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Kiosk at Nozomi Park Recounts Gila River History

The Gila River All-Stars in September 1944. (Courtesy of Nisei Baseball Research Project)

Rafu Staff Report

CHANDLER, Ariz. — The City of Chandler on Jan. 21 dedicated a kiosk at Nozomi Park with display panels that recount the history of the War Relocation Authority’s Gila River camp.

Guests of honor at the ceremony, held at the Tumbleweed Recreation Center due to inclement weather, included Nisei who played baseball while incarcerated at Gila River. The 30,000 Japanese Americans who were detained in Arizona during World War II (at Poston as well as Gila River) were honored.

The speakers were introduced by Jody Crago of the Chandler Museum.

Chandler Mayor Jay Tibshraeny noted, “While the remains of one of the Japanese internment camps was located not far from here on the Gila River Indian Community, access is extremely limited. This exhibit will preserve and bring awareness to this important part of our country’s history …

“Nozomi means ‘hope’ in Japanese, so it is fitting that we stand here today … remembering those who lived through a dark time with little more on their side than the hope for a much better future. The baseball played at the camps was not only of the highest caliber but also provided hope to those that played the game.”

The mayor read a letter from Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, who said that the exhibit “helps to educate Arizonans and visitors of all ages and generations about the Japanese American experience in Arizona during World War II, including the hardships they endured in the internment camps.”

Tets Furukawa, who pitched for the Gila River All-Stars, presented the city with 1,000 origami cranes “as a gesture of good fortune and appreciation for hosting and renaming this public space … to honor all the Japanese Americans who were unjustly incarcerated in Arizona during World War II, including my coach and good friend … Kenichi Zenimura, the man now recognized as the ‘Father of Japanese American Baseball,’ especially during the three years of confinement at the Gila River Relocation Center in Rivers, Ariz., where he built the famous Zenimura Field to create joy and normalcy to all youngsters and the entire camp stands.”

Furukawa also shared a haiku he had written for the occasion.

Kenso Zenimura, one of Kenichi’s sons and second baseman for the Gila River All-Stars, recalled that when the war broke out, “Mr. Furukawa went to Tulare Assembly Center and my family went to Fresno Assembly Center. There were other assembly centers because a lot of the camps in Arizona and Arkansas and Colorado were not completed … I remember it was my birthday that we went into camp. I was only 15 years old. My brother [Kenshi] was only 14.

“Even when we were in the assembly center, we played baseball. My dad always was a baseball nut. As soon as we got into camp he started looking to build a baseball park or diamond. Within that very short time, a league was started and they had an A team and a B team. Since we were young, I played on the B team …

“We had a winter league and a summer league. Summertime is so hot in this area that we used to have a twilight league … after 5 o’clock.”

Zenimura, who later played for the Hiroshima Carp, recently found both Fresno Assembly Center and Gila River championship pennants in a trunk in his garage, both of which he donated to the Fresno-based Nisei Baseball Research Project.

Among those going to the Tucson Museum to the exhibit “Gambatte” by Paul Kitagawa were (from left) Gila Eagle Kenso Zenimura, Tucson Badger Dr. Jerry Dodson, Gila Eagle Tets Furukawa, Tucson Badger Lowell Bailey, Kerry Nakagawa of NBRP, Bill Staples of SABR. (Photo courtesy Nisei Baseball Research Project)

He recalled helping his father build Zenimura Field outside the barbed-wire fence, leveling the ground and screening the dirt for pebbles, which was “just like looking for gold.” He also said that getting water to the field was a challenge; the family first enlisted the aid of farmers who volunteered for the camp fire department, and later dug a trench to connect a pipeline to the laundry room.

After camp, Zenimura played in college and later played in Japan and Canada. After retiring as a player, he became involved in youth baseball — coaching boys who were the same age as him and his brother when they went to camp — and participated in the World Boys Baseball Tournament in Japan, Mexico, Brazil and other countries. He retired in 2005.

Kenichi Zenimura returned to Fresno after the war, continued to play competitive ball until he was 55, and continued to manage until his death in 1968 at the age of 68. The kiosk ceremony almost coincided with his birthday, Jan. 25.

Paul Shorthair of the Gila River Indian Community noted that his people and the Japanese American community have both suffered from “racial prejudice … conceived in irrational thought.”

He continued, “In 1942, the destinies our two peoples were brought together, and together we relied on the land and its resources. Despite the circumstances, we not only survived but we thrived … I hope that this kiosk will not only serve as a reminder of past mistakes but also a reminder to not repeat history.”

Jim Marshall of the Arizona Diamondbacks said, “I enjoyed listening to your stories and it’s great to be a part of the [baseball]community.”

Marshall played in Japan and managed the Chunichi Dragons. “I learned a lot about Japan, the Japanese people and culture, the loved, the discipline that they have when they play the game. I enjoyed every minute that I was there,” he said.

He recalled his friendship with Japanese baseball greats Sadaharu Oh and Shigeo Nagashima as well as Wally Yonamine, a Nisei who played and managed in Japan, and Tom Ikeda of Mesa, Ariz., who brought the Taiyo Whales to the U.S. for spring training.

In the U.S., Marshall managed the Chicago Cubs and the Oakland A’s, and has been with the Diamondbacks for 22 years. He apologized for last year, “the worst year ever,” and promised, “The future of the Diamondbacks is going to be pretty good.”

Kerry Yo Nakagawa said he and others started the Nisei Baseball Project ( 21 years ago “to bring awareness and education about Japanese American concentration camps, but told through the prism of baseball.”

He told the gathering, “ Not only do you honor our patriotic internees, but our veterans who volunteered out of the camps while their own families were being imprisoned. Seventy percent of this country is still unaware that Japanese Americans were put into the camps, so a kiosk like this … and the educational components are so valuable. I hope that history doesn’t repeat itself.”

Nakagawa remembered visiting Gila River 21 years ago with Kenso Zenimura and actor Pat Morita, who was incarcerated there at age 11, and meeting Mary Thomas, the governor of the Gila River Indian Community. He quoted her as saying, “I was a little girl when these camps were here and my parents never let me get by the barbed-wire fence. But we knew that your babies were being born on our sacred land and your senior elders were dying on our sacred land … How sorry we are that this happened on our sacred land … We carried this burden that we should have said not but we didn’t.”

Although the visitors assured Thomas that she had nothing to apologize for, Nakagawa was inspired by her words, which showed that “we definitely are all connected.”

Bill Staples of the Society for American Baseball Research, who is also a member of NBRP and JACL, paid tribute to people involved with the kiosk project who have since passed on, including former ballplayer James Tomooka, Mas Inoshita, and Ted Namba.

When the park was renamed in 2005, Inoshita said that the meaning of “nozomi” should be emphasized, Staples said. “With the installation of the kiosk, the meaning of the name is indeed emphasized and preserved for generations to come.”

One of the most inspiring stories told on the kiosk is the big game in 1945 between the state champion Tucson High Badgers and the Butte High Eagles. “It was a great game and great display of sportsmanship and shared humanity,” Staples said. “The two coaches, Kenichi Zenimura and Hank Slagle, planned for a rematch to take place in Tucson, but once the community learned that the Japanese American team was coming to town, people complained and the game was canceled due to security concerns.”

The two men continued to exchange letters. Responding to Zenimura’s wish that they could someday meet again as members of the same team, Slagle wrote, “I sincerely hope it won’t be too long until we’re all thinking straight again and can live together in a true democracy.”

“These words are still very relevant 72 years later … That’s why the Nozomi Park history kiosk is important and what we’ve done here is so special and necessary,” Staples said. “ …Hopefully the spirit behind Nozomi Park and the wisdom contained in the history kiosk … will inspire future generations … to find the courage to defend the constitutional rights and human rights of all of our brothers and sisters regardless of race, religion, ethnicity and LGBT status.”

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