The Courts of Ethnic Identity


No one cared that 13-year-old Adam Orozco couldn’t dribble or shoot. Weighing 200 pounds and standing 6 feet tall, this kid had Shaq potential.

So for the next six Saturdays, Adam eagerly practiced with the Montebello Jets Corsairs youth team, making fast friends with his diminutive teammates and learning some much-needed basketball fundamentals along the way.

Then he was kicked off the team by the Community Youth Council, the 55-year-old group that runs the league. The reason? Adam is not of Japanese heritage.

The Community Youth Council is one of a dozen Japanese American basketball associations, with a total of more than 10,000 players, in Los Angeles and Orange counties. In an effort to preserve Japanese American culture, the leagues employ a variety of race-based rules that limit each team’s number of non-Japanese American players.


Southern California’s Japanese American communities have been quietly debating the wisdom of those rules for years. That debate reflects a wider ambivalence about how Japanese Americans, Los Angeles’ most assimilated minority group, should sustain their cultural identity.

Behind the question of quotas and hoops are deeper concerns: Should Japanese Americans emulate the self-sufficiency and cohesiveness of past Japanese American communities? Should they shed their ethnic identity for a broader, “Asian American” identity? Or should they--could they--simply emphasize the latter half of their Japanese American identity?

These are the kinds of questions all American immigrant groups have faced at one time or another. Earlier this century, Jews were the most rapidly assimilating population and Jewish women were the most likely to marry outside of their ethnic group. Jewish Community Centers, which sponsor sports and cultural activities, were established in response, and still thrive in cities around the nation.

Like many Jews who participate in Jewish Community Center sports programs, some Japanese Americans view the leagues as athletic organizations and nothing more. Others say Japanese American basketball is a reservoir of culture and should be protected--a stance that has allowed suburban Japanese American children to meet each other and grow in self esteem, but also caused some hard feelings both inside and outside the leagues.


Decades ago, when Japanese Americans were hemmed in by housing covenants and language barriers, it was easier to know who was what. But today, the typical Japanese American woman doesn’t know much Japanese, and neither does her mother or father. Her husband may be white and her family album challenges old Japanese notions of ethnic purity and American assumptions about racial identity.

But the willingness of many Japanese Americans to reach out to other ethnic groups in marriage, work and community is tempered by worries about the future. A few Japanese Americans complain that their traditional cultural institutions, such as Little Tokyo’s annual Nisei Week beauty pageant, are being diluted by “hapas,” or mixed-race Japanese. Others worry that Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Filipino immigrants are transforming Los Angeles’ oldest Japanese American churches, sororities and other cultural associations into “pan-Asian” organizations.

“When I was a kid we had our own businesses, our churches, our own Boy Scout Troops,” said Nick Nagatani, a co-founder of the Yellow Brotherhood basketball club. “We could do everything within the community. Now the reality is: There is no Japanese American community.”

Ethnic Mixing Comes to Families and Leagues

Others, like Renee Tajima-Pena, a Japanese American filmmaker, believe the community is just “outgrowing the old paradigm of race and ethnicity.”

Tajima-Pena used her own life as an example. She and her Mexican American husband moved to Mt. Washington because the racially mixed neighborhoods there “look like an Earth Wind & Fire concert.”

“A lot of us grew up with that [mix], and liked it,” she said.

Even basketball organizations created exclusively for Japanese American children when racial segregation boxed them out of city leagues have begun to allow a limited number of players from other Asian ethnicities, and even some blacks, whites and Latinos.


The Japanese American leagues are not the only ethnically homogeneous sports associations. There are tennis clubs that are mostly white. There are Persian and Mexican soccer clubs, and there are other basketball leagues dominated by Armenian, Chinese, Korean and Filipino Americans. But Japanese American basketball is unusual in the way it links a rapidly dispersing immigrant community.

“Our neighborhoods are smaller, Japanese American church attendance is down, but this one thing has endured,” said San Francisco sociologist Rebecca Chiyoko King. “For some Japanese Americans, this is the only time they get to hang out with other JAs.”

The leagues began in Little Tokyo before World War II, during an era when national pastimes, such as baseball and basketball, were American touchstones for new immigrants and powerful expressions of ethnic unity and pride.

Segregation kept the races separate in work, education and sport, and Japanese Americans were far more homogeneous than they are today.

“Race and culture were totally entwined,” said Chris Komai, a board member of the oldest Japanese American league, the National Athletic Union.

Then the federal government forced 120,000 Japanese Americans, most of them from Southern California, into internment camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

During the internment, many of the houses Japanese Americans had owned or rented in Little Tokyo were torn down to make room for warehouses and other commercial buildings.

When they were released, Japanese Americans moved to suburbs in the South Bay, Orange County and the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys. After a brief surge, the flow of Japanese American immigrants slowed, quickening the pace of assimilation. When miscegenation laws were repealed, interracial marriages increased.


As the community integrated, many of the basketball leagues reacted by restricting league membership to “full-blooded” Japanese Americans. Some leagues resorted to ethnic gerrymandering, patching together Japanese American teams from scattered locales. As a last resort, they changed the blood quantum--on most teams, having a Japanese grandparent became enough to be considered Japanese American.

The leagues also reserved two or three slots per team for “non-Japanese American Asians,” a term in some dispute. Chinese and Korean American players qualify as Asian. Thais, Vietnamese and Filipinos sometimes do not.

“There are so many different rules out there, it’s hard to keep them straight,” said John Saito, a sportswriter for the Japanese American newspaper Rafu Shimpo. “And what do you do if the church that sponsors a team is Japanese American and then changes?”

That’s what happened to South El Monte’s 75-year-old Evergreen Baptist Church, one of Los Angeles’ first Japanese American congregations. After its old Asian neighborhood in Boyle Heights turned Latino, Evergreen moved to minister to Japanese Americans who had relocated to the San Gabriel Valley. Then, as different races and ethnicities sought out the church, Evergreen spun off a multiracial congregation.

Despite those efforts, Evergreen is no longer strictly Japanese American; it is pan-Asian and mostly Chinese. When the church-sponsored basketball team struggled to meet the eligibility requirements (no more than three non-Japanese Americans per team), the Community Youth Council granted its first exemption to the race rules.

‘We Teach These Kids a Kind of Discipline’

“Clearly, new ways of looking at Japanese American identity and culture are ensuring the survival of the community,” said Don T. Nakanishi, director of UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center.

On most Friday nights, 47-year-old Steve Yano can be found in the East Los Angeles College gymnasium. Like a circus ringleader, he orchestrates nine Tiger basketball club teams through practice on three courts.

Striding up the floor, Yano commands his team of ponytailed girls over the squeak and squeal of high-tops.

“Come on, pass the ball!” he barks. “OK, now drive to the basket! Drive! Drive!”

Yano spends almost all his time coaching, shuttling kids to games, leading ball-handling workshops, planning tournaments or scouting for players.

“This is a very culturally rooted, very organized league,” he said of the Community Youth Council league, Los Angeles’ largest, with more than 300 children’s teams. “We do fund-raisers at the Cherry Blossom festival, we do Japanese American golf tournaments, we go on trips, we sell rice cakes, we do sleepovers and all the kids participate. We teach these kids a kind of discipline that carries over into their studies and into their lives from an early age.”

Bobby Umemoto, whose father co-founded the National Athletic Union, calls the Japanese American leagues “a necessity within the community.”

“Hardly anyone goes through Japantown anymore. Among Asian Americans, Japanese Americans are the most ethnically mixed. All this has taken away from the community,” Umemoto said. “I want a place for my sons.”

Yoshi Harai, one of the longest-serving Community Youth Council board members, said the leagues have changed. Children of other races are now allowed to play--one per team--as long as they start before the age of 10. But Harai conceded that Asians can start any time and says Japanese American players will continue to be the priority.

“We say to the teams: Keep it Japanese American,” Harai said, “keep it Asian.”

Many Japanese Americans cite another reason for the race rules: Japanese Americans can’t jump.

“Asian kids are small and are always going to be,” said Melvin Iizuka, an official with the South Bay Friends of Richard basketball club. “If they play in open leagues, they’re going to be on the bench.”

Community Youth Council coach Barry Moon said size has become a euphemism for race in Japanese American basketball. Moon, a half-Japanese and half-Korean former college player, believes Asian kids can play at any level if they put their minds to it.

“My kids played in the JA leagues, but they played in outside leagues too,” he said.

Japanese American leagues are well known among high school and college coaches for producing solid players, such as Kate Beckler, a half-white, half-Japanese player who started playing in the leagues at age 6 and was recently named San Fernando Valley high school player of the year. Beckler will attend Rice University on a basketball scholarship this fall. Rex Walters, an NBA guard who once scored 27 points in a game against the Celtics, is another standout.

Over the years, irate parents have threatened to file racial discrimination lawsuits against the leagues. Officials have often avoided legal threats by granting exemptions--or issuing a counter-threat.

“If we were sued [successfully],” said Community Youth Council board member Harai, “we would most likely fold” the organization because it would be no different from any other open league.

“No one wants to be the heavy,” said one coach. “Who wants to deprive all these kids of their opportunity to play ball?”

Adam Orozco’s parents felt the same way. Even after their towering son was kicked off the Jets Corsairs team, they were more hurt than angry. The family moved to Alhambra from El Sereno just last year. Their newly purchased house sits among Chinese, Taiwanese and Vietnamese American homes. Altogether, the Orozcos were comfortable here in the belly of the Asian Pacific diaspora.

Then Richard Shintani, a volunteer with the Jets, called to tell them Adam could not play.

The CYC had reviewed the Jets roster, and told Shintani that he had one too many non Asians, namely Orozco.

Bumping Orozco “was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” Shintani said later. “It made me sick.”

The experience made Adam’s father wary. “We’re not prejudiced,” said Nacho, a somber man, “but this gave me more of a preference to be around Mexicans.”

Nacho’s wife, Virginia, believes Shintani is sincere, but she wondered: “If he thinks the rules are racist, why is he still with the league?”

Bobby Uchiomo, a former league coach, said many Japanese Americans are reluctant to speak out against the codes for fear of being branded as a race traitor.

“I’d hate to have this stuff go in the newspaper,” he said, “but, it’s almost like you’re turning against your own community by disagreeing.”

Last year, Uchiomo pulled his son out of the league.

“We live way out in Santa Clarita, we tell him to watch out for skinheads and stuff,” he said. “But really, he learned about racial prejudice from the CYC.”