On a muggy Thursday morning of August 3rd, Little Tokyo Service Center broke ground for Budokan, its project to provide a recreational, cultural and community center for residents of Little Tokyo and Japanese Americans throughout southern California.
MORE THAN JUST A BASKETBALL COURT
Not only was the air heavy with humidity, but also with the anticipation of a dream of a community. Clad in their respective teams’ basketball uniforms, the young athletes stood in front of a banner of colorful handprints, signed two decades ago in support of a community gym in Little Tokyo by elementary school- to high school- aged Japanese American youth not unlike themselves.
In the early 2000s, a rally of 500 people marched on First street, and in a separate occasion, another 300 people stood outside of city hall, many children in their basketball uniforms, to raise awareness of the need of a home court in Little Tokyo, which has remained the historic center of the Japanese American community in southern California.
The first Japanese American youth basketball leagues were established by Akira Komai, who also reestablished daily Japanese paper Rafu Shimpo, both during a time in which anti-Japanese sentiment after WWII excluded Japanese American youth from traditional basketball leagues.
Today in Southern California, there are hundreds of teams and over 10,000 young athletes who find community playing in Japanese American basketball leagues, from which the likes of Jamie Hagiya, USC’s starting point guard and pro athlete in Greece and Spain, and Natalie Nakase, a walk-on guard and eventual three-time captain at UCLA and first assistant coach in the NBA with the L.A. Clippers, got their start.
Akira Chiba, counsel general of Japan and fifth-degree black belt, participated in the beginning of the event in an Aikido demonstration. He spoke of basketball as a “quintessentially American” Japanese tradition for Japanese Americans to come together and bond over.
Budokan will include martial arts tournament space and two indoor basketball courts. The basketball courts will be furnished with wood flooring and four backboards, the very ones the Lakers played on when they won three championships from 2000 to 2002 in the Staples Center. The Los Angeles Lakers made the donation in 2014.
Planners of the community facility anticipate the the 35-foot-tall and 24,000-square-foot space will draw Japanese Americans back to their historical center for more than the annual visit for a festival; instead, every week to play basketball or compete in martial arts tournaments. The space also features a community room, patio, community garden, children’s play area, and underground parking.
INTERGENERATIONAL GRASSROOTS EFFORTS
After six years of fundraising, LTSC raised the 90% of the estimated $25 million associated with construction costs, and could finally begin. Even though government and philanthropic organizations contributed millions of dollars to the fundraising campaign, intergenerational support of the project have sustained the project and propelled fundraising efforts forward.
Take the South Bay HS students who hosted pickup basketball games and charged five dollars per entry. Thirty-something year olds who hosted Straight Outta Little Tokyo, a classic 90’s hip-hop concert. A senior citizen living in Tokyo Towers, who donated $3,000 accumulated from her social security checks, her only source of income.
Or Maiya Kuida-Osumi of Culver City, a 12-year-old who raised $500 selling her handmade Rainbow Loom bracelets. As a serial hobbyist, it was an activity she took on for fun, though she’s even received bracelet requests online through her mom’s Facebook.
“I’ve always come here since I was little,” said Kuida-Osumi, who’s played in JA leagues since kindergarten will be entering seventh grade this fall. She likes visiting Little Tokyo for the food and events, such as Japanese American National Museum’s Day of Remembrance, or Tuesday Night Project’s Tuesday Night Cafe at Aratani Court, where she sold her bracelets. The day of the groundbreaking, she sold handmade keychains and raised $140 more, said Jenni Kuida, her mother.
Kuida, who worked at LTSC from 2005 to 2016 as the director of children and family services, didn’t know about JA basketball until her 20s, but visited Little Tokyo every month for dinners, Nisei Week, Children’s Day events, the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center or Japanese American National Museum.
“We dreamed of having kids who would play JA basketball in Little Tokyo,” Kuida said. “So to me, it’s a way of connecting the next generation to Little Tokyo, a place where we feel at home.”
“Groundbreakings are wonderful, but grand openings are better,” Jan Perry, former council member of the city of Los Angeles and general manager of the economic and workforce development department, said to whistles and cheers.
Perry was part of the city council that voted in May 2011 to approve a 25-year lease for the Budokan of Los Angeles with an honorarium of one dollar a year and an option to renew for another 25 years on a city-owned one acre parcel of land at 237-249 Los Angeles St. (Construction is scheduled to finish in 2018.)
Just three months later, LTSC announced the George and Sakaye Aratani Family Foundation pledged $1 million to the project, in addition to $50,000 from the Uchima family. Site control was the biggest hurdle, dating back to the 1970s when the idea of Budokan was first proposed, and securing the land was pivotal in fundraising.
“City wrangling, and property values exceeding our initial budget made it impossible to fundraise,” Alan Kosaka, who volunteers his time to coordinate fundraising efforts. “No one wanted to provide funding for a gym that had no home.”
In a little under a year, in April 2012, the California state parks department granted $5 million to the Budokan project. Sedrick Mitchell said the department received 900 applications in the competitive applications process, requesting a cumulative $2.9 billion, for the available $368 million of Proposition 84 grant funding under the Statewide Park Program.
Two years later in May 2013, LTSC secured 40% of the estimated $25 million necessary for construction, and two years after that, 80%. Other large sums of money came from public and private funders alike, such as the city ($1.3 million) and county ($1 million), as well as the Weingart Foundation ($500,000), W.M. Keck Foundation ($500,000), among others. Finally, in May of this year, LTSC announced a $3.5 million donation from the Terasaki Family Foundation pushed the fundraising campaign to 90% of its goal, allowing for construction to begin.
To be eligible under the Statewide Parks Program, Mitchell, deputy director of external affairs, said, the project needed to be in a neighborhood either with a ratio of less than three acres of usable parkland per 1,000 residents, or a median household income of less than $47,331.
In 2011, at the time of LTSC’s application, the 14,425 people that resided in Little Tokyo had access to 9.93 acres, or .69 acres per 1,000 people. The median household income was $15,401.
DIFFERENT CHALLENGES, SAME GOAL
Back when the project first started, the idea of Budokan was proposed as a way to address divestment in the community. Now, the community is seeing interest in its ideal proximity to the Metro gold line, and location in central downtown Los Angeles.
“Our concern is displacement of cultural assets and low income residents,” LTSC executive director Dean Matsubayashi said.
Since its post-war days, the neighborhood is no longer predominantly Japanese American, with many moving out to suburbs such as Gardena, which has the largest Japanese population second to Honolulu, Hawaii. The LTSC manages permanent low-income apartments and works with a diverse mix of residents such as Chinese and Korean seniors. There’s also a developing pan-Asian community, Matsubayashi said.
“It’s terrific,” said Kiyo Fukimoto of Monterey Park, who has a son and daughter, and several grandchildren. He looks forward to Budokan as a place for people outside of the Japanese American and immediate Little Tokyo community to get involved.
“The more people we can get involved, the better,” the 77-year-old said.
Little Tokyo remains a geographic center for Japanese Americans in southern California, a place of continuation of language and culture, with several churches and temples in the area, as well as cultural institutions and community centers. It remains the second oldest and one of three remaining Japantowns in the United States, all of which are in California. For advocates of the community, it’s a balance of looking forward and preserving tradition.
LTSC director of development Chris Aihira remembers a time when there were more local businesses, people lived closer in the area, and there was more constant community life.
“In threat of losing the character and quality of Little Tokyo,” Aihara said, “(Budokan) is a real accomplishment if we’re trying to preserve its culture.”
In Little Tokyo, there is a triangle of Starbucks, all 4-minute walks from one another. More than a dozen businesses have closed, said Evelyn Yoshimura, whether due to aging business owners whose children decide to pursue other careers in lieu of taking over the family business, or rising rent.
Oiwake, which served classic Japanese cuisine, moved out about three years ago when a competing offer of three times the rent was made and has been paid monthly since, though there have been no signs of development, she said.
“Most of the businesses that my parents went to are gone,” Kosaka said, though he points to gift shop Bunkado, and confectionary Fugetsu-Do as two long-standing establishments that have operated in Little Tokyo for decades.
Today, the challenges are different but the goal remains the same. It would be ideal, Matsubayashi said, if his daughter and son, both in elementary school, eventually lived in Little Tokyo, but the most important thing for him is “they have a place they can claim as a community or a neighborhood.”
COMMUNITY ORGANIZING FOR THE PAST, PRESENT, FUTURE
A strong united front allowed for the community at the time to effectively advocate for a community gym, said Yoshimura, who joined LTSC in 1980 as director of community organizing. A coalition met Saturdays, and organized basketball tournaments in the streets in conjunction with Children’s Day festivities which closed off San Pedro Street between Second and Third Street.
“‘Until we have a home, we’re taking it to the streets,’” said Yoshimura, recalling the prevailing attitude at the time.
These youth, who rallied in the streets and in front of city hall, the ones who signed the “handprint petition,” are now adults, some with kids of their own playing in the JA youth basketball leagues they had played in so many years ago.
Beyond sports, Kosaka wants kids to be involved and understand the mission behind the project in hopes they will continue it.
“Because of these kids, it’s very easy to keep going forward,” Kosaka said, gesturing to the athletes, his son among them on stage.
Kosaka plans on bringing his 97-year-old father to visit Budokan to hear about his memories of Little Tokyo.
“We’re hopefully going to get that generational experience and message,” Kosaka said. “And it will lead to those deeper conversations of why Little Tokyo is actually here, the immigrants. And what we went through in wartime hysteria.”