By Jordan Ikeda
Rafu Sports Editor
It’s been four years since the Aki Komai Memorial Awards last made any presentations to those members of the Japanese American community who have helped shape, enhance and influence Nikkei sports and by extension the community as a whole.
Five men, Al Morita, Jesse James, Chester Tadakawa, Dave Yanai and Tetsu Tanimoto stood before family, friends, pupils, comrades and past recipients—the community they had a large hand in developing—and were honored for their hard work, perseverance and dedication to that development. Also honored were long-time sports officials Freeman Beale and Richard Banton.
Each received a sports jacket and an award, but most importantly, public recognition, something long past due in the eyes of many, if not all of the nearly 300 people who gathered at the Japanese American National Museum Sunday afternoon.
And while seeking recognition is somewhat of a taboo subject in the JA community, it is necessary for the community to not avoid giving it. Nowhere is this more evident than with Al Morita, who many have compared to Aki due to his ability to make a great many things happen behind the scenes but lacking any desire to be recognized for them.
For nearly 50 years, Morita has been finding fields and gyms and providing a place for the community to play. Also, along with his son, Morita is one of the main people responsible for the Las Vegas Hoops Invitational, a yearly basketball tournament that draws thousands of players from all over California and up the coast.
Fellow award recipient, Dave Yanai is a man who has made a living under the spotlights, yet still managed to avoid the proper recognition due a person of his accomplishments. Yanai, the first Japanese American coach at the collegiate level and the second winningest coach in California Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) history received the Aki Komai Award not for these accomplishments, but more for his vast influence on the development of JA basketball through his part in forming FOR (Friends of Richard) and the countless basketball camps and clinics he put on as the head coach of Cal State, Dominguez Hills and later Cal State, Los Angeles.
“Our sports leagues are the greatest example of thinking about someone other than yourself,” said Chris Komai, public relations officer at JANM, nephew to Aki and member of the Aki Komai Memorial Awards committee who also MC-ed the event. “The organizers give up their time, don’t get paid, and do so for the youth in our community.”
Among those organizers are James and Tadakawa.
James was honored for his influence in the Orange County Japanese American sports community and for helping to create and grow the Nikkei Games which this year drew thousands of participants and features sports from bowling to track and field to basketball.
“I represent a lot of people that are in this room today that came out, saw the vision, and decided to create what is now the Nikkei Games,” James said in his acceptance speech. “I have the best friends in the world because they make so many things happen for the community.”
Tadakawa is another man who has made and continues to make things happen as a player, a coach of Nisei Athletic Union (NAU), high school and AA and as an organizer of the Tigers Tournament which now features over 500 teams. He credits his receiving of the award to four men who helped guide and mold him throughout his life: George “Slim” Sugiyama, Dan Kawahara, Dave Komatsu and Hiro Taniyama, all past recipients of the Aki Komai Award.
Tets Tanimoto was the first awarded Sunday but his importance spans the rest of his fellow awardees. Along with Yanai, Tanimoto encouraged Rafu Shimpo Publisher Michael Komai and his cousin Chris Komai to create the Aki Komai Memorial Awards. A great athlete in his heyday, Tanimoto was honored with the first Memorial Founder’s Award.
“I can’t think of anyone who has done more for our community then Tetsu Tanimoto,” said Yanai to begin his speech. “His enduring support of and the things he’s done with the Japanese American National Museum is well documented along with many of his other important contributions to community groups. I think we owe Tetsu and the Tanimoto family a great deal of thanks for all they have done for us.”
Also honored were long time referees Freeman Beale and Richard Banton who refined their skills in the JA leagues and helped make them what they are today. Former award recipients were in attendance to support their peers and included: Yosh Hirai and Joe Yamagawa, whose involvement with Community Youth Council (CYC) have been vital; Amy Miyakawa, who help develop the girls’ leagues; Edward Takahashi and Ed Kamiyama who formed the K/T Basketball Officials Assignment Service and were instrumental in finding officials for NAU, Southern California Women’s Athletic Union (SCWAU) and many of the local tournaments; Danny Kawahara, a founding father of the Tigers Youth Club; and Duke Llewellyn, who provided gyms and officiating for Aki Komai right after WWII when no one else would.