Thursday, April 14, 2005

Gyo Obata

Gyo Obata
Washington University in St. Louis Architecture Student
Son of Fuji Athletic Club Founder
Co-Founder of HOK

Excerpt from The Golden Game - The Story of California Baseball
by Kevin Nelson; California Historical Society Press, 2004
Pages 207-09, 214

The Los Angeles Nippons were one of the best Japanese American teams of their era. The Nips, as they called themselves - some players had the name sewn on their uniforms - competed against the San Fernando Aces, the San Pedro Skippers, and other Nisei [second generation] teams. The Nippons, who sometimes featured whites on their roster, also played against white semipro teams in southern California. On the afternoon of December 7 or December 8 - the exact day is not clear - the Nippons were playing in Los Angeles against a studio team from the Paramount movie lot. During the game FBI agents arrived at the field and watched from the sidelines. They did not interfere with the game, waiting until it was over before taking the Nisei players away for questioning. They were later released.

What happened that day to the Los Angeles Nippons happened to Nisei and Issei all around California, which had (and still has) the largest population of Japanese Americans of any state in the country. Authorized to do so by the president, law enforcement authorities rounded up all persons suspected of possible sabotage against the United States. This sweep focused on those of Japanese descent, and over the next weeks they faced a series of restrictive and punitive measures that culminated, on February 19, 1942, with the harsh dictates of Executive Order 9066, which called for the detention of all persons who posed a potential threat to the American war effort.

Executive Order 9066 broadly applied to Americans of German, Italian, and Japanese descent as well as to foreign nationals from those countries. But it was left to the Western Defense Command to determine specifically how the order was to be enforced. In February congressional hearings in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and two Northwest cities considered a proposal by General DeWitt to evacuate all three of these groups from the West Coast and detain them in isolated inland camps during the war. But German Americans, who had suffered prejudice during the first world war, successfully sought to be excluded from the order. Italian Americans also argued for an exemption, citing, among other reasons, the case of Giuseppe and Rosalie DiMaggio. Neither was an American citizen, but, their attorney argued, forcing the parents of Joe DiMaggio to leave their home would hurt the country’s morale. In the end it was decided that Executive Order 9066 should not apply to the Italians either, and the hammer fell on the Japanese (although other groups were still the targets of intimidation and restrictions).

Japanese in California had to leave their homes, sometimes with only a day’s notice or less, and report to assembly centers where they were held until more permanent relocation. Kenso Nushida, the former Sacramento Solon pitcher and “Boy Wonder” of Nisei baseball, fled the state rather than be interned. He returned to his native Hawaii, which did not have such camps.

Chiura Obata, founder of the Fuji Athletic Club, the first mainland Japanese baseball club, was living in Berkeley with his wife, Haruko, and their three children when the order was signed. By the spring of 1942 he had long since moved on from his youthful passion of baseball to become an artist and professor at the University of California. He felt he had no choice but to submit to the camps, but his youngest son, Gyo, an architecture student at Cal, did not see it that way.

It is wrong, he told his father. It is against the Constitution, and I will not go. Chiura agreed to help his son. If they could find a college for him outside California, he could escape the camps and continue with his studies. But most universities refused to accept Nisei students because of the war. Finally, Washington University in St. Louis said it would accept Gyo as a transfer student. All he had to do was get there.

Because of travel restrictions on the Japanese, Gyo needed special permission to go to San Francisco to plead his case at Army headquarters. He received an okay to go to the city but not the answer he wanted to hear there: he could not leave the state for any reason. Chiura then got involved, calling on a friend and former student, attorney Geraldine Scott, who worked for General DeWitt in his office. With Scott on his side, Gyo got a second hearing and won permission to leave, but only if he was on a train by midnight that night because the evacuation was scheduled to begin the next morning. If he remained in California, he would have to report for incarceration with the rest of the family.

All the banks were closed that day. Gyo had to leave, but he had no money. His father and Scott emptied their pockets and borrowed some more money so he could buy a ticket to St. Louis. He made it onto the train in time.

Chiura Obata, his wife and two of his children stayed at the Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno before moving to Topaz, Utah, camp. In both Topaz and San Bruno, Chiura taught and practiced art. In the fall of 1945 he resumed his position as a professor of art at the University of California at Berkeley.

Gyo Obata never went into the camps, continuing his studies in architecture in St. Louis during the war. He later co-founded the firm Hellmuth, Obata, and Kassabaum (HOK), which as since grown into one of the largest architectural and engineering companies in the world. With Gyo as its principal designer and chairman, HOK has designed some of the most beautiful ballparks in America, including Camden Yards in Baltimore. Another widely praised HOK creation, Pacific Bell (now SBC) Park in San Francisco, opened in 2000.

Gyo Obata

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