921. But nine decades later, the company name is still written in the tile of the storefront, one of the last remnants of Vancouver’s historic Japantown.
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