Basketball is a long-time staple of the post-war Japanese American community, especially in Southern California. But where did it come from? Why basketball? Most importantly, where is it going? This article takes a deep dive into the game's history and an honest look at how it's changed and what's needed to maintain its community-centered niche.
Japanese American basketball started with second-generation Japanese Americans, called Nisei, who participated in various pre-war recreational teams (mostly in California). While these teams saw some early league organization, everything was uprooted and disrupted with the community's incarceration during WWII.
The years following the war saw the formation of the first Japanese American basketball league by the Nisei Athletic Union (NAU). Chris Komai, a nephew to one of the founding NAU leaders, Akira Komai, discussed how basketball grew as a sport in the post-war period. While the required equipment to play was minimal, the challenge was in finding the gyms. "They were able to start up NAU in 1947 because a Japanese American worked for the local YMCA who got my uncle access to a facility," stated Komai.
Photo of the pre-World War II Cardinals basketball team
While basketball was similar to other American leagues and clubs, there was a unique cultural quality to Japanese American teams and leagues.
"They were an outlet for building community and camaraderie," said Komai, who also played in the leagues growing up. "They were never intended for only the 'good' players. It was family."
These factors made basketball a critical opportunity for the community, especially as Japanese Americans began to spread to new areas of the state.
Komai went on to describe how the leagues provided an informal, unspoken connection to important cultural values. These cultural values, along with external pressure from the post-war sentiment toward Japanese Americans, engendered a cooperative environment that was uniquely Japanese American.
"For the most part, people made decisions on a consensus basis," he said. "Everyone agreed to the rules, and everyone cooperated. The enterprise was more important than the individual."
What started with NAU grew into a community-wide phenomenon for the post-war Japanese American community. More than just a game, for many families, basketball became a tradition that was passed from generation to generation.
Trisha Kawasaki, a long-time player and coach, provided her perspective on her early involvement.
"It was just thought of as 'something that we do,'" she said. "Your uncle played, your cousin played, your parents played, so it just continues to roll over."
She spoke about the influence that basketball had in her dad and sibling's lives and how that experience created an opportunity for the family to have a shared experience connecting them.
Trisha Kawasaki coaching the Yonsei basketball team
As for the leagues themselves, the culture of community and camaraderie continued as a key takeaway for players and parents alike. Erin Hayashida and Ashley Omiya, who played through their childhood, gave their perspective on their experience.
"In the time that I played basketball, it was with my best friends," said Omiya. "Basketball was an opportunity to hang out with them during and after."
"Japanese American basketball isn't like club ball, and it isn't like high school ball; it's different," added Hayashida. "Whether you win or lose, you always go to a restaurant after to hang out."
They both described laughing off the losses, being committed to improvement, and ultimately bonding as a family, not just with teammates but with the parents of teammates. In describing this bond, Hayashida stated, "it's not just a player thing. You know everyone's family. You know their parents. It's a community."
While basketball remains an essential staple for many in the community, some of the game's core community tenets have started to wane.
"Over the years, we've started to lose the intent and purpose of why these leagues were created in the first place," said Kawasaki in describing the attitudes of new players and parents entering the leagues.
Whereas the early players saw the league as a tenuous privilege requiring cooperation and community-building for future survival, some current players have forgotten. "Some families who come in don't' have an appreciation for the original purposes of the leagues. They bring a sense of entitlement," said Komai.
Komai's (front row, second from left) team - The Straw Hat Pizza team (circa 1976)
The notion that basketball is right, not a privilege, has weakened basketball's community-building core and diminished important cultural values previously derived from the game. In its place, some have exhibited an over-competitive drive resulting in disputes between players, conflicts between parents, and splitting teams based on player skill. In some cases, players become so disillusioned that they leave the game altogether.
This competitive spirit also has deep ramifications for players and families.
"For my team, there weren't a lot of team expectations; it was more about my family's expectations," described Hayashida. "Some games I almost felt paralyzed. There was a pressure of parents watching me, wanting me to play well. Some car rides home were just silent."
Both Hayashida and Omiya described the weight of parental expectations, whether on themselves or fellow teammates.
"In most cases, the player knows what they did wrong. But getting critique about something you already know you did wrong is frustrating."
Organized in 2015, the Nikkei Basketball Heritage Association (NBHA) brought together league administrators, coaches, and community leaders to address and re-align leagues back to their core values.
One of their significant early initiatives was the development of a coach's curriculum. In describing the impetus of the initiative, Komai stated, "Many parents would say, 'I want to form a team, but know what do I do? Our curriculum and coaching clinics would provide a better coaching approach for parents: providing activities and practical applications."
Komai then described how each clinic would also include a review of the history of the leagues, the fundamental cultural values, and the game's community-building purpose. "Ultimately, we were looking for those who recognized what we were looking for, people who would buy-in." Although the COVID-19 pandemic has temporarily paused this initiative, Komai expects a resumption as it becomes safe to do so.
More than a game, Japanese American basketball is a unique space that can promote friendships, impart cultural values, and develop athleticism to players at all skill levels. But only with the right mindset from players, parents, and coaches.
Hayashida (left), Omiya (right) coaching OCBC's Chibiko Basketball League
For players, "it all starts with respect for one another," said Kawasaki. "We come from different places in our personal lives, but basketball is a time where we can come together, have no judgment about whether we're good or bad; we can just come together and play." She also added, "if you're a yonsei (fourth-generation Japanese American), there's a good chance your parents or grandparents played. Maybe that's a happy memory they have, something they wanted to continue through you." The understanding and acknowledgment of that history is critical to the essence of community basketball.
For parents, moderating the ferocity to win and tempering expectations and feedback for player improvement is key. "Japanese American basketball is not a training ground for the NBA or WNBA, and winning an 8-year-old tournament is not the most important thing in the world," said Komai. Regarding providing feedback to players, Kawasaki quoted John Wooden: "parents need to remember that you can never teach during a game. You can never teach right after a game. Give them feedback during a time when they're seeking to improve."
Most importantly, remember that community basketball is about community. In describing the family environment that she loved as a part of her teams, Hayashida stated, "you get used to parents talking to you as if you're their kid. Your teammate's parents become your parents as well. My favorite part was always what our families did after games." Kawasaki, who still plays currently, stated, "I always looked forward to going to eat after, being able to spend just as much time on the court as off."