85-year-old Nisei bowler is in league of her own

If you’ve been searching for the secret to good looks and longevity, put away the oat bran and the Oil of Olay. There’s no need to look further than Lane No. 11 at the Ritz Classic bowling alley, where Grace Tasaka is going for three strikes in a row.

As she rolls out another of her wicked curve balls, Grace doesn’t look more than 50 years old, 55 tops. Ritz bowlers are shocked to learn that she’s been old enough to order from the senior citizens menu for 30 years. She’s 85 — about the same number as my bowling average, which shows that I could certainly learn a thing or two from a pro like Grace.Plenty of other people have, especially the 83 seniors who bowl in the all-Japanese Nisei League that Grace started 11 years ago at the Ritz. Nisei is Japanese for “second generation,” meaning that if you’re a third- or fourth-generation bowler, you’re out of luck.

Only those 55 and older with a Japanese heritage are allowed to bowl in the Nisei league. Although that put me out on both counts, Grace still wanted me to join her and her bowling team — the Mini Four — for a Free Lunch of burgers and fries at the Ritz on a recent Wednesday.

As pins clattered loudly around us, Grace explained how she came up with the idea for an all-Japanese bowling league.

“I was bowling with another couple and we were talking about how it would be fun to get some other Japanese seniors to join us,” she says. “A lot of second-generation Japanese were retiring, and I thought this might be a good way for them to stay active and get out of the house.”

“At first, I was a little worried about discrimination — I didn’t want people to feel excluded,” she admits. “But then we decided it would really be no different than an all-Shriners league, or an all-Catholics league. The main thing was getting some of the older Japanese people together once a week to share stories and bowl.”

Like many Nisei league bowlers, Grace has tales to tell of hard times and dashed hopes. She knows what it is like to lose everything. During World War II, when she and her family were living in Berkeley, Calif., the U.S. government ordered them and thousands of other coastal Japanese-Americans to report to internment camps.

Grace ended up at the Topaz camp in Utah’s west desert. So did another Nisei bowler, Ted Nagata, a retired graphics artist who designed the clever skyline-mountains logo for the Salt Lake City Olympic Bid Committee.

Watching them high-five their team members after each strike, it is unfathomable to think that their own government once thought of them as spies. “Yes, it was difficult,” says Grace, “but I have no bad feelings about it today. You have to move on.”

And so today you’ll find her every Wednesday at the Ritz, cheering the Mini Four to score strikes and pick up splits so they can contend for first place with the Miso Super and Four of a Kind. “If I’m still bowling when I’m Grace’s age, I’ll be happy,” says teammate Joe Sueoka, 68, a retired accountant. “She gives us all hope.”

Joe always cheers when the opposing team gets a strike, as do Grace and her other teammates, Mabel Okubo and Shig Nagata, both 75. “We all support each other, even when we’re losing,” says Grace, who hopes to bowl well into her 90s.

That shouldn’t be a problem, especially since Grace Tasaka isn’t even the oldest person in the league. That honor belongs to Nick Tasaka, 86, who is hoping to knock his wife’s team out of third place with two strikes in a row in Lane No. 5.

Have a story? Let’s do lunch. E-mail your name, phone number and what’s on your mind to freelunch@desnews.com or send a fax to 466-2851. You can also write me at the Deseret News, P.O. Box 1257, Salt Lake City, UT 84110.