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8th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest

The Creatures of Little Tokyo

Thistle sat and watched people eat mochi ice cream from a tree. She was in the James Irvine Garden, and all the lanterns were glowing particularly bright this evening. Of all the places in Los Angeles, the garden here in Little Tokyo was her favorite place, especially during this time of year when the sound of drums hummed through the streets and children twirled in colorful clothing.

When Thistle, the small fox squirrel, first arrived in Little Tokyo, she watched as a little girl danced, the patterns on her kimono swirled to the rhythm of the song. Thistle didn’t know at the time, but the little girl was dancing for the Nisei Week Festival, a large event that showcases Japanese and Japanese American culture, heritage, and tradition. That was last year. Tonight, the Nisei Festival would bring in large crowds of people from all over California, even other states.

Navigating through the endless sea of sandals, tennis shoes, and hot pavement, Thistle smelled scallion and sesame oil. She had arrived at her first destination: Shin-Sen-Gumi Hakata Ramen. People were eating ramen outside, and others were lined up eagerly awaiting for a place to sit. This time of year, Thistle ate her fair share of noodles and dumplings and her belly was always full. She crept closer to a family eating tonkatsu ramen and gyozas, hoping they’d drop something for her. Ideally, she would have eaten all their food given the option to do so but restrained herself. The family, amused by her boldness, dropped a dumpling for her. Success! Thistle shoved the dumpling in her mouth and ran away. There was a small moment where Thistle thought of the happy family eating, then thought of her own. She blinked and continued running.

Glancing up at the cloudless sky, Thistle saw the sun was slowly sinking. To get to the other side of Little Tokyo would take quite some time, but there was something she needed to do before nightfall. As she climbed up pipes and walked across roof tiles, she thought of the quieter sections of Little Tokyo. Tucked away in silence and elegance, was the cultural art exhibit.

A variety of teas and flowers could be smelled from afar, and the people admiring art moved calmly. Thistle watched as humans admired the ikebana. She was about to scuttle away, but a tall purple flower caught her eye. It was the centerpiece for the ikebana, and not native to California. Thistle wanted the flower. She hurried down the building and hid patiently in the shade of a tree. When the coast looked clear, Thistle launched herself forward and ran towards the ikebana exhibits. The flower was so close, she just needed to hop onto the vase it sat in, and grab it…

Suddenly a large, smelly figure cast a shadow over the squirrel. It gave chase and started barking furiously. A dog! Thistle thought in a panic. She could feel its rank breath on her bushy tail. She’d have to hide, but where?

“Quick, over here!” whispered a voice hidden in a bush. But to Thistle’s dismay, the bush was behind the dog. It would have to be fast, what she was about to do. In one motion, the squirrel whipped around, slid under the burly dog’s belly, and leapt into the bush. Searching around frantically in the bush, Thistle saw a little paw gesture to follow— there was a hole to hide in. Thistle scrambled into the hole and waited silently for the dog to leave. Having time to catch her breath she looked around, and saw she was in fact in a rodent’s home, a hollow of some sort. A tiny nose peeked out of a corner, whiskers twitching. A mouse stepped into the center of the hollow. “Hello, little one. Are you lost?”

Little one? He’s smaller than I am! Thistle sighed. “No, I was trying to collect something. That stupid dog stopped me, though. It’s nothing, anyway.”

The mouse chuckled. “The humans work hard on the ikebana art displays, you know. It’d be a shame if you were to steal their flowers.” Thistle scowled at the mouse, but felt shame creeping up on her. Why did she want that flower so badly?

“Taking the human’s art won’t fill the emptiness in your heart that you feel, nor will taking their food.”

“You don’t even know who I am, how can you—”

“I don’t need to know you, to understand. You wish you were one of those humans, somewhere out there in this crowd, with family, with loved ones.” Thistle sat there silently.

“This corner of California,” gestured the mouse, “holds countless years of culture, tradition, and history for the humans. So, why did you come here alone?”

“I’ve lived here for a year, and…” Thistle stopped. She left her family to come to Little Tokyo. Why didn’t she encourage them to come with her?

The mouse smiled. “My name is Bug, by the way. I came here just as you did, thinking I’d be happiest alone. But we were both wrong. Little Tokyo is better when experienced with others.” The two rodents sat together for a bit, before Bug spoke up again.

“Come with me, there’s something I want to show you.” The two made their way through Little Tokyo, the sun slowly falling over the horizon. The lanterns were at their brightest, and crickets were whistling in hidden places of the street. Thistle sniffled and shook her fur out. She hated the fact that this mouse understood her experiences. But as they moved through the streets and buildings, Thistle was relieved to have a companion.

“We should stop here,” said Bug. They were on the roof of a short building, still many feet above humans’ heads. Looking down, Thistle could see bunches of people gathering, idly chatting and fidgeting. The moon was rising, reflecting off buildings, and casting shadows in dark corners of the street.

“What’s going on? What are they waiting for?” asked Thistle impatiently. Bug threw her a familiar smile.

“You’ll see. Or rather, hear.”

Before Thistle could complain, the crowd below them fell silent. A soprano voice smoothed the static of the gaping silence, calling out to the people. Calling out to Thistle, Bug, and any other ears that happened to be listening. Thistle couldn’t understand humans when they spoke, but this was different. The woman sang out a chord of notes, the words wrapping around her like a warm embrace. People below started dancing, slowly, gracefully. Others were swaying or nodding their heads, creating ripples through the crowd.

“Even if we’re not human, we too, can dance,” said Bug. Thistle laughed, and Bug blinked happily. He bounced around on his paws. “Just try! No one is judging.” Thistle hesitated, then gave in, swaying her head back and forth to the rhythm of the voice singing, the drums beating. As the squirrel danced around, she got a glimpse of the trees and the night sky. There were birds spinning in the air, riding the wind’s current, mice shuffling in a rough circle away from human eyes, and other squirrels tapping their paws on tree branches. We’re dancing, thought Thistle wondrously.

Bug followed her eyes. “These are the creatures of Little Tokyo. We all came here individually. In the end, we all came together. You were alone last year, but this year, you have us. Welcome to Little Tokyo, Thistle.”


*This story received honorable mention in the English Youth category of the Little Tokyo Historical Society’s 8th Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest.


© 2021 Elise Chang

fiction Imagine Little Tokyo little tokyo short story contest

About this series

Each year, the Little Tokyo Historical Society’s Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest heightens awareness of Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo by challenging both new and experienced writers to write a story that showcases familiarity with the neighborhood and the people in it. Writers from three categories, Adult, Youth, and Japanese language, weave fictional stories set in the past, present, or future. On May 23, 2021 in a virtual celebration moderated by Michael Palma, noted theatre artists, Greg Watanabe, Jully Lee, and Eiji Inoue performed dramatic readings of each winning entry.


*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 >>
6th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
7th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
9th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
10th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>