Holding court: How Japanese-American women are keeping up a basketball tradition

Courtesy of Randy Otsuki

The San Francisco Drakes team (Front row:) Kristi Otsuki (holding Mady), Kelcie Wong, Traci Otsuki, Lynne Adams, Janice Wong Back row: Tricia Nakai, Dana Okazaki, Janet Lee, Bonz Otsuki, Nancy Summersgill.

When Laura Bonz Otsuki was 12 in the 1960s, she asked the Buddhist Church in San Francisco to start a girls' basketball team. There was already a boys' team, and she and her friends wanted to play, too. Otsuki is Japanese-American, and at the time, most her friends playing basketball were Japanese-American.

The church started the team as part of the Japanese-American (JA) leagues, and Otsuki played until 2012, when she was 56. Otsuki's husband is a member of the JA leagues. They got together after she asked him to help her coach a younger JA team. Otsuki enrolled her children in the JA leagues. She even set up her son, Steven, with a younger member of her team, whom he eventually married.

Today, Otsuki's daughter, Traci Otsuki, looks forward to continuing the tradition. Even though Traci, 29, has moved from San Francisco to Irvine, California, she still plays for the San Francisco JA leagues, and she's friends with her former teammates.

"When my brother got married to my sister-in-law, I remember saying we should all play together on the same team with my mom," Traci said. "I'm really proud we were all able to do that. Now, the next goal is playing with my 5-year-old niece."

Over 20,000 people participate in the JA leagues in California, and they are particularly famous for fostering female talent. In the JA leagues, you can find women sometimes separated by a span of 30 years or more -- grandmothers, mothers and daughters -- playing basketball together.

The JA leagues were formed as a reaction to the rampant discrimination Japanese-Americans faced in the early 1900s. During this era, Japanese-Americans were often barred from participating in American public life, including playing on teams or even using gyms. To have a place to play, they set up their own sports leagues. Games gave many in the community an excuse to socialize, and competitions meant teams traveled around California and got to know each other. While men's leagues received more attention, by the 1930s there were JA leagues for women to play basketball and softball.

When Japanese-Americans were interned in 1942, adults worked to set up sports teams to create a sense of normalcy for their children. In some cases, teams were even given permission to leave the camps to play in competitions.

Four years later, when Japanese-Americans were released, they had little money and few social outlets. The older generation worried the younger generation would get into trouble without organized activities. Within a year, the first post-war JA sports league sprang up.

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The early leagues were mostly for the men and boys, but by the 1960s, the first basketball leagues began to appear for the girls, and these were slowly followed by leagues for women. In San Francisco, Laura Otsuki's request for a girls' basketball team resulted in a team that still plays today.

Thanks to these early leagues for women and girls, a network of Japanese American women coaches and collegiate players began to emerge. This included women such as Colleen Matsuhara, who started playing basketball in the late 1950s. When she joined her high school team, the coach knew so little about basketball, she asked Matsuhara to help coach. Matsuhara quit.

"I looked at her and thought, I'm going to stick to JA ball, where I'd have better competition and coaching," Matsuhara said. She went on to coach basketball professionally, including as head coach at UC Irvine and an assistant coach for the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks, and was a technical adviser for the movie "Love and Basketball."

Yet Japanese-American women faced a stigma outside of the leagues. They were stereotyped as short and un-athletic. Several JA league players mentioned that outside of the JA leagues their skills were often overlooked.

"We think about basketball as a sport for tall and muscular people," said Nicole Willms, assistant professor of sociology at Gonzaga University and author of a forthcoming book on Japanese-American women and basketball. "Being smaller, Asian and female, it's a triple intersection. It makes it hard to convince someone you're going to be a powerful basketball player."

Perhaps one of the most widely recognized names in the JA basketball community is Jamie Hagiya, 32, who is fourth-generation Japanese-American. Players smile when her name is mentioned. Willms said watching Hagiya play inspired her interest in the JA leagues.

Francis Stewart/National Archives and Records Administration via Densho.org

Hagiya started playing with the JA leagues at the age of 4 and knew she wanted play for college. However, as a high school student, she didn't receive any college basketball scholarships.

Finally, late in the spring of Hagiya's senior year, USC stepped in with an offer. Hagiya finished her career at USC fourth in assists and second in 3-pointers. Hagiya suspects her race and her height affected the way people perceived her on court: she is 5'3.

"Even though I had the same stats as another girl on my team who got scholarships, everyone said I was too small, too short. Coaches said I wasn't good enough," she said. After college, Hagiya played professionally in Greece and Spain, and then tried out for the WNBA but did not make the cut.

Lindsey Yamasaki, 36, was the first Japanese-American to enter the WNBA in 2002. She is 6-foot-2 and half-Japanese, half-white. Yamasaki said race was never an issue for her, but she also points out she broke the stereotype. "I am not surprised that that stereotype has come up -- every single day, people comment on my height and that I'm tall and Asian."

Rather, she had the opposite problem. Yamasaki was raised in Oregon, where there were no JA leagues nearby. As a college player for Stanford, and later in the WNBA, she struggled to connect with fans who had grown up within the context of the leagues and the tightly interconnected JA community --a space that was foreign to her.

"I wasn't sure about my ability to be a role model. I wasn't as connected with my culture as these kids already were," she said.

Many players see the leagues as a cultural safe space. Everyone gets a chance to play regardless of height, and players share cultural touchstones, such as a love of spam musubi (grilled spam on top of rice, wrapped in seaweed).

In the past, the JA leagues required players to have Japanese ancestry. Over the years, the Japanese-ancestry requirement has loosened. Now, league requirements vary depending on city. Some leagues just require players to be at least an eighth Japanese, others that players merely have some Asian ancestry. In fact, several players used Japanese and Asian interchangeably.

The race rules and the changing nature of the leagues have created complicated feelings for the community. Some members worry that the lax rules mean the leagues will lose their shared cultural values or coaches will fill the teams with taller and bigger players. Yet, they want to be inclusive.

Kari Dobashi-Barton's grandparents were interned, and her parents were both born in internment camps. Her uncle started one of the first post-war leagues in San Jose. She started playing in the leagues in fourth grade and still plays today at the age of 48.

At 5-6, Dobashi-Barton was on the tall side for the JA leagues growing up, but on the short side for her high school team, which had players that were upwards of 6 feet. She worries about what the loosening racial requirements might do to the leagues.

"You'd have people who are in it to win and not for the community," she said. "If they bring in someone who is an eighth Filipino with blonde hair and blue eyes, how much investment would they have in the community?"

Dobashi-Barton's daughters are half-Japanese and half-El Salvadorian and started playing in the leagues as kindergarteners. Kristyn, 14, was bullied in elementary school for being a tall Asian at 5-8. She credits the JA leagues with helping her embrace her heritage. Yet she struggles with the race-based eligibility requirements of the league. She finds explaining the leagues to her non-Asian friends tricky.

"They ask why it's only for Asians. I try to explain about the internment camps and how we had to find our own way to play basketball," Dobashi-Barton said.

Her mother has a different fear. "What I see is the future. My kids' kids will be OK. But if their kids don't marry an Asian, they won't be able to play."

Shalene Gupta is currently working on a novel about growing up Chinese-Indian in Minnesota. A former Fortune reporter, with an M.S. from Columbia Journalism School, she is currently a freelance writer living in Boston. Follow her @ShaleneGupta

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