Little Tokyo Advocates Turn to Basketball to Preserve Community

A struggle to preserve the historic neighborhood may get an unlikely boost

For decades, Little Tokyo has been changing. Some community members have worried its traditions would be lost.

The once tight-knit enclave of Japanese culture near downtown Los Angeles had evolved from a series of small shops.

Many younger Japanese-Americans, descendants of original Japanese immigrants, have moved away. They no longer wanted to be shopkeepers like family members in previous generations.

"It's been a struggle for 50 years, 60 years -- of keeping the community together," said 68-year-old Bill Watanabe, executive director of the Little Tokyo Service Center.

"Today, what young person grows up thinking: 'I'm gonna be a shop keeper'? They don't," he added.

The neighborhood has risked becoming a historical footnote, advocates worried.

But Watanabe has found an unusual path that he thinks will help save Little Tokyo: league basketball.

It's what will bring the community back to the neighborhood, he and other supporters of a planned gym in the area hope.

"They said to us, very clearly, 'You know, we might come to Little Tokyo once a year for a festival or something. But if there was a gym, we'd be here every week!' Well ...BOING! Of course!" Watanabe said.

Alongside Alan Kosaka, president of Budokan of Los Angeles, and with the help of the city of Los Angeles, a four-story gym will be built in Little Tokyo.

Community members are hopeful the gym will have people coming to the neighborhood for sports events, then staying to shop and eat.

The Budokan center will be built in the next few years. It will host basketball tournaments and martial arts events. The Little Tokyo Service Center is raising funds to get the project realized.

Sarah Johnson, a 12-year-old Japanese-American basketball player in a Pasadena league, is looking forward to it. The neighborhood was off her radar until she heard about Budokan.

Now, she envisions team dinners at local restaurants, visits to Japanese shops, even a side trip to the local Japanese American National Museum.

"I think Budokan will help bring the Japanese-American community back into Little Tokyo," the young athlete said.

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