Backers hope gym will bring new energy to Little Tokyo


Backers of a Little Tokyo gymnasium Saturday showcased their long-awaited site for an array of basketball, martial arts and art activities that they hope will revitalize the historic heart of Southern California’s Japanese American community.

Community volunteers laid out a full-sized high school basketball court over the site, a city-owned parking lot on Los Angeles Street near 2nd Street. Then they led youth athletes, first- to ninth-graders, in a basketball clinic, followed by an Okinawan karate demonstration. Others, faces painted, made balloon hats and enjoyed tri-tip, shaved ice and cotton candy.

The event was aimed at demonstrating the kind of community activities the gym will feature as backers seek to lure the scattered Japanese American community back to Little Tokyo and stir new interest among others.

It seemed to hit the mark — at least among the Mustangs Jaguars, a first-grade boys basketball team that turned out to participate in the basketball clinic and eat shaved ice.

“A gym would give us reason to bring our kids to Little Tokyo and make it more family-friendly,” said Eileen Juarez, a Montebello resident who said she now brings her two sons, Mateo and Christian, to Little Tokyo just three or four times a year.

The 38,000-square-foot center, called Budokan of Los Angeles, will feature four courts and a recreational space for basketball, martial arts and volleyball. A rooftop park will include a Japanese garden, jogging and walking track, playground, reading grove and performing arts space.

The rooftop park helped the project qualify for a $5-million state grant this year, a major boost to the project’s $20-million fundraising goal, according to Scott Ito of the Little Tokyo Service Center, which spearheaded the grant application with Councilwoman Jan Perry and others. The gym project was one of 63 winners among more than 400 applicants statewide for $184 million in grants from Proposition 84, the 2006 bond measure that funds parks and recreational projects.

The project has raised $7 million so far, including the state grant and $1 million from the Aratani Foundation, but raising the rest in the current economy won’t necessarily be easy, said Bill Watanabe, the Little Tokyo Service Center’s executive director who has pushed the project for two decades.

“I’m excited, but it’s too soon to celebrate,” he said.

Little Tokyo activists have dreamed of a community gym for 40 years — it was included in the initial blueprint for the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center on San Pedro Street in the 1970s until sculptor Isamu Noguchi eliminated it in favor of more space for his plaza sculpture, Watanabe said. But the City Council gave the project a major boost last year by approving a 50-year ground lease for the gym and a 150-car parking garage.

Basketball will be one of the gym’s biggest uses. An estimated 10,000 youth and adults play in year-round Japanese American basketball leagues; the Los Angeles Police Department and skid row teams have also expressed interest in the facility. Martial arts is seen as another key anchor.

Art Ishii, who teaches Okinawan karate with the Matsubayashi Shorin-Ryu school, said the gym will host clinics, seminars and tournaments featuring kendo, judo, karate, even sumo. He hopes the activities will spark broad interest in the martial arts and in Japanese bushido, the samurai code of ethics.

“We’re hoping the gym will be the best of both worlds: bring non-Japanese to Little Tokyo as well as stir interest among Japanese Americans,” he said.