J-Leagues: A Community’s Equal-Investment in Female and Male Athletes

This post was published in honor of Day 94 of 99 Days of Ultimate Women.

In recent years, discussions in the ultimate community around gender equity have increasingly gained traction. But what if I told you that there is a community that has not only existed for over 100+ years, but also provides a unique case study to look at what happens when a community invests equally in its female and male athletes? A history of exclusion, segregation, and racism, alongside World War II incarceration and Title IX, have created a space where Japanese American basketball leagues are integral to community formation. But even more remarkable is the community’s equal investment in its female athletes, which is unfounded in most sport communities.

Today marks the 77th anniversary of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. In the US, this date is memorialized through President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s often-cited quote, “A day which will live in infamy,” and the moment that pushed the US to officially declare war and enter World War II.

What often isn’t told in our history classes is that it also lead to Executive Order 9066. FDR declared that all persons of Japanese ancestry, living on the west coast from Washington to California, were to be evacuated. A euphemism for mass incarceration. Over 120,000 civilians, 60% of whom were U.S. citizens and half were children, were round up and imprisoned in concentration camps, located in the middle of deserts, without adequate shelter, supplies, space, and due process. They were given a week’s notice to pack what they could carry and with no information on where they were going, what would happen to them, how long they would be gone, and why their constitutional rights were exorbitantly violated. Based in racism and war hysteria, over 110,000 Japanese Americans were racially profiled by the US government and deemed to be enemies of the state (Jerry Kang, “Thinking through Internment: 12/7 and 9/11"). Ironically, for many, the US was the only state they knew. Sound familiar? Incarcerated on suspicions that Japanese Americans were acting on behalf of the Japanese Empire, not a single person was ever found guilty of espionage or treason.

Most Japanese American families lost their homes, businesses, and other possessions. Beyond their material wealth, they also lost their sense of self, family, and personhood — and much of this trauma would be passed down onto later generations as well, taking the form of a suicide epidemic. Those who were in college were kicked out by their institutions, unable to return to receive their higher education. Children were used to eating every meal in giant dining halls with their friends instead of their family. And discriminatory laws continued to restrict where non-whites could live and where they could go to purchase goods and services. But as the Japanese American community in southern California in particular, tried to rebuild a community that was taken from them, there was one piece that would remain from some of its earliest community formations in the early 1900s and become integral to community formation — sports.

Japanese American women playing basketball at Manzanar, one of many concentration camps during World War II. February 13, 1943. Photo courtesy of Densho. http://ddr.densho.org/ddr-densho-37-817/

History of J-Leagues: Racism, Concentration Camps, & Title IX

Today I want to highlight a sports organization that invests equally in girls and boys — Japanese American basketball leagues in Southern California, aka “J-leagues” (or how I knew them as, “Asian league.”) In When Women Rule the Court, sociologist Nicole Willms writes:

“Over the nearly hundred-year history of Japanese American community involvement in basketball, girls and women have always been co-participants. In the contemporary context, their involvement has become even more important to the vision of the J-Leagues as an inclusive, meaningful, community-driven endeavor. Particularly at the youth level, offering nearly egalitarian playing opportunities to boys and girls has been key to fostering widespread community involvement” (4).

As early as the 1900s, the rise of Japanese immigrants caused widespread fear in the US. Shaped by xenophobic rhetoric, laws excluded many Japanese Americans from mainstream society (and other non-white groups). Laws banned immigrants from owning land, becoming citizens, and dictated who could live where. As consequence, the Japanese American community created their own organizations that mirrored those in mainstream society, including their own basketball leagues.

A team photo of a Japanese American basketball team. The handwriting reads, “Pauline’s Basketball team” and is marked as been taken in the 1930s/40s. Photo courtesy of Densho and the Sakahara and Tanaka Families Collection. http://ddr.densho.org/ddr-densho-316-75/

J-Leagues are not the only race-centered sport leagues. Race-centered/ethnic-exclusive sport leagues span across history, from Mexican American baseball leagues to Native American basketball leagues, and even Italian American and Irish American sporting communities, before they were folded into the bounds of whiteness (more on this later this week). And lest we forget Black sporting leagues and the US history of segregation, one that parallels exclusion and colonialism, that pushed communities of color to form their own race-centered/ethnic-exclusive sport leagues out of necessity. Though race-centered/ethnic-exclusive sport is less commonly found than in the early 1900s, many still exist offering inclusive spaces of community.

What separates J-Leagues from other sporting leagues is its community investment in girls and women. Willms argues that timing for Japanese American women has been everything. The 1920s was a golden age for women’s basketball in California, and interest among Japanese American women continued. During World War II incarceration, sport became an outlet for young people who were imprisoned. After resettlement, sport continued to exist as an avenue to rebuild community, and girls’ participation was crucial and normalized. For many families, basketball became a primary link to the larger Japanese American community in Southern California after World War II. Willms writes:

“The social benefits that Japanese Americans describe receiving through J-League basketball are accessible only if one is actively participating, so parents often see the value in placing their children on J-League teams from an early age. If the parents are no longer playing, their child’s participation is the parents’ link to the community. Shuddering at the thought of the community investing in basketball only for boys, one participant exclaimed, “What if a family had only girls?” (12)

Photo of a girls basketball team from November 1933. Photo courtesy of Densho and the Nimura Family Collection. http://ddr.densho.org/ddr-densho-325-200/

The success of Japanese American female ballers is also attributed to Title IX, which created more opportunities for women to become standouts and community icons, and thus inspiring even more participants (12). In the contemporary moment, many have gone on to play collegiate basketball or basketball abroad — institutional opportunities offered by Title IX. These athletes in turn have become heroines in the Japanese American community and others have become celebrity figures outside of it.

For Crossfitters reading this, Jamie Hagiya, a CrossFit Games athlete, grew up in J-Leagues and played for USC before turning to CrossFit and becoming a successful Games athlete. And one of the most well-known product of J-League is Natalie Nakase. Nakase turned down a full-ride scholarship to UC Irvine in order to attend her dream school at UCLA, where she walked-on and became a three-year starter for the Bruins. Nakase drew more media attention when she joined the LA Clippers organization and became the first woman to sit on the bench as an NBA assistant in 2014. She is now an assistant coach with the Clippers.

As the Japanese American community in southern California continues to grow and disperses, J-Leagues are a space that brings them together across the urban sprawl that is Los Angeles and Orange County. Growing up in LA, all of my Japanese American friends who were 4th generation (their great-grandparents immigrated to the US) grew up playing in J-Leagues. They often played for the same team growing up, and even when families moved to different suburbs, they still played for the same team, even if that meant a lot of driving.

In college, at my first ultimate practice I saw the captain of the team wearing what I perceived as an “Asian league” t-shirt. The first thing I said to her was, “Do you play Asian league?” She confirmed she did, and I threw out some names of my friends. We learned that her younger sister had played with one of my friends from high school. Thinking back on this memory, so much of it mirrors my first-time encounters with other ultimate players. There’s often a mutual friend we can both name, and if not, there’s usually only two degrees of separation.

Like all communities and organizations, J-Leagues of course have their own issues. Equality does not mean equity. And we must understand that organizations operate within the larger systems of oppression like sexism and racism. Organizations are also lead by individual people, who bring along their own sets of intention, biases, and personal experiences and knowledge. As in ultimate, individual people decide tournament schedules, field locations, who gets streamed, who gets equipment, etc.

Yet looking at J-Leagues offers a unique case-study to look at female participation in sport and community. One consequence of equal investment has been a new way of imagining female athleticism. Equal investment has also lead to female icons, who are celebrated just as often, if not more, than their male counterparts. These female icons are a point of pride for the community. They are also integral to visibility and representation for other female athletes growing up in J-Leagues. Equal investment can also increase self-value and self-determination, how individuals perceive their own self-worth. Seeing others, who look like yourself, succeed is not only inspiring, but empowering.

As Willms concludes:

The relationship between Japanese Americans and the larger US society is most affected by two issues: (1) a history of discrimination, exclusion, and incarceration based on a socially constructed racial/ethnic difference and (2) the persistent racialization of Asian Americans as small, weak, and feminine as well as foreign and unassimilable. Within this context, Japanese Americans have been active agents in creating a collective identity and an enduring community. This project demonstrates that basketball — and a strong investment in women’s basketball — is a way for Japanese Americans to mobilize community resources for a project they see as beneficial for them all. In coming together through the sport of basketball, Japanese Americans chose a perhaps unlikely path, one where girls and boys in the community shared a degree of equal footing. As both girls and boys gained training and exposure to basketball, a unique atmosphere evolved — where a range of masculinities and femininities have become congruent with athletic identities. Women’s participation in basketball is rarely trivialized — instead their knowledge and skills in the game are taken for granted. As a sport institution, the J-Leagues represent patterns in gender relations that feminist sports scholars have found difficult to imagine achieving. In this sense, there is a lot to learn from what the Japanese Americans have created. (198)

For more information, analysis, and an engaging read, please see Nicole Willms’ When Women Rule the Court: Gender, Race, and Japanese American Basketball.