Wally & Jane Yonamine
Who was the first American citizen to win the Japan Professional Baseball Most Valuable Player Award? Who was the first American elected to the Japanese Professional Baseball Hall of Fame? Whose pearl shop in Roppongi has served royalty, ex-patriates and Japanese alike for over 47 years? The answer to these questions is well known to most long-time residents of Tokyo: Wally and Jane Yonamine, both born in Hawaii as nisei, second generation Japanese Americans.
Wally first came to Japan, at the age of 26 in 1951, as an outfielder with the Yomiuri Giants and the first foreigner to enter Japanese baseball after World War II. It was not an easy time to break into the world of Japanese baseball, as road trips were long and grueling, players had to double up on hotel rooms, train rides could last 10 hours or more to get to an opposing team's stadium. Player comfort came last.
Into this environment Wally came determined to succeed. As the first foreigner, he faced special challenges, including language barriers and a general Japanese mistrust of the outside world. But rather than give in to the pressures, Wally steeled himself to not only meet the challenge but also to excel.
In less than three years after breaking into Japanese baseball, Wally garnered the Central League batting title; he went on to repeat in 1956 and 1957, Wally had an aggressive style of play and became famous for breaking up double plays with his hard slide into second base. Previously, no one in Japanese baseball would have thought to rush second base, but Wally introduced a whole new strategy for keeping an inning alive.
In 1957, Wally was voted MVP in the Central League after leading his team to the championship. He played for the Giants through 1961 when he was traded to the Chunichi Dragons and continued to play until 1962, compiling a .316 batting average, the highest career mark ever for a Giant.
After retiring from active play, Wally remained active in the sport. He served as manager of the Dragons and was the first foreign manager to win the Central League title, beating the once-invincible Giants in 1974. This was a highlight in his career.
Wally credits much of his success to his wife, Jane, who established her own remarkable record in Japan. Wally and Jane were married in Hawaii, where both were born and grew up, in 1952. Jane had never been to Japan before moving here that year, and it was not an easy time for the new bride. On her second day in the country, Wally shipped out on a 40-day road trip with the team.
On the day their first child was born, the team would not let Wally take Jane to the hospital. Instead, they told him to show up at the team bus-or be fired. Even later, for household chores, it was often Jane who had to do repair work because the team did not permit players to do potentially "dangerous" jobs such as hammering for fear of injury.
Ultimately after several years in Tokyo, Jane went into business on her own, and in 1964 opened the Wally Yonamine Pearl Shop in Roppongi. With her excellent business acumen, her shop soon became a success. Jane's pearls are famous the world over.
She has hosted many of the most famous names in corporate, sport, visiting royalty, diplomats and entertainment celebrities.
Also inside is a wealth of beautiful pearls from which to choose. The gracious demeanor of her shop appeals not only to the famous, but also everyone. Each customer receives special attention and counseling about pearls, regardless of their walk of life. It is probably not an exaggeration to say a large percentage of the American ex-patriate population returns to the U.S. with some pleasant mementos from Jane's shop.
The Yonamines have always been firm believers in contributing to the well being of the community in which they live. No better example of this exists than the steps they have taken to help others in recent years.
In 1990, the Yonamines established the Wally Yonamine Scholarship Foundation in Hawaii which awards $5,000 annually to a worthy senior graduating high school student who wishes to continue on to college. In 1992, they established a Leukemia Foundation at UCLA to help in the fight against this life-threatening disease. In 1993 year they started the Wally Yonamine Leukemia Research Foundation at Sloan-Kettering in New York.
Finally, and not least, they annually sponsor a team in The Japan Times Charity Relay Race designated to help refugees from around the world.
He was elected to the Japanese Professional Baseball Hall of Fame and was inducted on July 19, 1994.
In July 1998 he was honored by the Emperor of Japan, for the Order of the Sacred Treasure, Gold Rays with Rosette, being the first professional athlete to be honored.
Jane is president of Wally Yonamine Company and oversees the Roppongi shop and one in Los Angeles, run by her children, Amy, Wallis.