Baseball and Cultural Preservation: An Alternative View of the Meaning of Baseball in Japanese-American Community Formation

This article was written by Monys A. Hagen

This article was published in Road Trips: SABR Convention Journal Articles

This article was originally published in “Above the Fruited Plain,” the 2003 SABR convention journal.


In San Jose, California, a bronze mural stands as a memorial to the Japanese and Japanese-Americans relocated from their homes on the West Coast during World War II. The memorial, documenting the relocation and subsequent internment in concentration camps contains images of events and elements of importance to those who endured the experience. On the panel entitled “Hysteria of War” is the depiction of Japanese playing baseball.

The inclusion of baseball in the memorial is a testament to the importance that Japanese placed on the sport in their communities, and reflects the role that baseball played in recreating as normal a social/cultural environment as possible behind barbed wire with guards patrolling the perimeter of the camps. Japanese immigrants to America always embraced baseball. What distinguishes them from other ethnic groups arriving in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was that they had made baseball their own prior to their arrival in the United States. In 1872, an American educator introduced the game to Japan and by the turn of the century, baseball had become Japan’s most popular sport with teams vying in national championship competitions. The popularity of baseball in Japan has been attributed to its compatibility with Japanese cultural values of harmony and self-restraint.1

The period of Japanese immigration to the United States coincided with the development and booming popularity of baseball in Japan. Japanese arrival in the United States began around 1890 and continued until 1924, when the Johnson-Reed Act effectively curtailed Asian immigration. During these years approximately 260,000 Japanese came to United States, first establishing themselves on the Hawaiian Islands and later migrating to the West Coast of the United States mainland. Until 1910 the vast majority of the immigrants were males engaged in agricultural employment, and in their masculine communities they quickly instated the baseball leagues that were so popular in Japan.2 In the process, they achieved what most ethnic groups seek to accomplish: replicating in their new homeland, the cultural elements they most value from their country of origin. Ironically, bringing baseball to the United States as something they had come to embrace was a Japanese, not an American, pastime.

By 1899 Japanese immigrants in Hawaii formed the Excelsiors baseball club. The pattern replicated itself on the West Coast with the arrival of the Issei. The Fuji Club became the first mainland baseball club founded in San Francisco in 1903. With continued immigration, baseball teams proliferated in the immigrant communities, and at the conclusion of the first decade of the 1910s cities with significant Japanese populations such as Los Angeles, Seattle, San Jose, and Honolulu had Japanese baseball leagues.3 As communities formed in the Rocky Mountain region, the Issei began baseball programs there as well. In Colorado, Japanese baseball had a firm hold by the 1920s in the communities of Denver and Las Animas, where sizable Issei communities had developed.

Historians focusing on the role of baseball in immigrant communities adhere to the thesis that baseball was an entree into mainstream society, a means to achieve respect and recognition from the dominant white society. This model was developed in large part through studies of European immigrant groups and fits well for urban groups such as the Italians and Jews. When research into Japanese-American baseball began, the Americanization, mainstreaming thesis was adopted. In They Came to Play: A Photographic History of Colorado Baseball, Mark Foster and Duane A. Smith maintained that “Japanese Americans in Colorado adopted the national pastime with enthusiasm” and that “baseball offered them a door to mainstream society.”4 When assessing the specific functions fulfilled by Japanese-American baseball the major variation on the central thesis comes from Gary Otake, who argued that in the face of racial discrimination and race-based legislation, baseball united the Issei and Nisei community and “brought Japanese people into the mainstream, but ironically also built bridges back to Japan.”5

Applying the interpretation that baseball provided Japanese an avenue to mainstream society, however, is not the only way to interpret the meaning of baseball to Japanese immigrants, and it may not provide the best understanding of how the sport functioned within the Japanese community. One initial fact that leads to questioning about the viability of the thesis is that during baseball’s peak period of popularity among Japanese immigrants, 1920-1941, there was essentially no opportunity for the Japanese to utilize baseball to gain access to the dominant white society. The Japanese on the West Coast and in the Rocky Mountain region faced discrimination, both legal and social, and as a result participated only in segregated leagues competing against other Japanese teams. These teams and leagues flourished, providing a focal point of community pride and cohesion. Significantly, baseball attained its greatest following among the Issei and the older Nisei, the generations least inclined toward an assimilationist perspective. The experiences of the Japanese indicate that baseball may have been more a component of Japanese cultural preservation than assimilation. Having brought baseball from Japan, the immigrants established the sport they thought of as the Japanese team sport.

During World War II, with the implementation of Executive Order 9066, the federal government removed all Japanese, citizen and alien alike, from the coastal regions of California, Washington, and Oregon. With little time to make arrangements, property and businesses were hastily sold for less than market value, and in the rapid departure for the assembly centers the Japanese left behind many belongings.6 The cultural shocks continued upon arrival at the internment camps. Camps such as Amache, Colorado, Heart Mountain, Wyoming, and Gila River, Arizona, were located in isolated areas with climate and geography alien to what the Japanese had experienced on the West Coast. The government provided crude barracks for the internees with each family allocated a living space of approximately twenty by twenty-five feet.7

Under these circumstances the Japanese sought to re-establish their social/cultural order as quickly and to greatest degree possible. To the Japanese this meant schools, churches, and baseball. At the Gila River Internment Camp at Butte, Arizona, Kenichi Zenimura, an experienced baseball park designer from Fresno, with the help of volunteers built a ball field. The endeavor in the inhospitable Arizona desert required digging an irrigation ditch and laying a water line of nearly three hundred feet. The field served as home to thirty-two teams.8 At Amache Internment Camp, Colorado, before the first winter ended plans for baseball and softball leagues had been made and were announced in the Granada Pioneer, the camp newspaper.9 By the end of March, 1943, competition had already begun.

The standard interpretation offered is that under these extraordinary conditions the Japanese sought to attain a level of “normalcy” and baseball became a critical element in that endeavor. It is of primary importance, however, to determine whether “normalcy” meant seeking access to mainstream society and gaining approval from white America or did it mean preservation of Japanese culture. When faced with catastrophic events and uncertainties, people tend to hold onto the reassurance of traditional elements more dearly. Because of the United States government’s official recognition, the Japanese American Citizen’s League (JACL), noted for its adamant assimilationist stance, exerted tremendous influence in the internment camps. This would seemingly provide support for the mainstreaming/ normalcy thesis, however, the JACL’s influence was primarily political, not social.10 The meaning of baseball to the communities could not be dictated by one favored organization.

The idea that baseball provided cultural preservation rather than assimilation can be illustrated by the rivalries that developed within and between the camps. The possibilities of attaining admission into mainstream society, while minimal before the war, were further diminished with internment. The teams within the camps competed fiercely with each for camp honors at several age and skill levels. Within the Rocky Mountain region, the top teams from Amache, Heart Mountain, and Gila River competed with each other before crowds of between four to six thousand fans. Through organized baseball the Japanese maintained a sense of pride, community, and self-respect in the face of the fears and racism that had uprooted them from their homes and separated them from participation in the mainstream.

Additional support for the cultural-preservation view is provided by the popularity of baseball not only among the more acculturated urban Japanese, but among the more traditional rural Japanese. Amache had two profoundly different cultural factions and the camp was marked by rural-urban tensions. One segment of the population had come from the Los Angeles area and to Amache via the Santa Anita Assembly Center. These Japanese had adopted many of the ways and mannerisms of white urban Los Angeles. Long exposed to and participating in Japanese baseball leagues in the Los Angeles area, the “Santa Anitans” seemingly supports the standard thesis. The other faction at Amache was rural agriculturists from central California. These Japanese lived in a more traditionalist culture with strong intergenerational ties.11 Among this group, baseball proved equally popular. It had been a well-established feature in the agricultural communities, and once at Amache teams like the Livingston Dodgers resumed competition.12

Baseball like other social/cultural activities exists not only as a feature of “American culture” but it has occupied an important place within many American subcultures. It is the specific ethnic context that gives the sport meaning within immigrant and racial groups. In the case of the Japanese a unique meaning and functioning emerged born of Japan’s early introduction to the sport and the extreme racism faced by Asians in the West. During World War II, when confronted by uprootedness and “otherness” the internees turned to the Japanese cultural elements they valued the most to unite and preserve what it meant to be Japanese. Baseball was central to this process.



  1. Charles Vascellaro, “Nisei: The Early Japanese-American Ballplayers,” <>, and Gary T. Otake, “A Century of Japanese American Baseball,” <>.
  2. Vascalleros, 2-3, and Otake, 2-3.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Duane Smith and Mark S. Foster, They Came to Play: A Photographic History of Colorado Baseball (Boulder, Colorado: University Press of Colorado, 1997), 52, 38. Also adhering to this perspective was Page Smith in his Democracy on Trial: The Japanese American Evacuation and Relocation in World War II (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995): 80, 350.
  5. Gary Otake, cited in Vascellaro, 3.
  6. Executive Order 9066 was ostensibly a response to national security concerns. Approximately 120,000 Japanese, two-thirds of whom were American citizens, were removed from the West
  7. Roger Daniels, Concentration Camps USA: Japanese Americans and World War II (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1971), 42-73.
  8. <>.
  9. Granada Pioneer, 1, nos. 13-50, Winter 1943.
  10. For insight into the JACL, see Bill Hosokowa, JACL: In Quest of Justice: History of the Japanese American Citizen’s League (New York: William Morrow, 1987). For a critical assessment of the role the JACL played in internment camp politics, see Emiko Omori’s multiple-award-winning film, Rabbit in the Moon (Hohokus, New Jersey: New Day Films, 1999).
  11. Valerie Matsumoto, Farming the Home Place: A Japanese American Community in California, 1919-1982 (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1983). Matsumoto does not discuss baseball, but her analysis in conjunction with other resources provides a useful theoretical framework for examination of the game.
  12. For a photograph of the Livingston Dodgers, see Vascellaro, 4.