Little Tokyo Hopes Gym Brings Rebound


When the city sought ideas for revitalizing Little Tokyo, a group of kids submitted their proposal on a sheet of notebook paper. It was a drawing of a gymnasium, with a handwritten caption: This is what we want.

Leaders at a national conference on the future of the Japanese American community in Los Angeles had the same idea.

Basketball has for generations been one of the most popular pastimes among Japanese Americans. And it may surprise some to hear that segregated Japanese basketball leagues, created in response to prejudice, are thriving these days by design.

Among Southern California’s 200,000-strong Japanese American society, many say the leagues provide the only sense of community for the five generations living here.


“It’s all I have to bring me to my culture,” said Ty Morita, 18, a yonsei, or fourth-generation Japanese American who has been playing in such leagues since he was 6. Morita, a Diamond Bar High School senior who favors rap and wears his tinted hair spiked on top, said the sport is his only connection with other Japanese Americans.

Because of such feelings, many agree that Little Tokyo needs a community gym if it is to remain the center of Southern California’s Japanese American community and maintain ties with the fourth- and fifth-generation youngsters who are scattered in distant suburbs.

Councilwoman Rita Walters, whose district includes Little Tokyo, one of the oldest Japanese American communities in the country, supports the idea. “I hear basketball is really big in the Japanese American community,” she said.

In fact, for kindergartners, grade schoolers, high schoolers and aging baby boomers, basketball is the rage. Devotees hail from Santa Monica and Monterey Park, Gardena and Orange, with families driving hundreds of miles to attend tournaments.

Over the Memorial Day weekend, 3,000 players and their families--from Sacramento to San Diego--are converging on two dozen Los Angeles area gyms to compete in the 24th annual basketball tournament sponsored by the Tigers, the region’s largest Japanese American league.

“In the old days the church was the unifying force in the Japanese American community, but these days it’s basketball,” said Kathy Kumagai, whose two children play in a league and whose husband, Wesley, is a volunteer coach.

UCLA political scientist Don T. Nakanishi, himself a devoted basketball dad, agreed. No institution holds quite the same appeal for third- and fourth-generation youths--and their parents, said Nakanishi, director of UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center.

“Yonsei kids and sansei (third-generation) parents--who would never go to the museum or to Nisei Week, never come to Little Tokyo to eat or to shop--every Sunday throughout the year they will go and participate with literally thousands of other sansei parents and yonsei kids in basketball,” he said.

For many, the basketball games are like homecoming, a chance to see old friends.

After games, families enjoy elaborate meals that can include sushi, salads, desserts, an assortment of beverages--even green tea for the grandparents.

“It’s a social event as much as an athletic event,” said Chris Komai, 47, who has played on Japanese American teams since he was 7. “Japanese Americans want their kids to have some kind of association with other Japanese American kids. This is the easiest way.”

Bill Watanabe, executive director of the Little Tokyo Service Center, is among those pursuing plans to build a first-class six-court gym in Little Tokyo. He expects the 40,000-square-foot facility to cost $10 million, mostly from money donated by members of the Japanese American community. As a community gym, it would be open to everyone.

A feasibility study estimates that more than 100,000 people would use the gym each year for basketball, volleyball and martial arts.

Thousands of spectators are expected, in addition to those enrolling in nutritional, health and social programs for seniors, and classes in dancing, cooking and flower arranging.

Negotiations are underway between the Little Tokyo Service Center Community Development Corp. and the owners of a parking lot at 2nd and San Pedro streets.

The gym is part of a proposed $55-million project that includes a 175-unit Sakura Village condominium complex, as well as three types of gardens--rock, bamboo and Japanese--and a reflecting pool.

The group is seeking public and private financing for the 148,000-square-foot project, which also would house a branch library.

“Even though we’ve had some impediments, our dream is very strong,” said David Nagano, a board member of the Little Tokyo Community Gym.

Proponents say the sports facility would revitalize Little Tokyo’s economy, which has seen a drop in tourism since the 1992 riots and the recession in Japan.

“We think this is going to be the critical piece for the future of Little Tokyo,” Watanabe said. “And Little Tokyo is a very important piece of downtown.”

A major tournament could easily draw 1,000 out-of-town families, supporters say, each spending an average of $1,000 over a weekend. “You can just imagine what that will do for restaurants, hotels, not only in Little Tokyo but all around,” said Watanabe. “That’s $1 million in one weekend.”

Supporters say a gym would give Japanese Americans otherwise removed from their heritage a reason to visit Little Tokyo.

“It could be a happening place where young people want to come and hang out,” said Scott Ito, who is organizing a $10-million fund-raising campaign for the gym.

Ito, 32, who played in Japanese American leagues in school, said many former teammates remain good friends.

Japanese Americans formed their own sports leagues beginning in the 1920s because of discrimination. The tradition continues, despite the removal of social barriers, largely because players want to compete against others similar in size.

Today, an overwhelming majority of Southern California’s estimated 13,000 Japanese Americans involved in organized amateur sports play basketball--although volleyball, judo, karate, kendo and other martial arts are popular too.

Wesley Kumagai, a lawyer who has been coaching for 20 years, says the speed of the game draws Japanese Americans.

“Our kids are active and it’s very attractive temperamentally for us,” said Kumagai, who is in charge of all the boys’ teams for the Tigers organization.

Misako Mori, a sophomore at the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, said the league allows kids to “meet other people who are like you” and “you play with people who are the same height as you, rather than playing with people who are twice as big as you.”

Some also believe that basketball promotes values that Japanese Americans cherish, such as team spirit and working hard.

Komai said legendary coach John Wooden influenced many parents who attended UCLA during the 1960s and 1970s, when the Bruins dominated college basketball: “He was very much into unselfish play, hard work and discipline.”

On a recent Friday evening, members of Tigers ‘N Motion, a first-grade girls’ team, practiced in the East Los Angeles College gym.

Their ponytails swinging and faces glistening with perspiration, the players side-shuffle and backpedal, sprint down the court and jump into the air.

“We try to give them a good foundation so that when they go out to compete in the real world, they’ll be able to keep up, even though they are not as big,” said Blake Lee, the team’s coach.

The children practice under the watch of mothers and fathers--and some grandparents.

The teams accept anyone with Japanese ancestry--both parents, one parent or a grandparent. Most leagues allow a couple of slots on each team to be filled with non-Japanese players.

Finding a gym is tough, especially in the winter, when schools have their own teams playing.

At the East Los Angeles College gym, nine teams practice from 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. on Fridays, with three teams sharing a court at once.

Steve Yano, whose two daughters play with the Tigers, said a single large gym in Little Tokyo would be more convenient.

“A lot of times we’re at Roosevelt, Garfield and Hollenbeck,” said Yano, who coaches and plays in the Tigers’ over-40 age group.

For decades, Japanese Americans talked about building a central recreation facility in Little Tokyo. Yet, despite grass-roots support, the proposal has had several setbacks.

One gym had been planned for the $14-million Japanese American Cultural and Community Center complex, which was completed in 1983. But it was scratched when world-renowned sculptor Isamu Noguchi insisted on using the entire one-acre site as an open space plaza for his monumental work, which featured a sculpture dedicated to the first generation of Japanese immigrants.

Supporters then proposed building the gym on city-owned property behind the Japanese American National Museum. But the Museum of Contemporary Art next door is pushing for a Central Avenue Arts Park.

Gym supporters tried to purchase a lot at 2nd Street and Central Avenue, across the street from Honda Plaza. While they were lining up $3 million in federal housing funds last year, the owners sold the lot and the new owner doubled the price.

But like scrappy players trying for a rebound, gym supporters say too much is at stake to give up.

“We are losing all our culture as time goes on,” said Nagano. “The gym is going to create a center that will coalesce the community and the culture.”

The Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency has committed $500,000 toward the gym and Sakura Village, said Don Spivack, CRA deputy administrator.

The group’s initial offer to buy the parking lot at 2nd and San Pedro streets was rejected by the property’s owners, but negotiations are continuing.

Watanabe is among the hopeful. He can practically hear the squeak of sneakers on hardwood.

“I have no doubt it will be used 16 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said.

“Every month, thousands who now scramble for places to practice and play will come.”