Relatively few Japanese Americans live in Little Tokyo in downtown Los Angeles these days. Over the years, younger generations have moved out and gentrification has moved in.
But there’s an effort underway to attract back Japanese Americans and rebuild a community that has watched the demise of other ethnic enclaves in Los Angeles.
The effort centers on the building of a recreational center called the Budokan of Los Angeles that draws on the community's long-standing sports leagues. Spawned during the World War II internment of about 115,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans, these leagues helped ease the difficult lives of the internees.
Of all the sports, basketball stuck. If you grew up Japanese American in Southern California, there's a good chance you played in a league, or know someone who did.
One important gift that has spurred the community's decades-long fundraising effort came from the Los Angeles Lakers. Packed away in a Torrance warehouse is old basketball court flooring for the planned gym, donated in 2014 from the Staples Center, where champions like Kobe Bryant once played.
The vision, the mission
Bill Watanabe is standing in a downtown parking lot on South Los Angeles Street. It’s dusty and noisy. There’s construction on one side and an old abandoned building on the other. But Watanabe sees something else.
“We would essentially be standing in the center of two courts, one on each side of us.…,” he said. This is where the sports center will stand — and where Watanabe hopes a community revival will take root.
While basketball on two courts will be the main draw, plans for the center include space for martial arts tournaments, a commercial kitchen, meeting space, and rooftop garden.
Watanabe founded the Little Tokyo Service Center, a social service nonprofit, in the late 1970s. He’s watched the neighborhood change since then. Some seniors have stayed, but younger Japanese Americans haven't. They've built their lives elsewhere - the South Bay, the Westside, the Valleys.
These days, as Little Tokyo's population changes and the neighborhood gentrifies, Watanabe worries about the future.
“I think about Little Italy here in Los Angeles. It has pretty much totally disappeared. We don’t want that to happen to Little Tokyo,” he said.
About 20 years ago, the Little Tokyo Service Center asked younger Japanese Americans what they’d like to see in the neighborhood.
“They said if there was a gym in Little Tokyo, they would come in every week, because they were really into basketball,” Watanabe said.
On any given weekend, hundreds of teams and nearly 10,000 players of all ages are competing at Japanese American league basketball games across Southern California.
“I played as a kid. I grew up in the San Fernando Valley and I played for San Fernando,” said Robert Watanabe, no relation to Bill Watanabe.
Robert Watanabe spent one recent Saturday morning coaching a 5th-grade girls’ team in Long Beach. His kids play, too.
“What you see now is a lot of folks my age, parents bringing their sons or daughters into the league,” he said.
These days, most of the kids playing are yonsei, fourth-generation Japanese American or gosei, fifth generation.
A majority of the players on a team must be of Japanese descent. But many of them are mixed-race, like 11-year-old Kenna McConnachie, who is half Japanese, half Scottish-Irish-Armenian.
She’s been with her team, the Venice Sparks, since the first grade.
“I think it's cool that you’re with the same team for a long time. In other ones, it's always changing, you don’t stay with them that long,” Kenna said.
Because teams stay together year after year, families form strong connections to one another. After the games, the teams go out to eat, or they picnic together. Some bring Japanese comfort food, like rice balls or noodles.
“It’s my way of making her familiar with her Japanese heritage, her Japanese culture," said Kenna's mother, Judy Nishimoto.
There's something else that's appealing about basketball for Japanese Americans, said Chris Komai, a veteran league player and board chair of the Little Tokyo Community Council.
"Believe it or not basketball lends itself to what I consider Japanese cultural values," said Komai, whose family owns The Rafu Shimpo newspaper. "Japanese cultural values are really to me about how the group is more important the individual. And what is basketball? You are on a team, you are not the most import thing. You are part of a team, and you have a responsibility to that team."
A good player has qualities like gaman, a term that refers to inner strength and the ability to endure, Komai said. He thinks this is one reason why the popularity of Japanese American basketball has lasted, even though the families have spread out.
"Our community has been geographically split," Komai said. "We have all sort of moved away from each other. But there is this one activity that has maintained itself through the postwar years, and it's these basketball leagues."
The Lakers' gift
Little by little, the recreational center is inching closer to reality. Seven years ago, the city essentially donated land for the project with a long-term lease of $1 a year. More recently, the Little Tokyo Service Center got the coveted Lakers' basketball floor, donated after it was replaced with a new one.
Alan Kosaka, who is in charge of fundraising for the center, is storing the old Lakers floor in his Torrance warehouse, awaiting its installation once the basketball courts are ready.
"This is basically the floor that Kobe and Shaq and Gasol got to play on during their championship years,” said Kosaka, who plays in an adult league team.
Kosaka said organizers have about 80 percent of the $23 million they'll need to start building the center next year. But once they build it, will people come?
Judy Nishimoto said she'd love to bring her daughter to play in Little Tokyo, although she hesitates.
"I don't know how frequently we would, because of traffic, because of parking. Coming from the Westside could be a challenge sometimes...that would have to be factored in," she said.
The plans do include an underground parking lot. As for traffic, that's not as easily solved.
Bill Watanabe hopes that won't keep families away.
“We need to have a future where young people feel like this is their community as well. And if they never come here, there is no connection," he said. "But if they come here because of sports – and maybe the restaurants and those things...we think there will be a future."
Did you play or are you playing in the Japanese American basketball leagues? Tell us your experiences and memories in the comments below.