Due to popular demand, we are running Joe Udell’s three-part series from his recent trip to Japan, where he followed the Hawaii Island Movers baseball team and the Team Honolulu girls softball all-stars in Hiroshima and Kitakyushu. Stay tuned, as we will be running a story each Monday for the next three weeks.
THE HIROSHIMA-HONOLULU BRIDGE
As the World Gets Smaller, Two Hawai‘i Sports Teams Celebrate a Half-century of Friendship
Twenty-three years ago, Donald Takaki, local businessman and chairman of Pacific Region Baseball, saw the need to embrace cultural and athletic exchange between Japan and Hawai‘i. With this is in mind, he formed and sponsored the Hawaii Island Movers baseball team, an all-star squad of players aged 17 to 22, which travels to Hiroshima in odd-numbered years and plays a series of exhibition games before touring the rest of Japan.
“I saw a long time ago that Japanese baseball was improving rapidly and baseball players from Hawai‘i could benefit from this educational and athletic experience,” Takaki said. “The world is getting smaller and we need to bridge cultures together.”
This year’s trip, however, was made even more special by the milestone 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima-Honolulu sister-city relationship. In commemoration of the occasion, Takaki, in addition to his efforts with the Movers, helped organize a one-time goodwill visit by the Team Honolulu girls softball all-stars. The team, which was comprised of players from ‘Iolani, Punahou, Maryknoll, Mid-Pacific, Saint Francis and Moanalua, played a mini-tournament against an all-star team from Hiroshima and Yasuda High School, a perennial softball powerhouse.
“The Japanese girls are tough, but it’s a great learning experience for our girls” said Team Honolulu head coach Lance Watanabe. “The Japanese teams are so meticulous; everything they do is in unison — the way they play, the way they stand; even when they run they’re all in step together.”
Prior to game play, both the Movers and Team Honolulu made a point of learning about the history of Hiroshima. The first stop was the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, where the players, coaches and accompanying parents learned about the devastation stemming from the world’s first atomic bomb attack.
With the Japanese media in tow, Takaki, accompanied by team captains from each squad, placed a wreath at the Memorial Cenotaph, a saddle-shaped monument inscribed with the names of the 140,000 people killed as a result of the bomb.
From there, the group headed to the nearby Children’s Peace Monument, dedicated to the children who died in the bombing. Atop the monument rests a statue of Sadako Sasaki, the Hiroshima child who believed that folding 1,000 paper cranes would cure the leukemia she developed after the atomic bomb explosion. In honor of Sadako, the softball team folded 1,000 paper cranes prior to their trip and dedicated the cranes to the city in her memory.
“It makes me feel like a part of Hiroshima, like I did something,” said Shay Shibata, a recent Maryknoll graduate with Hiroshima roots. “It’s always going to be there and I can always come back.”
But the highlight of the afternoon was a visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, which details the horrors of the atomic bombing through still images and recovered artifacts. According to Movers head coach Rich Olsen, who has coached the team for eight years, the visit to the museum often serves as the most memorable — if not shocking — aspect of the visit to Japan.
“It’s one of the most important parts of the whole trip,” he said. “It’s an eye-opening experience for these kids. A lot of them don’t think about it and then they go in there and it just hits them. It’s emotional.”
That proved true for pitcher Kamakani Usui, a Saint Louis alumnus and first-year Mover who just finished his freshman season at Santa Rosa Junior College.
“The pictures were graphic,” he said. “I thought I was going to cry.”
It was not just first-time visitors, however, who were affected by the museum displays. Kyle Kanaeholo, the Movers’ longest-tenured player and co-captain, now in his fourth year with the squad, was just as overwhelmed as Usui.
“I still get tingles down my body and that was my third time (visiting the museum),” Kanaeholo said.
Although many members of the baseball and softball teams are part-Japanese, the museum experience was a particularly personal one for the Movers’ shortstop, Pi‘ikea Kitamura, and designed hitter Ryson Mauricio, both of whom have roots in Hiroshima.
Kitamura, a half-Japanese yonsei whose grandfather, Dick Kitamura, played professional baseball in Japan, found himself torn over his Japanese ancestry and his American nationality.
“It was definitely eye-opening stuff you can’t learn out of a book or in school or a classroom,” he said. “It’s good to see actual pictures and actual things that are found, so I learned a lot more there, seeing it than actually learning about it in school.
“Obviously, I wasn’t born yet (when the atomic bomb was dropped); I didn’t have any control over it, but just knowing that America did that to the place where I’m from — to my family members, potentially — it was just an eye-opening experience.”
Mauricio, who is also a half-Japanese yonsei, came to realize how powerful and destructive the atomic bomb really was.
“Just being in the city and knowing we did that to them is kind of shocking,” he said. “I knew there was a lot of devastation, but I didn’t know there was that much.”
It turns out that Mauricio’s maternal grandfather’s cousin, Tamiko Nakamura, used to clean the grounds of the memorial park and still lives in the area. Following the Movers’ last game in Hiroshima, Nakamura, who had been in touch with Mauricio’s grandparents, showed up unannounced at the team’s hotel with her husband, son and daughter-in-law.
“I honestly didn’t think they were going to come,” Mauricio said. “Then they were there (at the hotel), asking everybody for Namba, which is my grandpa and my mom’s maiden name.”
Despite the huge language barrier — Mauricio said they spent a lot of time “just trying to understand each other” — the five of them went to a nearby shopping mall, where they talked about family, baseball and Hawai‘i. Tamiko’s husband, Senro, recounted his experiences as a junior varsity baseball coach at a local high school, while Tamiko brought photographs of Mauricio’s grandparents during one of their visits to Hiroshima in the late 1980s.
“They had pictures of them and they showed me,” he said. “It was from 1988, one year after I was born.”
Although brief, the lunchtime get-together proved to be fruitful for both parties. By the time they said their good-byes, Mauricio and the Nakamuras had exchanged phone numbers and addresses and promised to contact each other the next time they were in the same area.
“It was a good experience to meet my relatives,” he said. “Even though there was a language barrier, we could still communicate.”
Mauricio wasn’t the only member of the sports party that made new friends. The softball team’s visit extended well beyond the game itself. The girls had the opportunity to meet Hiroshima Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba as well as attend a tea ceremony and calligraphy class with the Yasuda High School softball team.
“They didn’t talk so much; they just enjoyed being together,” said Yasuda head coach Hideo Hikasa.
Though they lost the three games they played in Hiroshima (two against the Hiroshima all-stars and one against Yasuda) by a combined score of 19-1, the Team Honolulu girls formed a strong bond with their Japanese counterparts. At the “friendship dinner” following game play, the Team Honolulu players performed an original hula, while the Japanese players performed several song and dance routines.
“They are very cheerful and joyful,” said Sumie Yamashiro, an 18-year-old left fielder for Yasuda, about the Hawai‘i girls.
By the end of the evening, the players were reluctant to say sayonara, and promised to keep in touch via e-mail. Even the coaches managed to get caught up in the wave of friendship and emotion during the dinner.
“I wasn’t expecting this; it’s so emotional the way that they honored us and treated us,” said Team Honolulu assistant coach Grant Sugai, choking back tears.
But, true to the banquet’s billing, the girls are not bidding each other good-bye for very long. In August, the Hiroshima softball all-stars will travel to Hawai‘i for an exhibition tournament in conjunction with local Hiroshima-Honolulu sister-city relationship celebrations. Joining them will be five all-star baseball teams from Japan.
Takaki sees that opportunity as yet another way to close the gap in an already-shrinking world.
“Most of those players will be entering college or graduating college soon,” he said. “By the end of their visit, each one of them will have that relationship with Hawai‘i and people from Hawai‘i.
“Because of this exchange, these kids will be coming to Hawai‘i for the next 40 to 50 years. They’ll get married and they’ll honeymoon in Hawai‘i. They’ll vacation here. They’ll tell their families and friends what a great place it is, that it’s more than just sand, surf and sun, and those people will come to Hawai‘i because of that recommendation. It’s a chain effect and all of that will be fostered through athletics.”