Agnus Farrant

There are Central Coast citizens who can recall with ease of memory – and often pain of reflection – life before and after World War II.

Though some memories may not be as rich, historians and those too young to have lived it revel in the influence Japanese Americans and their baseball skill brought to the area during the time.

The South County Historical Society in Arroyo Grande is currently displaying an exhibit entitled “Japanese American Life in South County: Farmers, Friends and Baseball, 1900-1960” with a second installment, “Japanese American Baseball of the Central Coast, 1930-1945.”

The exhibit incorporates photographs, memorabilia and local stories of how baseball managed to permeate the Japanese American population of the Central Coast during this period and helped them thrive in their new life.

Baseball was introduced to Japan around 1868, when Japan began to modernize, incorporating western influence and technology.

Horace Wilson, an American professor of English at Tokyo University, is acknowledged as introducing baseball to Japan.

“Baseball as a sport on the whole is a huge part of Japanese American history,” says James Statler, 27, coordinator of the baseball exhibit. “Before World War II, there was a vibrant and dynamic sports community (in South San Luis Obispo County). As far as character goes, in Japan you have principles such as honor, fairness and integrity. In America, there’s sportsmanship and fair play. It really resonated with something that was already a part of their culture.”

Statler became involved in the exhibit’s production when he moved back to San Luis Obispo after graduating from UC Santa Cruz. He had finished writing his graduate thesis on Japanese American baseball in World War II internment camps.

“(Baseball became popular in Japan) around the 1880s,” Statler explains. “Japanese universities began playing it to build mind and body as well as national spirit. The first wave of immigrants in the 1900s was made up of many Japanese who already knew the game of baseball, and didn’t necessarily pick it up from American culture.”

Visitors to the one-room historical society building may be greeted immediately by volunteer and contributor Lillian Sakurai, 80, of Arroyo Grande.

Sakurai brings attention to an art centerpiece in the room, then moves to summarize the three main sections so far revealed: community, farm life and baseball. Personal connection to the exhibit slips out now and again including the approach to the corner reserved for baseball.

Sakurai points to two aged baseball gloves mounted on the wall, saying, “The one farther down was my uncle’s. He was a left-hander – he gave it to the historical society.”

The sport was played by Japanese Americans to connect to other cultures and communities. It was a means of exercising both the mind and the body.

Tokens of Central Coast teams and players line the walls of the historical society. Many were donated by Margaret Ikeda, the granddaughter of Juzo Ikeda, manager of the Arroyo Grande youth baseball teams in the 1930s including his three sons.

Photos of Ikeda and his sons are spread through the display. Their story is a prime example of the way baseball was passed through the generations of Japanese Americans to help engage not only youth but adult immigrants into American culture and community.

“You had the agricultural community (in the area) and the sporting community,” Statler says. “Baseball was a great way to represent yourself in the community.”

Statler noted that two Ikeda brothers, Seirin and Kazuo, played for the Cal Poly baseball team during 1939 and 1940.

“(Japanese Americans in the area) played at least through the 1930s,” says Jane Line, president of the South County Historical Society. “It broke up when they were sent to the internment camps during the war. When they came back, they mainstreamed. So they were now playing on the high school teams, college teams and some went on to the pros.”

Baseball was used as a morale builder during free time not only for Central Coast immigrants, but for the Japanese Americans held in internment camps during World War II.

The majority of the Central Coast Japanese Americans were forced to enter relocation centers created to detain them while internment camps were being built. Some detainees continued on to the internment camps. The three main relocation centers were the Tulare Assembly Center in the southern San Joaquin Valley, Arizona’s Gila River War Relocation Center and Poston War Relocation Center.

Statler’s calculated that only 20 to 25 percent of those Japanese American citizens relocated from the Central Coast returned.

Teams were often allowed to travel to other internment camps to compete.

“It was a recreation device, it was a cultural symbol and a symbol of loyalty,” Statler says. “Some Japanese were quoted as saying that wearing a baseball uniform was like wearing the American flag. It gave you different privileges and different rights.”

“Japanese American Baseball on the Central Coast, 1930-1945” opened March 8 and will be open until Sept. 27, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

The South County Historical Society is located at 128 Bridge St. in Arroyo Grande.

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