The Wakabayashis: From Internment To All-Americans

Mel Wakabayashi with Michigan – Photo by University of Michigan

During the 1940s, Canada and the United States went through a dark period of Japanese Internment.

Beginning in 1942, following the lead of the United States who interned over 100,000 Japanese Americans, the Canadian government, conjuring the War Measures Act, detained and dispossessed over 22,000 Japanese Canadians living in British Columbia. To pay for this detainment, which lasted the duration of World War II, the government sold many of the businesses and homes of these families.

One such family was that of Tokuzo and Hatsuye Wakabayashi.

The Wakabayashi family was interned at Slocan City, British Columbia, after being forced from their home in Vancouver. Soon after, the couple welcomed their fourth child, Mel Wakabayashi to the world in 1943, and after being relocated to an internment camp, Neys Camp 100, in Northern Ontario, their fifth child Herb Wakabayashi was born in 1944.

Following the end of World War II Japanese Canadians finally gained full freedom to live anywhere in Canada in 1949. In 1950, the Wakabayashi relocated to Chatham, Ontario where the storied sports careers of Herb and Mel took flight.

In Chatham, the duo played for the Chatham Maroons in the late 1950s and early 1960s, competing on a line with Black athlete Eddie Wright, who became the first Black NCAA hockey coach later in his life.

Mel Wakabayashi went on to captain the University of Michigan Wolverines hockey team, being named the WCHA’s Player of the Year, and an All-American during his time with Michigan. He signed with, but did not play for, the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings following his NCAA career.

Herb Wakabayashi
Herb Wakabayashi at Boston University

His younger brother Herb Wakabayashi played for Boston University (where he was reunited with childhood friend Eddie Wright), earning multiple All-American honours and being named Boston University’s athlete of the year.

Both also played NCAA baseball for their schools.

Following their NCAA careers, the duo represented Japan at the 1980 Olympics, with Herb serving as the country’s flag bearer, while Mel coached Japan’s hockey entry in the Games.

During internment, sports were seen as an outlet for many Japanese Canadians and Americans who had been forcibly removed from their homes. In America, the most prominent game was baseball, although basketball, and football, including Wyoming’s historic Heart Mountain team, were also prominent.

In Canada, there are many stories of Japanese Canadian hockey players learning to play the game in internment camps, and of the teams that were formed in these locations.

With every story of sport however, there are the harsh facts of forced labour, familial separation and reconfiguration, and poor living conditions due to overcrowding, unsanitary situations, and freezing winter conditions without adequate shelter or heat for families and children. This was followed by forced deportation for many.

The lasting impact of internment in Canada has been profound.

Today, during the COVID-19 pandemic, anti-AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) sentiments, and hate are on the rise, much of which was spurned on by the xenophobia of Donald Trump. Canada, however, has also seen hate crimes directed at Asian communities rising.

Sport has always played an intersectional, and often confusing and controversial role in providing respite for populations of oppressed people in Canada, whether it was for Indigenous people at residential schools, or Japanese Canadians in internment camps.

For the Wakabayashi’s, they emerged from this situation, protected by the perseverance of their parents, and travelled from internment to become All-Americans.

This however, is not where the Wakabayashi legacy ends. Mel, Herb, eldest brother Don (was also a stellar athlete, playing baseball, and hockey for the Chatham Maroons), their five siblings, and many other relatives, have left a lasting impact in the sports world.

Dave Wakabayashi has carved out a role as the goaltending coach for the OUA champion University of Toronto Varsity Blues.

Chris Wakabayashi has served as an assistant coach for Japan’s men’s national team, and was head coach of the Tohoku Free Blades of the Asia League for many years.

Dwight Wakabayashi has been a successful sports writer for Bleacher Report, Sportsnet, CKSN and more, focusing on MMA, along with being a successful local Junior hockey player in Chatham-Kent.

These are only a few of the children and nephews of the Wakabayashi kids.

If you dive deeper into the family tree, you’ll run into athletes like Kyle Nishizaki, former Chatham Maroons captain, University of Windsor Lancers star, and current head instructor for Perfect Skating.

The list and connections to the Wakabayashi family, are many.

Internment was a dark spot of racism in Canada’s history, and it can’t be overlooked when discussing the anti-AAPI racism that persists today.

The Wakabayashi’s however, are a bright spot for Chatham-Kent, and are incredible trailblazers for past and future Asian Canadian and AAPI hockey players.

By Ian Kennedy

Line Change is an article series produced by through the contributions and consultation of various authors and academics, looking at social issues in sport. The series, which aims to open discussion with sports fans, will focus on issues of inequality, and serve as a portion of our anti-oppression education and reporting. Line Change will look at issues related to racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, gender inequality, socioeconomic divides, and much more, as they relate to sport and athletics.

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