More than a competition: The story behind Japanese American basketball in Little Tokyo

In the 1970s, a group of teenagers presented a napkin drawing of a basketball court during a Little Tokyo community meeting, where community leaders, business owners and residents were trying to brainstorm how to revive Little Tokyo. The neighborhood had a difficult time recovering from the aftermath of World War II, when Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps.

But that basketball court has never been built, until now. Relatively few Japanese Americans still live in Little Tokyo because over the years, younger generations have been pushed out by gentrification.

And yet there is an effort underway to attract Japanese Americans back to rebuild the community today.

“The group of youth told the community council that if there was a basketball court in Little Tokyo, it would bring the younger generations back,” said Adina Mori-Holt, Terasaki Budokan Development Assistant. She is referring to the teenagers that proposed the blueprint of a basketball court back in the ‘70s.

Terasaki Budokan, currently under construction, is going to be a multipurpose sports and recreational facility in Little Tokyo, replete with two indoor basketball courts.

Despite the fact many families have relocated farther away from Little Tokyo due to tides of gentrification, sports keeps these Japanese Americans closer throughout Los Angeles.

“If you are a Japanese American and grew up in LA, usually the grandparents would have the local newspaper there, but our generation would just read the sports section,” Mori-Holt said.

Japanese Americans gravitate toward baseball, martial arts and volleyball, but the popularity of basketball is incomparable. In Gardena, which had the highest percentage of Japanese Americans in California in 2010, many are excited about the ongoing Budokan project in Little Tokyo.

Yuko Yamauchi, the executive director of the Okinawa Association of America in Gardena, said that people in her neighborhood are crazy about the high school basketball rivalry. “In the basketball season, you will hear our community discussing the scores all the time,” Yamauchi said. Pulling out the Rafu Shimpo, a Japanese-American language newspaper based in Little Tokyo since 1903, she said the newspaper covers basketball on its front page and leaves little space for hard news.

“Most of my childhood was surrounded by basketball, and it was literally basketball every single weekend,” said Manami Hayashi, a junior at Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy who started playing basketball since she was 5 years old. “Basketball never stops.”

Kim Kawasaki, the Terasaki Budokan Community Gifts Manager, has also been playing basketball in the Japanese American leagues since she was 5 years old. “If you find any Japanese Americans today, either they play basketball, or their parents play basketball, or they know somebody who plays basketball, or they are scorekeepers,” she said.


Culross is showing a piece of the Rafu Shimpo newspaper that one Japanese American basketball player’s grandfather sent him. He said he used to feature the player, and the player’s grandfather wanted to tell him how well the player is doing lately.[/ezcol_1half]


Mikey Culross is a sports reporter and editor for Rafu Shimpo. For nearly two decades, he has been covering countless basketball games and featuring many young and successful Japanese American basketball players. He claims he knows almost every single Japanese American basketball player in LA.

“The history of the JA [Japanese American] leagues goes back to the 1920s, when most high schools wouldn’t allow Asians on their teams,” Culross said. “Before World War II, young Japanese people were either not allowed or not tall enough to play in certain organizations.” 

But despite facing discrimination and physical limitations, parents and coaches in the community founded Japanese American basketball leagues for their young players.

During World War II, sports was an essential activity to keep up morale and help people socialize, according to Culross. “After the war, these leagues began to branch out,” he said. “By the late ‘60s and ‘70s, thousands of young kids play basketball on the weekends.”



But in Japan, baseball or soccer holds more weight than basketball. “[Basketball] is really a Japanese American thing. It really has something to do with the immigrants,” Culross explained.

Because of the way Japanese American basketball developed, it is different from the native American one. “Our kids are learning the very fundamental of the basketball: not stressing height, power or speed. Instead, [they’re] stressing ball-handling, shooting, passing and structures of offense,” Culross said. He called these the “trademarks” of Japanese American basketball leagues.

And this kind of “fundamentally sound” basketball continues to guide the fourth, fifth and even sixth generation of Japanese American kids, Culross said. “This technique enables kids to successfully play basketball in high schools, especially for the girls who are not always tall,” he suggested. “The men’s game is still based a lot on height.”

In his office, he has a collection board of nearly every Japanese American kid who currently plays basketball locally. He said more than half of the players on the board are female.



Culross is showing his collection of players, where he wrote down all of the local Japanese American basketball players he knows. He said sometimes it’s hard to just look at the rosters because some players are also half-Japanese.





“I think if I was taller, I could go different positions,” said Bailey Kurahashi, a 5-foot-2 player at the University of La Verne. “They have moved me from guard to shooter, which is nice because I’m just smart at shooting.”



For some Japanese American players who are on the shorter side, agility becomes their advantage. “Since we are kind of smaller compared to others, we really focused more on agility instead of something as if we were a bigger player,” Hayashi said.

But basketball means more than just being skilled or competitive for Japanese Americans. Basketball creates a way for generations of Japanese Americans to stay connected to the community, make lifelong friends and inherit cultural values like sportsmanship and teamwork.

“In Japanese American basketball, every time a team had a game on Sunday, there is a tradition to go eat lunch with your team,” Hayashi said. “And we have Christmas parties, attend each other’s birthday parties and everything.”

And those parties become an integral part of team sportsmanship. “I think the team mentality has become ambient to shape the Japanese Americans in basketball,” Hayashi said. “Especially [since] most everyone knows each other from playing basketball since we were little, the team is bound to succeed and do very well together.”

For Kurahashi, no other game could bring such a sense of family better than Japanese American basketball. “Homey” is the word she used to describe JA basketball. “For high school [basketball teams], you play for four years, and you don’t really keep in touch after that,” she said. “But for the Japanese American basketball league, it’s more like a family. When we were little, you get snack bags and bento after each game.”




After playing in Japanese American basketball leagues for more than 30 years, Kawasaki said her old basketball team became her core group of friends that she still sees today. “I have friends all over Southern California, and basketball is the reason why, because I probably grew up playing against or with them,” she said.

Her stories of basketball led to her seven-year commitment to the Budokan project. “It started off as a concept when the teenagers pulled out a napkin, drew a gym and said, ‘You build this, people will come,’” she said.

Kawasaki said the project was suspended in the ‘70s because people could not find a site for the gym. The Budokan project broke ground in 2018 and is expected to open in early 2020. “This project for me personally struck a chord. I grew up in sports, I know the opportunities it provided for me. I want to carry that through for the future generations,” she said. “We really want to bring younger generations back into Little Tokyo. With all the gentrification that is going on in the area, we want to make sure that there’s something here that’s permanent for the next fifty years.”

The project also represents the determination of the Japanese American community, which has watched the demise of other ethnic enclaves in Los Angeles, and its continued survival. “In today’s political climate, we want the Budokan to be a welcoming place for all people visiting Little Tokyo, to share our JA roots in sports and to encourage visitors to learn about the JA experience during World War II so that horrible trauma never happens again,” Mori-Holt said.


Pictured: Kim Kawasaki at the Budokan construction site in Little Tokyo