By Chris Komai, Keiro Board Member

When I was 20 years old, my life changed in ways I could not understand or appreciate in the moment. I began playing Japanese American (JA) community basketball in the Nisei Athletic Union (NAU) with my cousin Mickey. Even though my first NAU team wasn’t very good and I collected more fouls than points, it was a revelation to be able to compete against players and teams more similar in size and ability to me and my team. Plus, the underlying sense of community and camaraderie grew as my Uncle Akira Komai, who helped to found NAU in 1947, induced me to become a scorekeeper and to help administrate the league. I ended up becoming a coach for my team and a women’s team.

ja basketball team group photo
Photographed from front row, left to right, Mickey Komai, Chris Komai, Ted Umemoto and Dean Mizuno; back row, from left, Stan Woi, Victor Tomono, Coach Jim Umemoto, Gilbert Wun and Roger Ono. (Photo provided by Chris Komai)

Happily, thanks to the opportunity NAU provided to semi-athletic Sansei like me, our team got better through practicing and some coaching. I actually learned to shoot a little. More importantly, I became part of a subset of our greater Japanese American community, including most of Southern California and places like Sacramento, San Jose, and the Bay Area. As someone who grew up in Temple City when it had very few Asian Americans, it was a gratifying to interact with groups and individuals who shared the same traditional Japanese cultural values and a love of the game of basketball as I do.

As I got older and was playing less, I began wondering how our JA community ended up with such well-organized boys’, girls’, men’s and women’s basketball leagues and tournaments. While I understood my Uncle Aki, who was the postwar publisher of the Rafu Shimpo, was key to the establishment of the NAU, I didn’t understand why.

While my uncle passed in 1983, I was lucky enough to speak with Harry Honda, the long-time editor of the Pacific Citizen, the news organ for the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL). Harry was on the first NAU Board after the war, and he was clear that my uncle was a driving force to restart organized sports in our community.

Additionally, working at the Rafu Shimpo as the sports editor, I had access to the old copies of the paper. From reading several of the “Dis ‘N Dat” columns that my uncle wrote in 1946, it’s clear his intention was to provide an activity that young Nisei men could become engaged in with other members of our community. Organized sports, including baseball and sumo, were major parts of most JA communities in the 1920s and the 1930s. Even in the War Relocation Authority (WRA) camps, organized sports were a key part of the lives of the young Nisei, giving them a healthy activity that bonded together as Japanese Americans.

After our families got out of camp, rebuilding their lives was unbelievably challenging: trying to find jobs, housing, and social activities. My Uncle Aki was an important individual after camp because he returned to Little Tokyo in 1945, restarted the newspaper in 1946, and then organized NAU in 1947.

By the time I started my basketball career in the 1970s, the adult and youth leagues were beginning to flourish, not just in Southern California, but in Northern California as well. I was blissfully unaware of the struggle (gaining access to gyms, officials, etc.) my uncle and the other leaders had to overcome so I could have the opportunity to play.

When I finally learned the history of community basketball and its role in the development of the Nisei, Sansei, and Yonsei generations as one of the main connections between Japanese Americans, I understood what my uncle had wanted me to appreciate with the hopes I would help carry on the tradition.

Because I was still playing basketball and working at the Rafu Shimpo, writing up the results of NAU basketball and baseball, it was a small step for me and Mickey to begin to oversee the leagues, especially after my uncle fell ill and eventually passed. But after I married and began working at the Japanese American National Museum in 1990s, my participation level waned. I made it to my 50s before I retired from playing because I ran out of good ankles.

However, my link to JA basketball was never severed. I have continued to serve on the NAU Board and I worked with a committee to honor people like my uncle who were the pioneers of our basketball organizations by creating the Aki Komai Memorial Awards. I am part of a new group called the Nikkei Basketball Heritage Association (NBHA), which continues to document our basketball history and pushes awareness for the connection between traditional Japanese cultural values to community basketball (

chris komai and grace
Grace turned 100 just after Chris interviewed her in 2022 as part of the Nikkei Basketball Heritage Association oral history project. (Photo courtesy: John Esaki)

Thanks to NBHA, I have spoken in the past year at public programs both in Southern California and in San Francisco about JA basketball history and its connection to our traditional Japanese cultural values. I have been allowed to address the managers, coaches, and parents of local youth organizations about how community youth basketball is an opportunity to pass those traditions to the Yonsei and Gosei.

For me, all of this is about feeling gratitude (a core Japanese value) for the gift of community basketball provided for me and others and wanting to pass it down with the understanding that it’s about more than just basketball. As a senior citizen today, it remains a common experience I happily share with anyone who will listen. Like my uncle, my hope is that the younger generations will appreciate the gift that they have inherited and will want to extend it to the next generation. That would make me happy, and it would honor my uncle’s memory.

About the Author – Chris Komai

Chris Komai is Keiro’s board member and a freelance writer, who has been involved in Little Tokyo for more than five decades. He was the Public Information Officer of the Japanese American National Museum for over 21 years, where he handled public relations for the organization’s special events, exhibitions and public programs. Prior to that, Chris worked for the Japanese-English language newspaper, The Rafu Shimpo, for 18 years as a sportswriter, sports editor, and English editor. He still contributes articles to the newspaper and writes for the Japanese American National Museum’s project, Discover Nikkei, on a variety of topics.

Chris is the Past Board Chair for the Little Tokyo Community Council and is currently First Vice Chair. He also serves on the Little Tokyo Public Safety Association board. He has been a member of the Southern California Nisei Athletic Union Board of Directors for basketball and baseball for over 40 years and sits on the Board of the Nikkei Basketball Heritage Association. Chris earned a B.A. degree in English from the University of California at Riverside.