By JORDAN IKEDA
Rafu Sports Editor
Someone once called him Mr. CYC and the name sort of stuck.
It’s not like Joe Yamagawa promoted the moniker or even wanted it for that matter. Instead, the name has hung around for the past few decades because Joe has consistently and wholly embodied its meaning.
“I thought Joe had quite a bit of influence because for the longest time he had his hands on with quite a bit of what happened with CYC,” Yosh Hirai who currently runs the Community Youth Council and was Joe’s understudy for many years told the Rafu Shimpo. “I remember how Joe conducted himself with no bias. When major things came up, he came in and kind of calmed the troops down. Seems like everything came out. That’s why I admire Joe, not just his wisdom, but his demeanor. To this day, we have problems, and we ask Joe and he has a way about him that settles things down.”
Before we get into Joe’s story, it’s important to explain what CYC is. CYC began in the 1950s as a six-team baseball league. Less than a decade following internment, members of the Japanese American Optimist Club felt a need to develop a program that would occupy the Nikkei youth. Sports seemed like the best and most obvious answer. Over the past 50 plus years, CYC has helped the development of the South East Youth Organization (SEYO) and the Crescent Bay Optimists (CBO). Basically, CYC has been a major factor in cultivating Japanese youth basketball throughout the greater Los Angeles area.
With that established, we’ll get back to the story.
In 1959, Joe’s good friend Taro Inouye, who was at the time the Head Basketball Commissioner of CYC, named Joe as the Westside Commissioner.
As Joe tells it, “He called me up and said, ‘Hey Joe, you used to help with JAU before. How about helping me?’ I said, sure I’d help him, though I didn’t know what it entailed. We went to the meeting and the chairman introduced Taro as the head commissioner and Taro stood up and said, ‘Joe Yamagawa is my Westside commissioner.’ I thought, wow, that sounded like a big title. I thought, what did I get into? Anyway, that’s how I got started.”
Joe has been devoted to CYC ever since. He served as the CYC Head Basketball Commissioner and Baseball Commissioner, sat on the CYC board of delegates for a decade and has been a member of the Board of Trustees for the past twenty years, a seat he continues to hold today.
Joe’s love affair with sports began in 1939 playing basketball and baseball for the Cougar Juniors, where he represented his team as the “B” league commissioner for the Japanese Athletic Union (JAU). During his time in Boyle Heights, he also made the D and C basketball teams as a bench warmer for Roosevelt High School.
“I was lousy at baseball,” Joe said. “I was lousy at basketball. Good in football, but you can’t play organized football unless you played at school.”
And Joe wasn’t allowed to play at school. Not if his mother could help it. After hearing the horror story of a family friend breaking his leg, Joe’s mother forbade him to play. But, as fate would have it, he found a loophole that enabled him to carry the pigskin for Roosevelt.
“I was in gym class and the B football coach was talking to a friend of mine,” Joe said. “My friend called me over and told me that his coach wanted to talk with me. The coach asked me, ‘How come you didn’t come out for football?’ I told him that I couldn’t because my mom wouldn’t let me. He asked me if my mom signed my release form for basketball. She had, and he told me that that was good for football as well. He told me to come out. So I did.”
Joe, who had never played organized football before, worked hard under the guidance of assistant coach Bill Kunishima and earned his way onto the first string as the starting fullback.
“My dad found out I was playing through Bill who worked next to him at the market,” Joe recalled. “My dad was kind of glad. For an Issei, he understood football really well. He loved football so much he used to go see UCLA play. One day at suppertime, my dad asked how football practice was. My mom was surprised and started to object, but once my dad said it was okay, she didn’t say anything. My dad came out to every home game.”
Unfortunately, the war cut short Joe’s blossoming football career. In 1942, his family voluntarily relocated to Littleton, Colorado. From there, Joe enlisted in the army and was discharged due to his contraction of pleurisy.
But his teenage years, including his involvement with JAU, his hard work in football and the impact of his father’s presence at all of his games would lay the groundwork for the man Joe would later become.
When the war was over, Joe got married to his wife Chizuko, returned to Los Angeles and attended LA City College where he majored in mechanical engineering. He got his AA degree and took a job as a messenger for the Department of Water and Power. Through hard work and a little bit of luck, Joe quickly moved up the ranks over seven years before settling in as an assistant manager, a post he held for a quarter century.
If you do the math, that’s 32 years of service to the Department of Water and Power, a job that paid him and allowed him to provide for his wife and two daughters Corinne and Becky. Despite three decades of service to the city, Joe’s time at the DWP is nearly 20 years less than his involvement with CYC, an organization built upon the dedication, time and work of volunteers.
Joe credits his friends Inouye, Kenji Taniguchi and Paul Suzuki, all longtime CYC devotees themselves, for keeping him close to the CYC fold.
“After 10 years on the board of delegates, I said, ‘Okay, I’ve had it, I quit.’ I told them my daughter was playing now and I had to go with her,” Joe said smiling while recalling this story. “They told me, ‘No you don’t.’”
Joe went on to serve on the board of trustees and then as the board’s chairman, but ignored their “advice” about not going with his daughters. While still fully committed to CYC, Joe dove head first into his daughters’ playing careers. He served 20 years on the board of directors of the Southern California Women’s Athletic Union, coached the YB Ninjas in the SCWAU Aye league for 15 years and was the director and coach of his daughter Becky’s team the Westside Giants.
“It’s such a big difference to watch the coaches now and Joe as a coach back then,” said Kyoko Muranoka of Monterey Park who used to play for Joe. “Coaches now are intense. They’re so competitive, they’re so much about winning. Joe, he wasn’t like that. He was all about teaching us how to play and work as a team. It was never about winning. It was making sure that we learned and that we played as a team. We all became really close. Our team hasn’t played in ten or fifteen years, but we still get together every year. I think Joe was part of the reason why we still get together. He kept us all together. He was a big influence on all of our lives.”
When the Rafu interviewed Joe, he recalled a funny, ironic story that perhaps not too many people know about, but one that perfectly captures everything he stands for.
At Evergreen Memorial Park in Boyle Heights, there is a monument erected to honor 442nd and MIS veterans, many of whom are buried there. At the top is a statue of Sadao Munimori, the first Japanese American to receive the Medal of Honor. The funny part is that, because of his likeness in build and stature, Joe served as the model for the statue’s creation. Once the body was completed, the builders used photographs of Munimori to reconstruct his face.
“They put his head, on my body,” Joe said.
The irony is pretty obvious. Joe has served as the model, the example that has helped propel and sustain CYC for over 40 years. His work has been done behind the scenes, from organizing gyms to getting refs to helping to mediate opposing viewpoints to coaching with compassion to leading by example.
And while he’s been honored for his work—an Aki Komai award in 2002 and CYC’s Kohashi/Taniguchi award in February of this year—Joe himself has been content in letting CYC be the face of his accomplishments.
As if to emphasize this point, Joe had turned down the Kohashi/ Taniguchi award for the past several years, citing that it wasn’t proper for a still serving member of the board to receive such an honor. He had no choice but to accept it this year because it was accepted on his behalf by his friend as he missed the February jamboree due to a head cold.
“There’s a lot of other guys out there that have done a lot of stuff,” Joe said trying to deflect the attention on to others.
“Basketball has been a real plus for the Japanese American community,” he continued. “It kept us together, so to speak, and not only together, but it gets the Westside people and Valley people and Orange County people to start to know each other. It’s been a boon to our community in keeping it together.
“I also feel that sports brings the family together. Most parents want to see their kids play. Because of sports, when you get home, you say, ‘Gee wasn’t that a good game?’ or ‘I think you should have done this.’ You get communication between parents and kids. And that makes a big difference.”
For all those who enjoy playing in or watching your child play in any of the Japanese basketball leagues around Southern California, it’s important that you come to appreciate the difference that Joe has made.
Do so by honoring his legacy and carrying on the tradition he has championed for a half century. You can even thank him if you see him around.
Just don’t call him Mr. CYC.
For more info about CYC visit www.cycsports.org or contact Yosh Hirai at [email protected] For comments regarding this story, contact Jordan Ikeda at [email protected] or call (213) 629-2231 Ext. 148