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The One Story I Absolutely Had to Write
My grandparents kept quiet about the ordeal Japanese-American families like ours faced during WWII. When I heard about one small joyful chapter in this sad saga, I had to learn everything about it.
I knew I had to tell the story of “The Greatest Game Ever Played Behind Barbed Wire” from the moment I heard about it. Kerry Yo Nakagawa, director of the Nisei Baseball Research Project, told me about the game when I was a young reporter in Sacramento. It seemed to lace together threads of my own history that had been trailing me for years, like the time I learned—on a museum wall, of all places—that a great-uncle I’d never known was one of the first Japanese-American baseball players at the University of Washington, my own alma mater.
Then there was the fact that my own family was incarcerated during World War II. My grandfather was imprisoned at the Minidoka War Relocation Center in Idaho before being released on work duty. My grandmother was held at the Tule Lake camp in California. I know almost nothing of their experience during one of the most deplorable periods of American history, a stunning knowledge gap that is not unusual for Japanese-American families. The shame and sorrow of that time was too hard to bear, so most bore it in silence. My father’s generation, the sansei, were taught not to ask about it, so the stories went untold. And then they were lost.
The yonsei—my generation—were born into a Japanese-American experience marked by cultural loss. Our heirlooms had been purged, our stories swallowed, our language unshared. Our family history book was missing pages, and I (a journalist!) never thought to investigate until it was too late.
I could no longer ask my grandparents and other family members about their stories, but I could ask Tets and Kenso and Shosan and Tosh and all the other wonderful people in this piece about theirs.
I began reporting 12 years ago during a beautiful spring when I was pregnant with my first child, about to finish graduate school and planning for the future as I immersed myself in the past.
I was traveling through California and Arizona, sipping tea in the kitchens of incredible people who shared memories of some of the most exquisite and harrowing moments of their lives. Kerry had given me the keys: a list of names of the surviving players of an historic but little known game in which the reigning Arizona high school champs faced a team of Japanese-American teens who had built their field of dreams under the cover of darkness. But the story was truly unlocked once I met Tets, the former pitcher, who had made it his late-in-life mission to write Japanese-American history and baseball onto the page. He refused to be silent. He didn’t want the past to stay in the past.
I spent months documenting this story, poring over faded documents and pacing the ground where they walked as young men, as I tried to recreate this extraordinary game. No fact was too small to uncover, and my notes reflect an almost comical attention to detail. What color was Kenso’s jersey? How high was the pitcher’s mound at Zenimura Field? Whose signature was stamped on Tets’s glove? That every person I interviewed indulged my endless questions is a testament to their generosity and grace.
I wrote the last sentence of this story just as my own future arrived. My husband and I welcomed our daughter that summer. I graduated and got a new job, and then another. We had a second child. The present took precedence over the past. I pitched it to a few publications that weren’t a great fit. Then I thought maybe it should be a book. Nothing felt like the right path forward, and the story lingered on my laptop. So another story went unshared.
Until now. I decided to submit this piece for the inaugural Narratively Profile Prize because the fact that 120,000 people were incarcerated for no cause by their own government must never be forgotten. But that those people also experienced joy and fellowship and agency is part of the story, too. Memories become stories, and stories become history. This is a story that needs to be shared. I’m so honored to be able to share it—finally.
Editors’ Note: Lisa is too modest to brag, but the remarkable story she describes above took the grand prize in Narratively’s first-ever Profile Prize. We hope you read it and love it as much as we do!
Lisa Heyamoto is a journalist, educator and nonprofit leader who is committed to channeling the best of journalism’s past toward a robust, resilient future. She is the Director of Programming for Member Education at LION Publishers, where she supports local, independent news organizations as they become more sustainable. She is a fourth generation Japanese American who lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and two daughters.
Brendan Spiegel is Narratively’s Editorial Director and Co-Founder.