Hoops, History, and Crossing Over: Boundary Making and Community Building in Japanese American Youth Basketball Leagues
My dissertation research examines how cultural organizations, particularly ethnic sports leagues, shape racial/ethnic and gender identity and community building among later-generation Japanese Americans. I focus my study on community-organized youth basketball leagues - a cultural outlet that spans several generations and continues to have a lasting influence within the Japanese American community. Using data from participant observation and in-depth interviews collected over two years, I investigate how Japanese American youth basketball leagues are active sites for the individual, collective, and institutional negations of racial, ethnic, and gendered categories within this group. Offering a critique of traditional assimilation theorists who argue the decline of racial and ethnic distinctiveness as a group assimilates, my findings demonstrate how race and ethnic meanings continue to shape the lives of later-generation Japanese American, particularly in sporting worlds. I also explain why assimilated Japanese Americans continue to seek co-ethnic social spaces and maintain strict racial boundaries that keep out non-Asian players. Because Asians are both raced and gendered simultaneously, I examine how sports participation differs along gendered lines and how members collaboratively "do gender" that both reinforce and challenge traditional hegemonic notions of masculinity and femininity. Although basketball is generally considered a male-dominated sport, I also offer several possible factors to explain the surprising trend of "successful" female Japanese American basketball players. Finally, my research examines the role that basketball leagues play in providing outlets and opportunities through social networking and civic engagement to create and strengthen ethnic cohesion and membership.
Findings from this case study offer larger theoretical implications for the study of race, ethnicity, immigration, and sports. Recognizing that assimilation pathways for incorporation are not often a continuous and irreversible "straight-line," this study uses youth culture-centered approach to map the different incorporation outcomes and pathways among later-generation Asian American youth. Adding to existing models of how racial and ethnic identities are forged and can shift over time, my dissertation highlights the strategies later-generation Japanese Americans use to maintain and redefine boundary lines. Moreover, findings demonstrate how in the absence of a traditional ethnic enclave or a continuous flow of recent immigration, some Japanese Americans have turned to basketball leagues as a moving, shifting, and evolving source for ethnic community building. Finally, my dissertation expands the discourse of sports analysis by going beyond the white-black, male dominated discussions to explore how generations of male and female Japanese Americans have carved out their own ethnic and cultural space through basketball.