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The Courts of Ethnic Identity

Basketball leagues form a bond for 10,000 Japanese Americans, but they face multicultural pressures.


No one cared that 13-year-old Adam Orozco couldn't dribble or shoot. Weighing 200 pounds and standing 6 feet tall, this kid had Shaq potential.

So for the next six Saturdays, Adam eagerly practiced with the Montebello Jets Corsairs youth team, making fast friends with his diminutive teammates and learning some much-needed basketball fundamentals along the way.

Then he was kicked off the team by the Community Youth Council, the 55-year-old group that runs the league. The reason? Adam is not of Japanese heritage.

The Community Youth Council is one of a dozen Japanese American basketball associations, with a total of more than 10,000 players, in Los Angeles and Orange counties. In an effort to preserve Japanese American culture, the leagues employ a variety of race-based rules that limit each team's number of non-Japanese American players.

Southern California's Japanese American communities have been quietly debating the wisdom of those rules for years. That debate reflects a wider ambivalence about how Japanese Americans, Los Angeles' most assimilated minority group, should sustain their cultural identity.

Behind the question of quotas and hoops are deeper concerns: Should Japanese Americans emulate the self-sufficiency and cohesiveness of past Japanese American communities? Should they shed their ethnic identity for a broader, "Asian American" identity? Or should they--could they--simply emphasize the latter half of their Japanese American identity?

These are the kinds of questions all American immigrant groups have faced at one time or another. Earlier this century, Jews were the most rapidly assimilating population and Jewish women were the most likely to marry outside of their ethnic group. Jewish Community Centers, which sponsor sports and cultural activities, were established in response, and still thrive in cities around the nation.

Like many Jews who participate in Jewish Community Center sports programs, some Japanese Americans view the leagues as athletic organizations and nothing more. Others say Japanese American basketball is a reservoir of culture and should be protected--a stance that has allowed suburban Japanese American children to meet each other and grow in self esteem, but also caused some hard feelings both inside and outside the leagues.

Decades ago, when Japanese Americans were hemmed in by housing covenants and language barriers, it was easier to know who was what. But today, the typical Japanese American woman doesn't know much Japanese, and neither does her mother or father. Her husband may be white and her family album challenges old Japanese notions of ethnic purity and American assumptions about racial identity.

But the willingness of many Japanese Americans to reach out to other ethnic groups in marriage, work and community is tempered by worries about the future. A few Japanese Americans complain that their traditional cultural institutions, such as Little Tokyo's annual Nisei Week beauty pageant, are being diluted by "hapas," or mixed-race Japanese. Others worry that Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Filipino immigrants are transforming Los Angeles' oldest Japanese American churches, sororities and other cultural associations into "pan-Asian" organizations.

"When I was a kid we had our own businesses, our churches, our own Boy Scout Troops," said Nick Nagatani, a co-founder of the Yellow Brotherhood basketball club. "We could do everything within the community. Now the reality is: There is no Japanese American community."

Ethnic Mixing Comes to Families and Leagues

Others, like Renee Tajima-Pena, a Japanese American filmmaker, believe the community is just "outgrowing the old paradigm of race and ethnicity."

Tajima-Pena used her own life as an example. She and her Mexican American husband moved to Mt. Washington because the racially mixed neighborhoods there "look like an Earth Wind & Fire concert."

"A lot of us grew up with that [mix], and liked it," she said.

Even basketball organizations created exclusively for Japanese American children when racial segregation boxed them out of city leagues have begun to allow a limited number of players from other Asian ethnicities, and even some blacks, whites and Latinos.

The Japanese American leagues are not the only ethnically homogeneous sports associations. There are tennis clubs that are mostly white. There are Persian and Mexican soccer clubs, and there are other basketball leagues dominated by Armenian, Chinese, Korean and Filipino Americans. But Japanese American basketball is unusual in the way it links a rapidly dispersing immigrant community.

"Our neighborhoods are smaller, Japanese American church attendance is down, but this one thing has endured," said San Francisco sociologist Rebecca Chiyoko King. "For some Japanese Americans, this is the only time they get to hang out with other JAs."

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