In its segregated heyday, Little Tokyo took in more than three square miles of boarding houses, corner markets and Buddhist temples. It now covers only nine downtown Los Angeles blocks. Saving its identity as a Japanese-American cultural hub, say community leaders, rather than seeing it further reduced to a second-class chopsticks tourist destination, means finding a way to stage popular activities that draw huge crowds — like basketball tournaments, in a tradition dating back to the ’40s. “[Basketball] seems to be the social center of Japanese-Americans my age with kids. That’s where we socialize now,” says Brian Kito, a third-generation Little Tokyo candy-store owner.

A $6 million, six-court recreation center large enough to hold tournaments and house a senior program would inspire Japanese-Americans to regularly make the trip downtown, says Bill Watanabe, executive director of the nonprofit Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC). “People want to come here, there’s just nothing here for them.” Almost $1 million in state and federal dollars have already been set aside for the gym.

Since 1994, the LTSC has been trying to overcome City Council opposition to leasing a parcel of city-owned land, currently a parking garage, near the corner of Temple and Judge Aiso streets. On Tuesday, the council finally relented and tentatively approved, by a unanimous vote, the idea of a gym in Little Tokyo. The council gave the city’s chief legislative analyst six months to consider alternative sites.

The crucial break for the project came with newly elected 9th District Representative Jan Perry’s support. Her predecessor, Rita Walters, had been a longtime opponent.

Sports leagues, particularly basketball but also judo and volleyball, are popular with Japanese-Americans, who first formed such leagues in the 1920s. Racist policies prevented them from joining many of the existing teams. Some 14,000 adults and children around Los Angeles and Orange counties play in Japanese-American-founded leagues, according to the LTSC. The annual Tiger Tournament, now held in rented gyms across Los Angeles, draws around 3,000 basketball players.

There are significant concentrations of Japanese-Americans in a community strewn across the Southland. As families left downtown for the suburbs, says Tiger organizer Wes Kumagai, older, more traditional cultural institutions fell by the wayside. Basketball is filling that void by providing large public events for kids to meet kids and parents to meet parents. “For a lot of Japanese-Americans, one of their biggest connections to the community they grew up in is this basketball culture that their kids are participating in,” Kumagai says.

High culture alone doesn’t attract repeat Japanese-American traffic to Little Tokyo, Watanabe says. There’s no dearth of museums or theaters in an area that used to be a ghetto. The Geffen Contemporary, the Japanese-American National Museum, the East West Players and the planned new Children’s Museum location are all within striking distance of each other. “They might go to the museums once a year,” Watanabe says. That, combined with aging inhabitants and decades of cookie-cutter redevelopment, means Little Tokyo is losing its identity. “Little Tokyo will become basically a tourist visitor stop with restaurants and gift shops,” he says.

Kumagai envisions using a downtown recreation center as the Tigers’ headquarters for championship games. Backers also see a financial angle. “Say each of the players, the parents and one sibling or one friend come,” says Yosh Hirai, a trustee of the Community Youth Council, which organizes basketball leagues. “My contention is that if you can get a quarter of them to go into Little Tokyo and eat and shop, that’s a tremendous boost in the economy of Little Tokyo.”

Over the years, the idea for a Little Tokyo recreation center has met with indifference from nearby cultural institutions and with outright opposition at City Hall. “The museum has always said if the gym can get approval from the city, more power to them,” says Chris Komai, a spokesperson for the Japanese-American National Museum and the Geffen. Al Choy, managing director of the East West Players, which is housed in a small building facing the proposed gym site, says, “I don’t think anybody disputes that we need a rec center. The differences have to do with where it is.” The Players, he says, isn’t necessarily against LTSC’s proposed location, but would want noise coming from the games to be mitigated.

Little Tokyo’s previous council member, Rita Walters, opposed the plan for the gym and preferred seeing an art park. The two museums helped Walters with the green-space plan. The art institutions, Komai says, simply followed the councilwoman’s lead and don’t really favor the garden over a gym. “It was clear that if we were going to work with the city on this project, we had to work with the City Council person, because this was her district. Rita Walters was trying to develop something that’s just a parking lot now.”

It’s a position that Walters modified twice. The first change came last fall, when plans fell through for relocating the Children’s Museum to the Los Feliz area, threatening $9 million in state funding. At Walter’s behest, the City Council approved a spot for the Children’s Museum in Little Tokyo, where before she had wanted only the park. This angered gym backers. “That’s what got us mad. Wait a minute! What is this? You say that it’s okay for the Children’s Museum, but not us in Little Tokyo?” says Watanabe. The second change came when the Children’s Museum planners found an unmovable waterline bisecting their proposed 40,000-square-foot construction footprint. Walters then decided to support shifting the museum west one block from the corner of Temple and Alameda streets to where Temple intersects Judge John Aiso Street, a spot coveted by gym backers. Under the current plan, the Children’s Museum and the recreation center might be neighbors, though it did not always look that way. “It’s a slap in the face to the Japanese-American community that in Little Tokyo we’re losing efforts to build a recreation center,” said David Nagano, president of the Little Tokyo Recreation Center, before the most recent council vote.

Elitism, says Watanabe, is the real hidden obstruction that’s hindered the gym for so many years. “Our sense of it is that they wanted a high-end, high-quality, chi-chi kind of place for sculpture and art, public events that might fit into their fund-raising and attract people from the Westside,” he says. “A gym, I think, in their minds is an ugly building with a bunch of little kids and basketballs and sneakers running around.”

The LTSC made two bids on other nearby parcels, but both attempts failed. One real estate owner decided not to sell, and another parcel ended up as an Office Depot. But after Walters’ public support of the Children’s Museum, Watanabe insisted on the site the council had promised to consider. “We wasted a lot of time going through this. We went back to Rita and said, ‘Look, we have tried to find an alternate site. There is no alternate site.’ Basically, we were waiting for Rita to be out.”

The gym will help Little Tokyo achieve the balance it needs to survive. “If [Japanese-Americans] can see the gym as their facility, that Little Tokyo is their place, part of their heritage, they can learn a little bit about their background and culture, give dimension to it,” Watanabe says. “They may not sense that or think that, but if they can make those small connections, I think it’s important.”

LA Weekly