Airport Display Honors Wally, Dan
Twelve years ago, a meeting took place among baseball legend Wally Yonamine, his son Paul and myself about an appropriate venue in Hawaii to display Wally’s impressive collection of trophies accumulated over nearly four decades of his sterling athletic career in Japan. I opined that Honolulu International Airport would be the perfect site, given the millions of Japanese visitors who traverse through the area. They agreed, and after the state Department of Transportation (DOT) concurred, space was set aside for the Farrington High School graduate’s trophies to be displayed.
Fast forward to April 11, 2014, and we now find an expanded piece of heaven has been carved at the airport, honoring two significant figures in Hawaii’s history – both of Japanese ancestry. The new exhibit, beautifully designed by Kurt Osaki, titled “Celebrating our Local Heroes,” commemorates the accomplishments of a courageous war veteran turned U.S. senator, Daniel Inouye, and showcases the life and awards of Wally Yonamine, a Hawaii sports icon and athletic pioneer.
Thanks to the Wally Yonamine Foundation (WYF), in partnership with the state DOT, a renovated and enhanced display for Wally Yonamine has been built. What’s new is an upgraded mini museum that also features the memorabilia, photos and history of Sen. Inouye’s remarkable life, revered as one of our country’s legendary senators. Visitors and local residents won’t be able to miss these colorful displays near Gate 25 at the airport.
The senator’s wife, Irene Hirano Inouye, attended the special ceremony, along with Wally’s widow Jane, daughters Amy and Wallis, and Paul.
“The senator’s display, which complements the Wally Yonamine exhibit, is a great way to honor my father and the senator together, as we celebrate the contributions of these two great local heroes,” says Paul Yonamine.
The addition of Inouye was broached by DOT Deputy Director of Airports Ford Fuchigami, and garnered invaluable support from Irene Hirano Inouye and Jennifer Sabas of the Daniel Inouye Institute.
Adds Paul: “The senator played an instrumental role in furthering the goodwill of the United States and Japan, and was a true inspiration to Japanese Americans and Japanese everywhere. I am certain that my father is ecstatic and honored that he can share the opening of his display with an individual whom he respected so much and was kind enough to write the foreword for his biography Wally Yonamine: The Man Who Changed Japanese Baseball.”
Wally was a two-time professional sports legend who became the first Asian American to play pro football as a running back for the San Francisco 49ers in 1947. He made history again as the first American to play professional baseball in Japan. The Maui-born outfielder was known as the “Nisei Jackie Robinson” for breaking into Japanese baseball and building ties between the U.S. and Japan during a highly sensitive period after World War II.
“He was motivated to strengthen the bond between the two countries,” says Paul. When the family first arrived in Japan in 1951, the country was still struggling from the aftermath of WWII, and as one of the most visible Americans there, Yonamine felt a strong moral obligation to contribute and improve the relations between the people of his ethnic and patriotic countries. During his playing/managing career that spanned 38 years, the Japanese were impressed by his “never give up attitude.” In 1993, Wally Yonamine became the first and only American ever inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame.
“One of my father’s desires was to always give back to the people of Hawaii, where his roots are and where he received his early athletic training and skill development,” says Paul. “The airport exhibit also gives my father the opportunity to acknowledge and thank Japan for allowing him an opportunity to play ball in the country of his ancestors.
“The exhibit is a great way to heighten the experience of Japanese visitors to Hawaii, whereby they would feel welcomed and appreciated for the tourism dollars they pour into Hawaii’s economy.”
WYF has been the title sponsor of the Hawaii High School Athletics Association’s annual baseball tournament for the last 15 years. It provides free baseball clinics, scholarships and grants to the youths of Hawaii and Japan, and offers new opportunities for further personal development and higher education.
“This was one of my father’s passions,” explains Paul, “which was driven by his inability to pursue a college education due to financial hardships at the time. ”
For many years, Jane Yonamine operated a highly successful pearl store called “Wally Yonamine Pearls” in Roppongi, Minato, Tokyo, which is still in business. She now is living out her golden years in East Honolulu. After an extended battle with prostate cancer, Wally died Feb. 28, 2011, at the age of 85 in Honolulu.
But Paul, a highly successful business executive in Japan, and his siblings continue to carry on his father’s legacy through WYF.