“The dream of building a multipurpose sports and activities center in Little Tokyo is closer than ever to becoming a reality,” Dean Matsubayashi, executive director of Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC), told a gathering of supporters and prospective donors last month.
“We are happy to report to the community that we have now reached the 80% mark of the total $23.5 million project goal. And with your help, we are preparing to raise the remaining $5.1 million needed to break ground late next year.”
Although the idea of a gymnasium in Little Tokyo was being bantered about as early as the 1970s, the project failed to generate momentum until a broad grassroots coalition led by LTSC began to make a concerted effort to connect young people from across Southern California to a sports facility in Little Tokyo. But the coalition’s efforts in the 1990s and early 2000s stalled.
In the early years, a suitable location within Little Tokyo was difficult to find. In 2008, the U.S. economic collapse brought new building construction to a halt across the country for several years. Even fundraising efforts slowed down and the loss of momentum impacted the community’s confidence in the project.
In the past few years, however, a determined group led by LTSC and community supporters continued to work on the capital campaign.
Matsubayashi explained, “All of the key pieces are in place. First, we now have the land.”
“We also received city’s approvals to proceed with the project,” he added.
“Next, we developed what we believe is a comprehensive and prudent 40-page business plan which analyzes the competitive environment and market demand, and projects a ten-year budget for sustainable operations,” Matsubayashi concluded.
Alan Kosaka, a businessman and sports enthusiast who has been the volunteer chair of the capital campaign since 2009, reported, “We have public and foundation support, and major donors have been incredibly generous.”
But he added a hopeful caveat: “We still have to close the gap by raising $5.1 million. We are confident that the Japanese American community will come together.”
“This is a community-driven project that will become a magnet for Japanese Americans — young and old — from throughout Southern California,” Kosaka said. “As all of Downtown L.A. is in the midst of a building boom, Budokan will ensure that Little Tokyo will be here for future generation of Nikkei. So we are counting on the generous support of our community.”
The name “Budokan” — a Japanese word that literally means “hall of martial arts” — is inspired by the world-famous Nippon Budokan in Tokyo, which was built as a venue for martial arts but quickly expanded its use to include other sports, musical concerts, and festivals. Budokan of Los Angeles is intended to be an inclusive facility, not only for local neighborhood use, but for basketball leagues, volleyball tournaments, and martial arts tournaments with participants from San Fernando Valley to Orange County, from the Westside to the San Gabriel Valley, and from throughout the South Bay.
Like its namesake, Budokan of Los Angeles will provide a venue for tournaments and practices of martial arts, many of which are centuries-old disciplines originating in Japan.
Location and Physical Features
Budokan of Los Angeles will be located on Los Angeles Street, between Second and Third Streets, just south of the Little Tokyo Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. The building will have two levels of underground parking, as well as many options for offsite parking nearby. It will also be within walking distance of the Little Tokyo station of Metro trains.
The featured space of the facility will be a gymnasium with two regulation basketball courts, superimposed with striping for volleyball courts. The courts will be on one contiguous floor space of over 16,000 square feet, large enough for regional martial arts tournaments and many other indoor sports activities.
On the rooftop, there will be garden park with green space and a performance area, large enough to accommodate a 300- to 500-person banquet or an 800-person concert. In addition, there will be an interior mezzanine deck overlooking the action on the gym floor, and an outdoor terrace with a playground for small children and spaces for community gardens. The building will also have two community rooms, one on the ground level and another on the rooftop, as well as a commercial kitchen.
Why a Gym — A Sports and Activities Facility?
According to a program booklet of the Tigers Basketball Tournament held over the Memorial Day weekend, over 500 adult and youth teams from throughout Southern California competed in age groups from 2nd grade to adults. Close to 4,800 players — men and women, boys and girls — played in the three-day tournament with their families looking on eagerly.
This phenomenon is repeated more than a dozen weekends a year in tournaments sponsored by West LA Youth Club, Wanjettes, South Bay FOR Junior Sports Association, Jets/Jetts Montebello Youth Basketball Club, Pasadena Bruins, VFW Youth Group and several other tournaments.
Although it is played throughout America — from inner-city playgrounds to rural barnyards to suburban driveways — basketball has taken hold in the Japanese American community in a unique way. It gained popularity among Depression-era Nisei and carried on into the camps, but in the post-war resettlement period, Issei and Nisei men who were rebuilding their lives, families and communities started sports leagues for their Sansei sons and grandsons so that they would have wholesome activities and opportunities to socialize.
“Kodomo no tame ni” (for the sake of the children), they reasoned, and they formed organized sports leagues. And they sacrificed their weekends to coach, fundraise and get team sponsors.
“My uncle Akira Komai (the late publisher of Rafu Shimpo, the bilingual daily vernacular for Southern California’s dispersed Nikkei population), when he came back from the war, the first priority was to re-establish The Rafu as the voice of the community, but the second thing he did was to start the JA sports leagues,” Chris Komai, a sports historian, told the gathering. “When gym space became available, the teams were open to everyone who wanted to play… not just for elite players, but for everyone. Otherwise, someone like me would have never been able to play.”
“Pretty much everyone in my family plays basketball,” gushed 9-year-old Nathan Kawasaki of South Pasadena. “I feel like basketball is just part of my Japanese culture.”
Another young boy reasoned, “My teacher always says, ‘teamwork’ and my coach always says, ‘teamwork.’ so it’s kind of a fit.”
Komai theorized that through the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, basketball as played and practiced in the Japanese American community became a unique embodiment of Japanese values such as gambare (do your best, don’t give up), gaman (patience, endurance), enryo (humility, self-restraint) and shikata ga nai (acceptance of things outside your control). As well, it was a reflection of the Japanese American experience when community and social activities were built around bringing the community together in a hostile environment in which Nikkei still faced residential segregation, exclusion from mainstream activities and other discriminatory practices.
In the 1960s, Nisei Trading Lords became a dynasty in Southern California and in the 1970s, Penthouse Lakers, Yamasa Lakers and other teams dominated the competition. These teams produced college-level athletes who played at local universities. But most of all, “basketball was a good way to stay in touch with the community and to grow up having friends,” said Tracy Kawasaki, a teacher and a coach of a youth basketball team.
After the passage of Title IX of the federal Education Amendments in 1972, women and girls were provided equal opportunities and resources to participate in sports; teams and leagues for girls and women grew exponentially in the Nikkei community. (In an interesting historical side note, Title IX was later renamed the Patsy Takemoto Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act, after the 2002 death of the Japanese American congresswoman who was the principal author of the bill.)
On May 22 of this year, a feature article in The Los Angeles Times by reporter Samantha Masunaga explored the phenomenon of the popularity of basketball among Japanese American girls: “Standing just 5 feet 3, Lauren Saiki was sometimes the smallest player on the basketball court. But her signature thread-the-needle passes and heady ball-handling propelled the point guard and her teams from Mark Keppel High [in Monterey Park]to four consecutive playoff appearances, capped by last season’s run to the Division II state championship game, a first for the school.”
Saiki, 18, who earned a basketball scholarship to West Virginia University, credits the Japanese youth leagues in which she played for over ten years for teaching her the fundamentals of the sport. “That helped build my foundation . . . [and]I really fell in love with basketball,” she said in an L.A. Times interview.
Saiki is only the latest of hundreds of Japanese American and Asian American girls who excelled in basketball at the collegiate level. Most notable among them are players such as Dr. LeeAnne Sera, who played on USC varsity women’s national championship teams in the 1980s with Cheryl Miller and Cynthia Cooper, and later reigned as 1987 Nisei Week Queen.
More recently, 5’4” Jamie Hagiya at USC and 5’1” Natalie Nakase at UCLA competed at Pac-10 crosstown rival schools, and became idols to Japanese American school girls and the pride of the Nikkei community.
“Right now, it seems like basketball is the only thing that holds the community together, like the third and fourth generations,” George Imamura, past president of the South Bay F.O.R. Junior Sports Association, told The L.A. Times. “That’s why I think it’s so important that if that’s all we have right now, to keep it going.”
Beyond basketball, although still considered a “minor sport,” many Nikkei have found their place on a volleyball court. Adina Mori, a volleyball coach at Marshall High School, said, “My mom got me started in volleyball. She played volleyball, others in my family played too. I feel like a lot of families are centered around sports in general.”
The “martial arts,” a term used to describe collectively many disciplines such as judo, karate, kendo, aikido, naginata and other practices, have had even a longer history in the Japanese American community, having been “brought over” from Japan by early Issei immigrants. A more extensive description of the importance of martial arts to the Japanese American community, and their spreading influence and popularity to the general public, will be discussed in future articles and reports about Budokan of Los Angeles.
Suffice it to say for now that the late Arthur Ichiro Murakami, the venerated president of All United States Kendo Federation, and his family, and Ansho Uchima, co-author of “Fighting Spirit: Judo in Southern California, 1930-1941,” have been ardent supporters of Budokan of Los Angeles. Many other senseis and practitioners from various schools and dojos are active in the campaign committee.
Kendo masters Masashi and Yuriko Shikai believe that “Kendo’s priority is to have proper etiquette, proper manner and be humble. It contributes to building of your character. Issei, Nisei are disappearing now and for the young Yonsei and Gosei, for the future, this Budokan is very much essential.”
Why a Gym in Little Tokyo?
Little Tokyo is already home to some of the major institutions for Japanese Americans, not only locally but nationwide. Budokan will add to the critical mass of already-existing cultural and historical magnets: Japanese American National Museum, Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, Little Tokyo Service Center, and Go for Broke National Education Center and monument. Together with these organizations, Budokan will be a concrete link between the 131 years of history of this Japanese community with the future of a community, now widely dispersed, for generations to come.
In short, Budokan will serve as a unique destination that will attract a diverse audience from across Southern California. Many new visitors will have the opportunity to share and experience the Little Tokyo and Downtown Los Angeles (DTLA) region and overall enhance the vibrancy and local economy for the area. Budokan will significantly enhance the Little Tokyo and surrounding Downtown community.
For younger generations of Japanese Americans — Yonsei, Gosei, Hapa, Shin-Issei and Shin-Nisei — who are dispersed in neighborhoods throughout Southern California, a community center located in what was once a “gateway” for Japanese immigrants, will be a central location for tournaments and leagues, and other gatherings, that will provide a sense of their identity and connection to their heritage.
“We are committed to cultural preservation of Little Tokyo as a neighborhood with a sustainable future for our communities,” said Alan Nishio, a long-time community leader. “This is not to say that there aren’t other important neighborhoods that are part of the Japanese American experience. We want all of the community centers to be viable and relevant to us. But Little Tokyo is a special place that can connect all of us,” he said.
“The Issei and Nisei did their part to build the community we have. Now, it’s our turn to contribute to preserving and sustaining community life for future generations,” Nishio continued. He urged Sansei and Yonsei in particular to be a part of that effort.
How to “Stay Connected?”
The development team is composed of:
- Dean Matsubayashi, executive director, Little Tokyo Service Center
- Mike Murase, Budokan campaign director
- Scott Ito, Budokan project director
- Kimberly Kawasaki, Budokan community gifts manager
- Chris Aihara, fund development director, LTSC
- Takao Suzuki, community economic development director, LTSC
- Laura Blosser, real estate project manager, LTSC CDC
Campaign Committee: Alan Kosaka (chair), Mark Doi, Gene Kanamori, Doug Aihara, Alan Nishio, Debra Nakatomi, Shelley Yamane