A Love Story Amid Social Changes

Jane and Wally Yonamine (center) with children, grandchildren and great-grands | Photo from Jane Yonamine

Jane and Wally Yonamine (center) with children, grandchildren and great-grands | Photo from Jane Yonamine

The story of Wally Yonamine – one of seven local players being honored at the Pro Bowl Sunday (see Page 20 or click here) – cannot be told without including his wife Jane. Yes, Wally had already spent a year playing for the San Francisco 49ers when he met her. But as talented and driven as he was, it’s a good bet he might never have achieved all he did without Jane in his life.

Their love story also is a story of how much things have changed socially in Hawaii, for the better.

It was late October 1949 when they met at a party in Haleiwa, where Wally and other members of the Hawaiian Warriors semi-pro football team gathered for a season-ending party following their East Coast tour. The host invited several young women from Hawaii Business College to attend, including an attractive 20-year-old named Jane Iwashita, a ’48 Roosevelt grad. Wally arrived late, Jane immediately caught his eye, and he asked her for a dance.

But as Jane says in the 2008 book Wally Yonamine: The Man Who Changed Japanese Baseball by Robert K. Fitts:

“I rarely saw a football game, but the name Wally Yonamine was famous. I didn’t imagine that a famous football player would pay attention to a little girl like me. He asked for a dance, but I had to refuse because all 15 dances on my card were filled.” (Young readers can Google “dance cards.”)

They stayed in touch in the following weeks, Wally driving Jane and her friends to various other parties, and by December they were dating.

And that’s when the trouble began – for both of them.

Jane’s father Migaku had immigrated at 16 from Kumamoto, Japan. After working as a carpenter at Parker Ranch on the Big Island, he moved to Honolulu and began a successful contracting business. He also was involved in teaching martial arts, and was quite prominent in the Japanese community.

And many Japanese noted (with upturned noses) that his daughter was dating an Okinawan. Although Wally’s mother was Japanese and he considered himself Japanese-American, as Jane’s mother said: “But his name is Okinawan!”

Soon Jane’s parents were getting calls from people in both Japanese and Okinawan communities, telling them their daughter should “leave that Okinawan boy alone!”

“My mother didn’t talk to him for two years,” Jane told me. “He had to wait in the yard when he came to pick me up, so I was always ready on time.”

The romance continued when Wally went off to play professional baseball on the Mainland in the spring of 1950. And he wrote and mailed her letters every day, the snail mail way.

That summer, Jane was chosen to represent Hawaii Business College at the International Business Women’s Conference in San Francisco, where she was chosen “queen” by the 500 delegates.

Afterward, she flew to Salt Lake City to see Wally – without telling her parents.

“He was very prim and proper,” Jane recalls. “He’d walk me to my hotel and say good-night and that was it.”

Wally had been in his first slump of the season when Jane arrived. But with her cheering from the stands, Wally promptly went on a hitting streak. And the Pacific Citizen, a national English-language newspaper for the Japanese-American community based in Salt Lake City, took note.

“Incidentally, that pretty nisei girl who occupied a third-base boxseat during the Billings series at Derks Field was Jane Iwashita of Honolulu, who flew from San Francisco to watch Wally Yonamine play … On her first night at the park, Wally got three for five, including a rousing triple.”

Unknown to Jane, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin picked up the story.

“And my mother read it!” Jane says, as did all her mother’s friends. “She was embarrassed to heck.”

Returning to Honolulu, she was pleased to see many of her classmates at the airport to greet the conference queen – and shocked to see her mother waiting with crossed arms and a scowl on her face.

“Oh, I got it all the way home in the car,” Jane says. “Japanese girls are not supposed to visit a boy’s house. The boy can come visit you, but you never go to the boy’s house.”

But later that summer, she overheard her mother and aunt outside hanging laundry on the line.

“This guy can’t be that bad because he writes to her every day,” her mother said.

“I don’t know what he’s writing about, maybe cockroaches crossing the street and getting run over,” responded the aunt. “How could anybody write a letter every day?”

“Anyway,” her mother said, “she’s 21, so there’s nothing we can do.”

“And that,” Jane remembers, “is when I knew we were alright.”

The romance continued when Wally’s season in Salt Lake was over, but then the next year he went off to Japan to play. They continued writing and occasionally talked on the phone when they could make a reservation for an international line. He returned after leading the Giants to the Japan title, and they were married Feb. 2, 1952, at Harris Memorial Methodist Church, both elegant in white. More than 1,200 people were invited to the reception, which was crashed by hundreds more. His Okinawan friends contributed a 400-pound roast pig.

When Wally returned to Japan for the ’52 season, his new bride accompanied him. Not knowing the language or anyone but Wally, it was tough on Jane, especially when the Giants were on the road – wives not allowed. But she ventured out in taxis and gradually began to blend in. Together they would have three children, daughters Amy and Wallis and son Paul. Today she has nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

In the early 1960s, Honolulu financier Hung Wo Ching was visiting Tokyo, and told Jane she needed to be more than a housewife, and gave her $50,000 to start some kind of business.

“I was the 19th person he did that for,” Jane says.

The result is the Wally Yonamine Pearl Co., aka Jane’s Pearls, in the Roppongi district of Tokyo. The business was immediately successful, attracting celebrities, diplomats and royalty. It wasn’t long before she was able to repay Ching. She still works at the Roppongi shop when she’s in Tokyo, and her daughters run Wally Yonamine Pearl Co. in Redondo Beach.

I recently met Jane for lunch at Kahala Nui, where she and Wally bought a place, and she wore the most stunning pearl earrings you’ve ever seen. She remains an energetic, gracious and witty woman, a cancer survivor, and an all-star in her own right. She’s due in Los Angeles next week for the birth of another great-grandchild, and plans to attend her 65th Roosevelt reunion next month.