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Little Tokyo Story – Ben & Akiko

It’s been seven and a half years since the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The Tokyo Olympics’ huge success resulted in our Japanese American community here in Los Angeles flourishing as well. 64 years after Fred Wada’s achievements led to the 1964 Olympics being held in Tokyo, Los Angeles will host the Olympics, and the venues are almost completed.

The Terasaki Budokan opened the same year as the 2020 Olympics, and increased peoples’ awareness of sports even more, attracting a whole range of people. There are also an increasing number of elderly who are exercising daily, in order to achieve greater health and physical fitness through exercise.

Separate from the Olympics, various improvements for the elderly were installed in Little Tokyo, and of course, quite a few elderly people utilized the Budokan. There were facilities where the elderly could gather and spend time, and transportation connecting the facilities was established as well. It’s great that there are so many resources available for the elderly, more than ten years after the sale of Keiro Nursing Home that occurred in 2015 dividing the Japanese and Japanese American communities.

The nature of retirement facilities has changed dramatically from 2018. “Elderly,” a growing demographic, was hard to define by a person’s age or physical strength. Second generation baby boomers were in their 60s to 80s, and there was an increase in the population of people who are living long lives, or who are active members of society. This is the story of how Ben and Akiko—two lively souls—met.

Ben was born in 1945, right after World War II ended. He is a kibei Nisei, who was a young child growing up in the aftermath of the war—experiencing hardships and poverty in Japan before returning to the United States. Akiko was born in Japan, in the latter half of 1955, and was raised there until she came to Los Angeles as an international student. She had not experienced the war, and since her parents were well off, they granted their daughter’s wish to study in the United States.

Akiko was not very fluent in English and needed to attend a language school first. Her parents found her a homestay with a Japanese American family in West Los Angeles. There were also many Japanese students at the language school, and Akiko ended up speaking Japanese at school.

A few months after Akiko arrived in L.A., Nisei Week began, and Akiko visited Little Tokyo for the first time with several of her Japanese language school classmates. Parade-goers were already claiming seats off First and Second Streets. The view was similar to festivals in Japan, but also felt like a time travel to the early Showa period. A candy-art store caught Akiko’s eyes as she looked for a spot to watch the parade.

A man in his thirties named Ben, with fair skin, bright green eyes, and light brown hair, bumped into Akiko. “Oops, sorry,” Ben’s gentle voice said. “Gomennnasai,” he apologized a second time, in fluent Japanese. Ben’s father was of European descent, and his mother was a Nisei. Japanese and English was spinning in Akiko’s head until she finally blurted out, “Go..gomennasai.” Ben and Akiko’s first encounter ended with this short exchange of words.

A few months later, Ben showed up as a teacher at Akiko’s language school. Ben had completely forgotten that he had bumped into her in Little Tokyo, but Akiko was shocked to see him. She sat in class, wide-eyed with her mouth open. Ben wondered if she was okay. During the break, Akiko asked Ben in Japanese, “Do you remember me?” Ben answered firmly with a gentle voice “You can't use Japanese in my class room, Akiko.” “Gomennasai…Sorry, sorry. Uh.. do you remember me? You bumped me in Little Tokyo. In front of candy man performance.” After several seconds, he finally said “Oh, now I remember.”

Ben was a strict teacher, and his class was divided into the studious group and the group that just wanted to have fun. Ben was a great teacher to students who wanted to learn, and Akiko decided to start taking her studies seriously so she could attend college. She hadn’t yet realized that she was developing feelings for Ben. After six months, Akiko was a college student, immersed in college life and pursuing cultural anthropology, and her English had improved to the point where she could do presentations. Specifically, she wanted to research histories of Sanseis, and to create a database by examining the connections between each person’s Japanese ancestors and current relatives.

Just before she was set to graduate college, a friend gave Akiko a ticket to a kabuki show at the Aratani Theater. It had been a while since her last visit, but Little Tokyo was unchanged, greeting Akiko with the look of the good old days of early Showa years. Much to Akiko’s surprise, the man seated next to her was Ben. She hadn’t been in contact with him since finishing her language school program.

"Ben Sensei!” Akiko called out. “Oh, Akiko san, it’s been a while.” he replied in Japanese. It was 4 years since they first met in Little Tokyo. The two reminisced about their first encounter with each other, and Akiko briefly talked about college and her research before the kabuki show started.

They finally exchanged numbers after the show, and Akiko’s feelings for Ben were revived, but since she would graduate college and return to Japan, she felt like Cinderella before the clock struck midnight. Life in the United States was painful but fruitful.

Two weeks after the kabuki show, Akiko received a letter from Ben, who wrote how he was surprised to see her again and how proud he was of her hard work. Akiko replied that she would return to Japan in a few months. In his next letter, Ben asked Akiko to come to a restaurant in Little Tokyo for her farewell party. Akiko was delighted and accepted the invitation. At the farewell party, she saw several language school classmates, including those who she went to her first Nisei Week with. Time passed, and Akiko returned to Japan.

Akiko had gone on to graduate school to continue the research she began in college. One day, a letter from Ben arrived. He was coming to Japan, and asked her to show him around. Akiko happily obliged. She felt like it was fate that would reunite the two in Tokyo instead of Little Tokyo this time. All of her experiences in the U.S., including Akiko's feelings towards Ben, no doubt had a deep impact on Akiko's life. No one knew at the time, that Akiko would return to the United States after graduate school, and work on creating organizations for the elderly, or that she would be working on the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.


From the 6th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest Awards Reception on April 18, 2019. Sponsored by the Little Tokyo Historical Society. “Little Tokyo Story – Ben & Akiko” special reading by Megumi Anjo.


*This is the summary translation of the winning story in the Japanese category of the Little Tokyo Historical Society’s Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest VI.


© 2019 Naoko Okada

athletics California community centers festivals fiction Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest (series) Japanese Americans Little Tokyo Los Angeles Nisei Week (event) Olympics sports Terasaki Budokan United States
About this series

The Little Tokyo Historical Society’s sixth-short story contest concluded with an Awards Reception held on the evening of Thursday, April 18, 2019 at the Union Church of Los Angeles in Little Tokyo. The winning stories were read by three professional actors. The purpose of the contest is to raise awareness of Little Tokyo through a creative story that takes place in Little Tokyo. The story has to be fictional and set in a current, past or future Little Tokyo in the City of Los Angeles, California.


Read stories from other Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contests:

1st Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
2nd Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
3rd Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
4th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
5th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
7th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
8th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
9th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
10th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>

Learn More
About the Author

Naoko Okada was born in Tokyo, Japan. She graduated from Sophia University Foreign Language Department, German Department in 1984 and went on to study fashion design at Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisianne and trained with designers such as Pierre Cardin and Issei Miyake.

She moved to Los Angeles, California in 1989. Since then, she has presented an original kimono dress at the Nisei Week Fashion Show, and has also exhibited and sold designs at the Beverly Hills Art Show. She has been involved in the planning of Japanese and Nikkei cultural activities at the Terasaki Foundation since 1990, and has been organizing lectures and performances from various points of view.

Updated May 2019

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