By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS, Rafu Sports Editor
The cheers bounced back and forth, reverberating from one newly-finished wall to another.
The smallest figure on the lacquered court was that of 9-year-old Sei Matsubayashi, and when he finally managed to toss the ball up and through the hoop, the place erupted.
And when the buzzer blared at the end of the community scrimmage, it was facility director Ryan Lee’s heave from half-court that sent the spectators into a frenzy.
On the immediate surface, these were cheers for a basketball game, but truly, they were the celebratory yelps of an entire community that had been forever longing for this moment, this gathering, this place.
This was the dream of generations.
Nearly two pandemic-induced years behind schedule, the Terasaki Budokan officially flung open its doors last Saturday, welcoming anyone and everyone who had long envisioned a recreation center in Little Tokyo.
“This is the kind of place that grows a community,” said Tiffany Hashimoto, who played basketball at Palos Verdes Peninsula High School as a teenager. “Having a place like this, to gather with friends and people I volunteer with in Little Tokyo and Boyle Heights, it’s a special thing.”
The dream has always been a simple one. Lace up your shoes, gather with your team and play a game – on your home court.
“It goes back to the ’20s or ’30s; you had kids of the Nisei generation running around in the streets playing ball, because they weren’t able to play in school with the white kids,” explained Bill Watanabe, former director of the Little Tokyo Service Center, the organization that has guided the project to its near completion.
“There was always talk of a gymnasium,” Watanabe explained. “Around 1980, there was supposed to be one built at the [Japanese American Cultural and Community Center]. They held focus groups with college and high school students, and they said they’d be there all the time. We really wanted young people to be more involved in the community, and that was a draw.”
The plan began in earnest in 1994, when Watanabe brought the idea to a lunch date with George and Sakaye Aratani.
“Oh, and we’ll need a million dollars,” Watanabe added. The Aratanis were instantly on board with the project.
“We knew with his name and his financial backing, this wouldn’t just be an idea, it’s going to take off,” he said.
Still, the project wasn’t without its detractors. In 2001, plans were being floated for an art park that would add green space showcasing the Go For Broke Monument and provide an ambient pathway to the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA and Japanese American National Museum. The museums and GFB veterans were joined by East West Players in opposing the proposed recreation center siting, and the First Street North location was taken off the table.
As fundraising efforts were in full swing, the search for a viable location was a major challenge. Finally, in 2011, the L.A. City Council voted to approve a 25-year lease on a plot of land at Los Angeles Street, between Second and Third, on the edge of Little Tokyo. The rent for the lease was set at the ceremonial sum of one dollar per year, with an option to renew for another 25 years.
Some 28 years and $35 million later, the facility is a gleaming, state-of-the-art recreation center, built to host not only basketball, but volleyball, martial arts, even the U.S. Sumo Open last October. Table tennis, yoga, dance and tai chi classes have been held inside the gym and in the large outdoor courtyard.
The fulfillment of the project adds a treasured – some would say much-needed – recreational space in Downtown, it’s value may well stretch beyond its own walls. Since last summer, youth basketball leagues have been using the gym. Fourth- and fifth-generation Japanese Americans, many of whom likely have little or no connection to the decades of struggles to get the place built, have been enjoying the fruits of their predecessors’ labor.
“Wow, having a ‘home’ gymnasium back in the day would have been incredible, and how differently the teams, basketball organizations, and community could have benefitted,” former Cal State L.A. head coach Marcia Murota told The Rafu in 2019. She is also a legacy member of the powerhouse Imperials Purple team that dominated JA women’s basketball through the 1980s.
“Playing at gymnasiums across the Southland was difficult, especially when you are at the mercy of school district or community recreation center schedules, and relying on grandparents, parents, and whoever had to drive us around until we were old enough to drive ourselves,” Murota said.
Saturday’s opening was no small affair at the Terasaki Budokan. Former Lakers great Jerry West, who has been an active supporter of the project since at least 2013, spoke during ceremonies on the center’s first official day.
“What an incredible building. I’m proud that people had the wherewithal to want to do something like this, for some kids, kids like me,” West said, recalling his often difficult childhood, and how basketball lifted him from his darkness. “My gosh, I would have loved to have this.”
The name Budokan – meaning “martial arts hall” – is borrowed from the famed arena built for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Fittingly, Southern California’s most celebrated current martial arts athlete was present for the event.
Sakura Kokumai, who competed in karate for the U.S. at the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, gave a kata demonstration and shared her thoughts on the immeasurable value of having a community home for athletics.
“The great difference with a place this is the culture and community,” said Kokumai, who was introduced to karate at the local YMCA in her native Hawaii. “By building the Budokan, they’ve created a place where you can connect with people in the Little Tokyo community, in sports or not, and connect with people from outside of the community who want to come here.”
During the Olympics last year – the 2020 games were delayed until 2021 – more than 100 fans and friends attended a gathering held to watch the broadcast of Kokumai competing in Tokyo. She said being able to greet supporters in person has been a priority.
“Today is so much fun for me, being able to be here as an athlete and continue doing what I want to do. I’ve been very lucky,” she said. “I want to continue with karate and hopefully inspire kids to do anything they want to do. I hope they try to be the best in whatever sport they choose, and if I can help to inspire that, it’s a win for everyone.”
Along the south wall of the gymnasium is a row of banners celebrating pillars of the community, longtime benefactors of local sports who helped to shepherd the Budokan into reality. The names include legendary basketball coach Dave Yanai, track and field Master’s Hall of Fame member Sumi Onodera Leonard, revered Rafu Shimpo publisher Akira Komai, and local baseball and basketball star Robert “Lefty” Kikkawa.
One of the larger banners bears the name of Dean Matsubayashi, the late LTSC executive director who spearheaded countless efforts to bring the Terasaki Budokan to fruition before passing away in 2019. He was on the minds of a great many at Saturday’s event, with one guest commenting, “He’s looking down on this now and smiling … then he’s off to a pick-up game with Kobe Bryant.”
For many on hand, the Budokan is the House That Dreams Built, notably to some who were uprooted from their lives and confined to interment camps during World War II.
“When we all returned from camp, and the years after that, there was a lot of animosity toward anyone and anything Japanese,” former Nisei Trading Lords center Tets Tanimoto said while the center was in its final phases of construction. “We just wanted to play, but no one at the public gyms would let us in.”
The generations of former, current and future players will have a gym to call their own, with the years of frustrating delays now fading like steam in the wind. Alan Kosaka, former chair of the Budokan’s capital campaign committee, said although the center informally opened last year, Saturday’s festivities lauded the years of hard work as well as a much-needed salve for our collective COVID woes.
“Many of these people have never been here, and this is an occasion not only to introduce them to the facility, but to celebrate, with the hanging of the banners and with so many of us from the community,” he said. He described how a younger generation, including his son, Aidan, are not only using the facility, but also taking ownership and care of it as a home base for a range of collective activities.
“That’s how you grow new generations in Little Tokyo,” Kosaka said.
The full day of activities in the gymnasium included a co-ed youth basketball game (CBO and JAO), adult co-ed volleyball game, girls’ volleyball game (Starlings COLA), co-ed youth basketball game (Yonsei), Kosaka Family Championship, Champions in the Community basketball game, basketball skills competition, Little Tokyo table tennis exhibition match, and Little Tokyo table tennis doubles tournament.
Outdoor events in the plaza and on the stage included a calligraphy performance by Kuni Yoshida, drumming by J-Town Taiko, dance workshop by UniverSOUL Hip Hop, hula by Halau Hula Keali’i O Nalani, martial arts demonstrations by Sho Tokyo Kendo Dojo, Matsubayashi Shorin-Ryu of Little Tokyo and Budokan Judo of L.A., and Music Activation (Urban Voices project).
Food was provided by Azay and Kouraku. Limited-edition Budokan x Japangeles merchandise was also available for purchase.
Youth activities were organized by The Music Center and Mi Casa, LTSC’s after-school program.
— Gwen Muranaka, Ellen Endo, Jun Nagata and J.K. Yamamoto contributed to this story.
Photos by MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS and JUN NAGATA