Of Baseball, War And Love

Of Baseball, War And Love

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Yukio and Sueko Nishimura’s Time Together was Short, But Their Love Endured

Karleen C. Chinen

They are old baseballs, stained deep with the red dirt of Hawai‘i. But to Dr. Joyce Tsunoda and her sisters, they are treasures that bring their parents back to them. Last month, these balls, which saw action in a series of baseball games played in Hawai‘i in 1936, were discovered here and returned to Japan. They bear the signatures of the members of Ösaka’s Kwansai (Kansai) University baseball team, including the signature most precious to Tsunoda and her sisters, that of the team’s ace pitcher, Yukio Nishimura — their father.

This is a story that will make you detest war, if you don’t already. It is a love story about a family that World War II tore apart. It is a story that gives meaning to the term, “quality time.” In the end, it is a story about being able to hold tight to memories and go on with life because your love is so strong and special.

You would never know by listening to Joyce Tsunoda, who retired from the University of Hawai‘i as senior vice president and chancellor for community colleges, and her sister, Blanche Klim, that their father was not there when his daughters graduated from high school, and college, or to walk them down the aisle when they married, or to share in the joy of the birth of their children — his grandchildren.

But Tsunoda has some memories, and as the eldest of her sisters, they are the sharpest and the most detailed. She remembers that her father loved to read. Her fondest memories are of him stretched out on his stomach on the tatami-mat (straw mat) floor of their home. She can still see him in his navy-blue yukata (cotton kimono), reading a book or a magazine. “I would lie next to him with my head on his back, trying to read. I can never forget the warmth of his body as we ‘read’ together,” she said.

Joyce was 6, Blanche was 2 — another sister, Sandra, was 4, and the youngest, Lois, was still in her mother’s womb when their father reported for duty with the Japanese army. Yukio Nishimura would never hold Lois in his arms — he was killed in action on Luzon Island in the Philippines. His date of death was recorded as April 3, 1945, although his remains — and that of 35,000 others — were never recovered.

That’s why the old baseballs are so special to Tsunoda, who now divides her time between residences in Pearl City, Hawai‘i, and Saitama, Japan, where, she teaches part-time at Hakuoh University. Her heart has always been in the two lands.

“My father actually held these baseballs in his hands,” she told a reporter for Aichi’s Chunichi Shimbun. “His perspiration and energy must be steeped into this ball. I can finally hold it and feel him in my hands,” she said of the baseballs bearing her father’s signature, still legible all these decades later.

The discovery of the baseballs is only the latest find in Tsunoda’s lifelong mission to piece together her father’s life, which ended at the young age of 34.

In late May, Tsunoda and Klim held a “Celebration of Life” gathering of relatives and close friends at the Willows restaurant in Mö‘ili‘ili to remember and honor their parents, Yukio and Sueko (Edith) Nishimura. The “celebration” marked 70 years since they lost their father, 20 years since their mother’s passing in 1995 at the age of 84 and the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Sister Sandra, who lives in New Mexico, could not attend, and their youngest sister, the late Lois, attended in spirit. The event opened with a “celebration prayer” by Bishop Shugen Komagata of the Soto Mission of Hawaii.

Tsunoda told those gathered that the year was turning into one of “miraculous discoveries” that began with her receiving an autograph copy of her father’s signature, written in beautiful cursive English. He signed it in 1936, on his second trip to Hawai‘i with the Kansai University baseball team to play ball.

Yukio Nishimura was born and raised in Ise City in Mie Prefecture. He played baseball throughout his elementary and high school years. Yukio developed into a pitcher with a winning form and quickly became a hometown hero.

After graduating from Ujiyamada High School, Yukio began working and playing baseball for a company in nearby Aichi Prefecture. But Kansai University’s baseball program was on the hunt for a strong pitcher. They found that player in Yukio Nishimura and quickly offered him a baseball scholarship. Yukio did not disappoint, giving Kansai its first championship season in 1933. The team was rewarded with a trip to Hawai‘i to play against Hawai‘i teams.

Yukio and Sueko connected with each other for the first time in 1933 while enroute to Hawai‘i aboard the Chichibu-maru. Sueko was on her way back to Hawai‘i following her first trip to Japan.

It was not until Kansai’s second trip to Hawai‘i three years later, however — again for a championship season — that love blossomed between Yukio, by then a senior and the team captain, and Sueko — not that they hadn’t been thinking about each other since their first meeting.

From June 21 until early August of 1936, Kansai played teams like the Asahi, Braves, Waipahu Socials, Aiea All-Stars, Wahiawa Showa Troops, Kahuku Filipinos and others on O‘ahu, Kaua‘i, Maui and Hawai‘i island. Of their 22 games, the Kansai team won all but two. Before returning to Japan, all 17 members of the Kansai team signed an autograph book for the team’s batboy, a youngster named Saburo Samuel Koide.

In 2003, Koide sent a copy of that autograph book to the Kansai University Baseball Club. When the club celebrated its 100th anniversary with a grand party last January in Ösaka, Tsunoda and her husband Peter were invited because her father was among the honorees. At the party, she was given a copy of the 1936 team’s autographs. Flipping through the collection, she searched excitedly for her father’s signature. Only two players had signed their names in English, and he was one of them.

“I was speechless when I saw his signature!” Tsunotda said. “It was the first time ever that I had seen my father’s handwriting in English. I felt as though my father had come back to me that evening at the Ösaka hotel,” she said.

That launched Tsunoda’s cold case investigation into the source of the autographs. She learned that in 2003, Saburo Koide, who had signed the book identifying himself as the “Former Team Batboy,” had sent a copy of the book to Kansai University.

Tsunoda knew she had to find the batboy. With help from Blanche, a friend in Japan and the Kansai University staff, the amateur detective began tracking down Koide. “While home in Hawai‘i this February, I started calling all the Koides in the phone book.” She also began preparing a media appeal.

Tsunoda, naturally a baseball fan, also happened to mention her search to Glenn Nakaya, manager of the University of Hawai‘i’s Les Murakami Stadium. “The next thing I know, Glenn emailed me back saying, ‘I Googled, and this is what I found.’”

Nakaya referred Tsunoda to a 2012 discovernikkei.org posting about a Dr. Samuel  Saburo Koide at the 2011 Congressional Gold Medal ceremony in Washington, D.C. Koide graduated from McKinley High School and the University of Hawai‘i and had served in the Military Intelligence Service during the war. He earned his doctorate at Northwestern University and became a noted physician-researcher. Now retired, he and his wife reside in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.

Undaunted, Tsunoda called his home. “He asked me what my father’s name was, and when I told him, ‘Yukio Nishimura,’ his immediate and lively response was, ‘Oh, the pitcher! He was great. Everyone wanted to see him pitch.’”

Tsunoda and Koide talked by phone for an hour. He told her that his family had owned a small hotel on River Street near the Yamashiro Hotel, where the Kansai team stayed while in Hawai‘i. Koide loved baseball, so he hung around the Yamashiro Hotel and was eventually invited to be the team’s batboy.

Koide’s mention of another player’s name, “Okamoto,” rang a bell, so she rummaged through her mother’s mementos and found an autobiography that Kansai’s first baseman and relief pitcher, Toshiyuki Okamoto, had written in the 1960s. He had been one of Yukio’s closest friends. Okamoto died in 1969 and a family member had sent the book to Sueko Nishimura in Hawai‘i in the early ’70s. The book was in poor condition, but it was still readable.

“I remember seeing the book when Mother first received it, but since then had forgotten about it.”

Tsunoda began poring through the book. In it, Okamoto had written about his close friendship with Yukio, a friendship that began at Kansai University when Okamoto was a freshman. Yukio, an upperclassman, took Okamoto under his wing.

“I felt as though the past had reopened before my eyes,” she said.

Okamoto devoted a long chapter to his favorite memory of Yukio, whom he called “Ko” (because the kanji character for Yukio can also be read as “Ko”) — their 1936 baseball trip to Hawai‘i.

Sailing from Köbe to Honolulu, he noticed that Yukio seemed quieter and more pensive than normal. He would stand at the ship’s railing and gaze out at the ocean.

Two days out of Honolulu, Yukio came running to him, excitedly waving a piece of paper. “Oooii!! Saisakidaikichi! Kore mitemii! (Good news! Best news ever! Look at this! Look at this!”)

It was a six-word telegram, written in katakana: “Welcome Yukio. I am waiting. Sueko.”
Okamoto bumped his friend. “Well, well, Ko-san. It certainly looks good, doesn’t it?”

Yukio wondered aloud whether Sueko might be married. “Come on. Do you think a married woman will send such a telegram?” Okamoto asked.

Yukio knew his friend was right, but seemed to want reassurance. “You’re right,” his conversation with Okamoto continued. “But she is only one year younger than I am, so she is already 27. Do you really think a beauty like that would not be married?”

Yukio remained anxious until the team checked into their hotel. A short time later, Sueko, stylishly dressed in white with matching hat and high heels, walked into the Yamashiro Hotel carrying a basket of fruits and flowers.

“Helloo, Mr. Nishimura!” she called out with a warm smile on her face. “A-a-a . . . How are youuu?” he replied, grasping her hand and holding on to it for a long handshake. At that point, Yukio turned to Okamoto. “Ooi . . . This is Sueko-san. Higashi-san!”

For the next month and a half, the Kansai University team played ball under Hawai‘i skies. Yukio’s ace pitching dominated the games, which were reported on in the Hawaii Hochi.

But baseball wasn’t the only thing on his mind. He spent all of his off-days with Sueko, who drove him all over the island, showing him O‘ahu’s many sights. Okamoto wrote that Sueko drove in regularly from Hale‘iwa to watch his games. And, when Kansai played in Hale‘iwa against Waialua’s all-star team, the bleachers were filled with Sueko’s family and friends, and Ko-san was in his finest form.

“Ko-san struck out one batter after another,” Okamoto wrote. “I was covering the left field, but there wasn’t much to do because the balls never got to me, even in error. By the eighth inning, I had nothing to do, so I started to give autographs to the kids in the outfield stand.”
Okamoto wrote that when Kansai played on the neighbor islands, Yukio kept saying he wished he were back on

A newspaper clipping from the Chunichi Shimbun about the baseballs used in the 1936 friendship games in Hawai‘i. (Courtesy Joyce Tsunoda)

A newspaper clipping from the Chunichi Shimbun about the baseballs used in the 1936 friendship games in Hawai‘i. (Courtesy Joyce Tsunoda)

O‘ahu.

The six-week baseball tour ended with a festive closing banquet at the Sea View Inn in Hale‘iwa. It was full of congratulatory speeches, toasts and awards presentations. Yukio, who was named the most valuable player, was presented several prizes.

But the real highlight of the evening was the formal announcement by the Hawaii Times newspaper’s Hale‘iwa branch manager of the engagement of “Miss Haleiwa” to the ace pitcher of the Kansai University baseball team. He said Sueko would be going to Japan next March (1937) for the wedding. After a rousing applause, Yukio stood up and confirmed the announcement. “It is just as Mr. Manager said. Unfortunately, March is so far away, and I cannot bear the wait.”

On April 19, 1937, Yukio and Sueko were married in his hometown of Ise. The newlyweds honeymooned in Arashiyama in Kyöto.

With his college playing days behind him, Yukio began playing professional baseball for the Hanshin Tigers, making his professional debut just a month before his wedding day. When the Tigers lost, Yukio roared back stronger than ever, especially in match-ups against the Tokyo Giants, known today as the Yomiuri Giants. There was some hometown rivalry involved.

In the early years of Japanese baseball, teams played two seasons each year, spring and fall. The Giants placed first during the 1937 spring season, with the Tigers in second place. That lit the competitive fire in Yukio, as the Giants’ ace pitcher, Eiji Sawamura, like him, was a native of Ise.

Determined not to lose again to Sawamura and the Giants, Yukio led the Tigers to a winning fall season and a place in the annual championship game, which they won, giving the Tigers their first league championship.

After playing three full years for the Tigers, Yukio retired from professional baseball in 1939. He had pitched 152 games and had 55 wins and 21 losses; his winning percentage was 73.8 percent and his earned run average was 2.01, according to Tsunoda.

“He wanted to leave while he was still in good form,” Sueko later told Tsunoda. “He did not want to wait until his arm gave out and have people feel sorry for him.”

By the time he retired from pro ball, Yukio and Sueko already had their first daughter, Joyce. Yukio decided to move the family to Japan-occupied Dairen, Manchuria (now China), where he worked and played non-professional ball for a Japanese company. The dark clouds of war were already on the horizon, and in February 1944, Yukio was drafted into the Japanese army.
Tsunoda’s last memory of her father is of him leaving home to report for military duty in Dalian, Manchuria. “He told my mother, ‘Don’t worry, I will be back. Save some cold beer.’ As he walked out of the door and started walking down the street that ran in front of our apartment building, I leaned out of the window of our second-floor apartment and yelled, ‘Bye-bye, Touchan!! (child’s word for father).’ I know that he heard me, but he did not turn around. He just raised his right arm, his hand clenched into a fist and raised it high. Then he turned the street corner, and that was the last sight of my father. That raised fist, his back in a grey overcoat, has been burned into my memory,” she said.

In 1998, Tsunoda and her husband traveled to Dairen and even located her family’s old apartment building. It was her first time back since leaving in 1947. Being there seemed to bring her parents back to her, she said.

Sueko was expecting their fourth child when Yukio reported for duty in February 1944. After Lois was born in May, Sueko had a family picture taken and sent it to Yukio. “Mother said that he did receive the photo and knew that he was happy to have another daughter.”

While enroute to his battlefield assignment in the Philippines, Yukio’s ship was torpedoed off of Taiwan. He survived and was transferred to another ship that continued on Luzon. The last correspondence Sueko received from Yukio was a postcard dated Dec. 29, 1944. The message read: “Arrived in Philippines.”

BASEBALL TRIBUTES

In 1977, Yukio Nishimura was inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame. Tsunoda accompanied her mother to Tökyö for that ceremony at Jingu Stadium. Japan’s All-Star Game was also played that day. Tsunoda said her mother was happy that Yukio was being recognized for his contributions to Japanese baseball.

The plaque awarded to him, posthumously, hangs in the Hall of Fame Section of the Japanese Baseball Museum at Korakuen, near Gate 21 of the Tokyo Dome. Also in the stadium are monuments honoring the roughly 70 Japanese professional baseball players who died in World War II. At least two Ise City sons are listed on the monument, ironically, pitching rivals Yukio Nishimura and Eiji Sawamura. The two never knew each other in their boyhood, but they challenged each other fiercely on the professional baseball diamond.

Nishimura and Sawamura are also memorialized with busts at the Kuratayama Kouen Baseball Stadium in their hometown of Ise, where they are positioned side-by-side at the stadium entrance.

Tsunoda represented her family at the March 2014 dedication ceremony in Ise. Sawamura’s daughter, Sakai Miho, represented their family. It was the first time the two daughters had met each other. Miho was six years younger than Tsunoda — the same age as Lois.

“She asked me if I remember my father. I said, ‘Yes, I do. I was 6 years old when he left for the war.’” Tsunoda said Miho continued without emotion, “You are fortunate. I was born after my father died.” Eiji Sawamura was killed in 1944 when the ship he was on was torpedoed and sank.

RETURN TO JAPAN AND HAWAI‘I

Nearly two years after the war ended, Sueko and her daughters were repatriated to Japan. “Mother always said that we would not have survived postwar Manchuria and the tortuous hikiage (repatriation) experience without Grandfather Nishimura.” He treated their mother like his own daughter, Tsunoda noted.

Upon Sueko’s and her girls’ return to Japan, and learning that his son would never return home alive, Grandfather Nishimura arranged for Sueko to be called back to Hawai‘i by her family. He did not want them to have to endure the postwar hardships of a defeated Japan. Tsunoda said he had wanted to come to Hawai‘i with them, but was barred from doing so by American immigration laws. Tsunoda remembers his last words to them as they departed for Hawai‘i in 1948: “Call me to Hawai‘i when you can.”

“He was a healthy 69-year-old then,” Tsunoda recalled. “But just a month after we left, he suddenly and quietly died. I think he died of both relief and loneliness.”

On May 7, 1948, Sueko Nishimura and her daughters arrived in Hawai‘i. Tsunoda said they are eternally grateful to everyone who helped and supported them — “. . . all of you here, and those who are no longer with us, especially our Hawai‘i grandparents and uncles and aunties, who helped to bring us back to Hawai‘i and welcomed us.

“They even sent us first-class tickets aboard the USS Gordon, which sailed from Yokohama to Honolulu. It must have been a sentimental trip for Sueko. My sisters and I — ages 10, 8, 6 and 4 — were too Japan-bobura (Japanese slang for bumpkins) to appreciate the first-class accommodations, including all the good food at the Captain’s Table. We embarrassed our mother by hogging on white rice with salt only for every meal.”

GONE, BUT NEVER FORGOTTEN

High on a mountain in Gamagori in Aichi Prefecture is a reflective park that overlooks a peaceful bay. The Sangane Kanon Memorial Park is dedicated to the Japanese soldiers who died in the war in the Philippines. Monuments dedicated to the various battalions that fought there dot the landscape, including one that was commissioned by Yukio’s battalion commander, who survived the battle. A memorial service is held at the park annually on the first Sunday of April. Tsunoda and her husband Peter always make a point of attending it in remembrance of her father. “And, I always take a can of beer to share with Father,” she said.

Tsunoda’s sister Blanche and her husband Don Klim created a living memorial to her father with a monetary donation to the Ise City Library. Their donation is to be used to purchase English picture books for the library’s new English Reading Corner. A donor seal honoring Yukio Nishimura’s memory is placed in each picture book.

Blanche was only 2 years old when her father left for war, so her memories are few. But her love for him burns as brightly as ever.

In 1985, she and Don visited Don’s brother Bill and his wife Anne in the Philippines, where Bill was working on a contract for Bell Helicopter. It wasn’t the best time to be visiting the Philippines due to the many anti-Marcos demonstrations being staged at the time. Blanche was understandably reluctant to travel to the country at that time.

“But my mom told me that no one else in the family would have the opportunity to go to the Philippines, where our father died. That changed my mind,” Blanche said.

Sisters Joyce Tsunoda and Blanche Klim unveiled a new gravestone honoring both their parents. (Photo courtesy Blanche Klim)

Sisters Joyce Tsunoda and Blanche Klim unveiled a new gravestone honoring both their parents. (Photo courtesy Blanche Klim)

“In any case, I promised her that during our trip there, I would do something special to commemorate his death.”

The first place Bill and Anne took them to was the Lake Taal Lodge in Batangas City, south of Manila. “It was a beautiful rose garden-like setting situated very high up — 10,000 feet above sea level,” recalled Blanche. A large, patio-like area tiered down to the wall on its perimeter, offering a spectacular view of Lake Taal, its active volcano and the China Sea.

“For me, this was the place to honor my father. I told the others of my intentions.” Among the rose bushes, Blanche found a small pink rose. Knowing pink was her mother’s favorite color, she carefully picked a blossom off its branch, despite the “Do Not Pick” sign nearby.

Returning to the others at the wall, Blanche cupped the blossom in her hands close to her and said a quiet prayer. Then she kissed the rose and tossed it over the wall.

“It hovered in the air above me for a while and then it zipped right back to me — not to Don, or to Bill or to Anne, but to me. I was startled. Lovingly, I repeated the process — offered a prayer, kissed the rose, then tossed it over the wall again. It hovered in the air for a few seconds and then zipped right back to me.”

Anne said it was “a sign.” “That night I pressed the rose between a paperback book and wrote a long letter home, telling them of the wonderful time we were having and of my special experience. At the end of the letter, I said that I would be bringing home the spirit of our father with the rose. Our vacation turned out to be one of the best I’ve experienced, as though our father’s spirit was always with us.

“When we returned home, Joyce said that Mom was so happy upon reading the letter that she cried. I was able to find a small, round gold frame for the rose and it was on the family [Buddhist] altar in my mom’s room all the years until her death in 1995. It went into the coffin with her — their spirits forever together.”

Tsunoda believes it was fate that their father came back to his family as “the Batangas rose.” It was also meant to be that Blanche, who most resembles their father, would be the one who would bring him back to their mother and their family.

“Mother was an amazingly strong and resilient woman,” Tsunoda told me. For two years, she was forced to remain in wartorn Manchuria with four little daughters before the Japanese government allowed them to be repatriated back to Japan.

“Before we left Manchuria, she went to see a fortune-teller, who told her that Yukio was safe and back in Japan, waiting for us. We reached Japan in early March of 1947 and went to live with her older sister in Kumamoto. She said their mother spent a year trying to find her husband.

“The fortune-teller’s message did not come true,” Tsunoda said. After almost a year, Sueko received a letter from the Ise City Government, instructing her to come in and claim her husband’s “remains.”

“So she went and came home with a white box. She opened the box, and in the box was a piece of paper with the writing: ‘Nishimura Yukio, Senshi (killed in battle), April 3, 1945.’ That was the only time that I saw my mother cry. She said, ‘Nishimura to iu otoko ga kore dake ni natte . . .’ (The man Nishimura, this is all that remains of him).”

Tsunoda believes her mother’s tears were of sadness, anger and frustration. “I did not see her cry again until my sister Lois died of illness in 1990 at an early age of 46.”

Sueko Nishimura was only 34 years old when she was widowed — 37 when she returned to Hawai‘i with her four young daughters.
“I am sure that she was encouraged to remarry,” Tsunoda said. “For her, Yukio Nishimura is her husband forever.”

For most of the sisters’ lives — and for all of Lois’ — their father was not with his family in body. But he was always there with Sueko and their daughters in spirit. “All the time as we were growing up,” said Tsunoda.

You feel that spirit in Joyce and Blanche. There is no sadness — only happiness and gratitude for the time they had with their mother, and especially their father, however short it may have been.

Sueko kept in touch with Yukio’s family in Japan throughout her life, and her daughters continue to even today. “We felt as close to the Nishimura relatives — grandparents, uncle and cousins — as we were with the Higashi family — Mother’s side family — in Hawai‘i and also in Japan.

The daughters of Yukio and Sueko Nishimura had planned one more act of love to cap off their special “Celebration of Life” honoring their parents. Leaving the Willows in Mö‘ili‘ili, their families drove over the Ko‘olau mountains to Käne‘ohe, to their mother’s gravesite at the Valley of the Temples. There, they unveiled a new gravestone bearing the names of both their mother and father.

“Sueko and Yukio were destined to meet, to share love and experiences on this earth for less than a dozen years, seven as husband and wife,” said Tsunoda. “They produced four daughters and left us with a lot of fond memories and valuable lessons for the future . . .”

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