“Issei Baseball” Brings Issei’s Stories of Enterprising Immigrants and Love of the Game of Baseball to Life
In 2019, the Seattle Mariners opened their season in Japan with Ichiro Suzuki on their roster. They kicked things off with a pair of exhibition games against the legendary Yomiuri Giants, the oldest and most successful team in Japanese professional baseball. Giants uniforms were originally based on the New York, now San Francisco Giants of the American major leagues. After the Giants series, the Mariners then opened their regular season against the Oakland Athletics. This series featured the final game of Ichiro Suzuki’s extraordinary professional career. His retirement to his native soil underscored his importance not only to Japanese baseball, but to Japan itself.
Images from these series highlighted the cultural significance of baseball in Japan and its ties to the United States. But how did baseball become so popular in Japan? How did a shared love of the game impact the relationship between Japan and the United States? And what role did baseball play in the lives of early Japanese American immigrants? These are just a few questions that Robert K. Fitts Issei Baseball seeks to answer, and it does so by bringing to life the stories of a handful of enterprising Issei (first-generation Japanese American) immigrants.
Through the stories of baseball pioneers such as Harry Saisho, Tozan Masko, Ken Kitsuse and many others, the reader gets a glimpse into Issei life in the early 20th century and the importance of baseball to the Issei community. . Baseball was both a recreational outlet, a community builder, a business enterprise, and a demonstration of American ideals for these individuals.
Issei Baseball was a lens through which I could understand the adversity Japanese Americans of the time, including my own family, faced. I am Yonsei (fourth generation Japanese American), a descendant of my Issei great-grandparents who settled in California at the turn of the 20th century. The stories in the book of the discrimination and vitriol endured by the Issei in San Francisco were a painful vision of what my great-grandparents and others had to overcome. The flames of this hatred have been fanned by anti-Asian scare campaigns published in major newspapers in the region, and Fitts has unearthed many direct examples through his extensive research. It was interesting to learn that Japanese baseball was thriving in Los Angeles, where anti-Asian xenophobia was less severe. It is truly remarkable that so many of these early immigrants were able to forge their own path in a society that often viewed them with such cruelty.
In addition to illuminating the individuality and perseverance of each of these early Japanese-American baseball pioneers, this book also highlights the macro themes of baseball’s importance in American society and foreign relations. One of the most important themes was baseball as a form of diplomacy. Many baseball tours, especially those involving Japanese teams touring the United States, were considered diplomatic missions in the early 20th century, with the players themselves acting as ambassadors who conducted themselves with a certain civilized decorum. The tendency to accept unfair treatment – whether from referees, fans or the press – without complaining can be linked to Gaman’s philosophy: the Japanese term rooted in Zen Buddhism meaning to endure the unbearable with grace and dignity. Or this restraint may have been performative in nature, as being consistently polite was thought to make the Japanese community more palatable to white people in America. Many Issei also hoped that their embrace of the American pastime would result in white communities embracing them as true Americans. Indeed, these early baseball tours likely helped perpetuate the role model minority stereotype still pervasive in American society today.
Contrary to this stereotype, the book also details the bold ambition of many of these Issei pioneers who sought to advance Issei baseball as a business enterprise. Tenacious entrepreneurs like Tozan Masko have turned their love of baseball into lucrative opportunities, launching barnstorming tours across the heartland of the United States to convert curiosity into ticket sales. Through sensationalized and sometimes exploitative marketing campaigns that seem either reminiscent of PT Barnum or prognosticating Bill Veeck, Masko and others capitalized on the perceived exoticism of Japanese baseball players in places where Asian faces were rarely seen. Sometimes Native Americans were recruited for these tours to pose as Japanese players when no real Japanese players were available.
The book also highlights the emergence of Japanese baseball in the Pacific Northwest. Teams such as the Seattle Nippons and the Seattle Mikado have risen to prominence in the region. The first West Coast Nisei (American-born children of Issei) team grew from a youth baseball team called the Cherry Team to the famed Asahi Baseball Club. Some of these teams later toured Japan.
Perhaps the most satisfying theme of the book for me as a reader (and voracious baseball fan) was simply the sheer love of the game that many Issei and their Nisei children felt so powerfully about. Baseball was not only a sport that connected cultures, it also connected the Japanese community itself, whether through Japanese-American teams touring Japan to connect with their heritage, or by forging multigenerational connections between Issei and Nisei Americans with otherwise divergent cultural identities. It’s a hobby they took with them to the Japanese internment camps, where the book ends, when they weren’t allowed to take anything else.
Baseball and its history are often considered a microcosm of American history, and in this vein Issei Baseball offers a fascinating look at the lives of early Japanese American immigrants through the stories of a game many of them loved. Having this context for the evolution of the game in Japan and the United States makes celebrating the successes of modern Japanese gamers like Shohei Ohtani all the more powerful. Issei Baseball is an engaging and educational read wherever you fall on the spectrum of baseball fandom.