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8th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest

Little Tokyo, A.C.

Your daddy’s religion was Worry. Never one to call upon any God for any reason, he chose to bear the weight of everything—especially the fear of uncertainty—upon no one other than himself. But in those tender, terrifying seconds between your mama’s contractions, he felt an instinctual, perhaps primitive-like urge to pray. He reassured your mama he’d be right back before hurrying out onto the balcony. He clutched the railing and took deep breaths of dry, summer air. He gazed down at the orange glow of the San Fernando Valley on a busy Saturday night. Motors revving, sirens screaming, people rushing from place to place, freeways humming in the distance; mountains and canyons and city skyline blurring together along a dark horizon. Your daddy turned his gaze up at the sky and he made the choice to trust, even though he couldn’t see any stars, there would be some heavenly body to hear his prayer. I don’t care if it’s a boy or a girl—or even a puppy. Please just let the baby be healthy. Please just let my wife be okay. Within hours you would be born; you would be healthy, your mama would be okay, and your daddy would hold you, the balcony only the beginning.

Growing up, you would hear your daddy tell that story—I don’t care if its a puppy!—over and over and over and over again. He would tell it on birthdays, around campfires, during arguments, and whenever you came home after leaving for college. He would tell it to friends, to pregnant women, to you as a bedtime story. Though he’d told it a million times before, it was at your wedding that you heard it for the first time—really heard it. Instead of tuning out at puppy you leaned in and listened, noticing a part of the story you must have ignored before. After praying for your health, before going back inside to hold your mama’s hand, your daddy looked down at all those lights and all those busy people and he asked the universe: How will my baby fit in?

When you were born you were like nothing they could have ever imagined. Half Japanese, Half white, 100% American. Long before being multiracial was trendy, your mama and daddy took one look at your tiny baby face and in an instant rearranged their standards of beauty to begin and end with you. Still, they knew the consequences of standing out, so they vowed to protect you even when they knew there were times they couldn’t even protect themselves.

You spent the first year of your life in the Valley. You were two when you moved north.

You have no memory of ever living anywhere but within walking distance of the ocean. The hometown you knew was Latino and white, wealthy and working class, tourists and vagrants. It was where your daddy had to be better than perfect to earn a living, keep you fed and sheltered. It was where you searched for someone who thinks like you, looks like you, loves like you; at the mall, at the fair, at school, while swimming in the ocean, walking down the street, in cars passing along the 101; always wondering where they could be. You didn’t understand why everything about you had to be so different. At school you were asked Where are you from? by teachers, friends, strangers. Even though your hometown would never become a place where you fit in, it was also home, paradise, happiness, love, where your mama sewed all your clothes, where your daddy pulled fish from the waters when there was nothing else to eat.

Monday through Friday your mama guided you through an unchanging schedule of school, errands, home life, and evenings at the beach. On Saturdays you busied yourself outside playing with your little sister while daddy rested his sore body and mama got things done around the house. On Sundays the four of you piled into the car and drove the two hours to Little Tokyo.

The rest of the family lived down in Los Angeles so you were always the last ones to arrive at The Far East Cafe. You and your cousins tumbled into the cherry wood booth, one of you immediately scolded for spinning the lazy susan too fast.

The first time you went to Little Tokyo you were only three days old. Your mama was craving shabu shabu and your daddy agreed that sounded like a safe first outing. That was before carseats, so your mama nursed you on the way, hoping once you got there you’d sleep. She could already feel her elbows slip-sliding on the dampness left behind by the heavy wet rag, smell char siu dipped into mustard, hear the ting ting coming from somewhere in the back where snow peas were being peeled and tossed into a metal bowl.

Little Tokyo was where you listened to the aunties and uncles talk story, where you sat on your grandfather’s lap, folded napkins into hats with bachan. Little Tokyo is where you went to remember the dances you then forgot the rest of the year. Where the sweat drenched your cobalt blue happi coat. It’s where the shape of your eyes, the darkness of your father’s skin, the whiteness of your mother, was normalized. Where you weren’t the only Asian on the playground. In Little Tokyo, no one asked What are you? And no one called you “chink.” In Little Tokyo, you blended in, looked like you belonged. But it was also where you went to visit, never to stay. When you’d get back home and find yourself running from things, like schoolmates threatening to blindfold you with dental floss, Little Tokyo would feel like a world away.

When you were twelve your daddy decided it was time you knew. So, the two of you drove south on a Sunday like always, but instead of heading back to the coast after brunch, you followed him up the steps and into the museum. You stared at a girl with short black hair and bangs wearing a tag and you saw yourself in her. You found your bachan’s and your grandfather’s name printed on WRA records. You tore the perforated borders from the printouts. You clutched a stack of pamphlets and wrote things down in your journal. You learned your name was etched in the courtyard because that’s how your bachan had chosen to spend her redress check.

It was on that day, something inside of you clicked on. A lamp suddenly aglow in the darkness. A path appeared and you took your first steps forward into Knowing, into Worry. You asked your bachan if she’d be willing to answer some of your questions. You began to understand what you’re made of.

You are the segregated delta in Walnut Grove and the hills of San Francisco, the 48-hours notice, only the things that they could carry. You are the trains with the shades pulled down, horse stalls stinking of manure, barbed wire, newborns covered in dust, an elder shot dead in the back. You are teenagers drafted, the segregated unit, you guard POWs and type the confessions of Nazi soldiers. You choose names like “Peter” and “Mary” for your children. You only pass down one language.

From that day forward, whenever you hear them talk about Camp you know they’re talking about more than a place, more than a memory—you are talking about a measurement of time. You are talking about about B.C. “Before Camp” and A.C. “After Camp” and, most of the time, no one’s really talking at all. You realize that the Little Tokyo you know is Little Tokyo, A.C. The place your family returned to, tentatively at first, sometimes now desperately.

You were a top student in AP U.S. History when your teacher taught another version of Camp. You were told the barbed wire was justified. You were told even the babies could’ve been spies. You’re told your family was treated well, you should be grateful. You don’t yet have the words to talk back, nothing but silence on the tip of your tongue. You surrender to the model minority. You have something to prove. You work too hard. You are too loyal.

At an assembly for International Day you’re asked to present. You pasted photos of your family and a map of camps onto poster board. You didn’t realize until decades later how separate from yourself you’d been forced to become. How you felt foreign in both your own country and your own body. How you had learned to survive by obeying an unspoken rule: the one that says we collectively nod of our heads to the ticktock of the timekeeper’s clock, sprinting as fast as we can, running away from everything lost, away from the shame of Year Zero, away from having once existed I.C. “Inside Camp.”

You know it can all be taken away.

Still you believed in the American dream.

You believed it can’t be helped.

Sometimes the worry gave way to anxiety; the fear pulled you deep down into depression. You learned to hate yourself in little ways that resulted in a kind of shattering. You adapted quickly. You learned how to seem okay.

When your daughter is born, becoming her mother is the same as breathing. As you lift her up to your breast, the cord blue and pulsing, tethered to you, you kiss her dark hair and you laugh because you did it. In that moment you finally understand. How will my baby fit in?

You think about your great grandmother sailing to California in 1913 — Before Camp. How she gave birth to your bachan in 1925 — Before Camp. How your father came into the world in 1953 — After Camp. How he stood out on that balcony in 1979. You were born holding your breath. After Camp is all you know.

You stroke your daughter’s dark hair and kiss her pink skin. She is a quarter of this, a quarter of that. She isn’t simply the sum of her parts. She is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen.

You hold your sleeping child, something breaking open inside of you; something amiss with the rhythm of your heart. Could it be a murmur? Or maybe a whisper? Could it be if you open your mouth you might scream?

You wake in the middle of the night and you pull your daughter to you, offering your breast, tucking her legs against your soft belly. You cradle her back with arms strong, heart tired. You are grateful for the milk you alone can offer. You are grateful to know she is healthy, she is safe, she knows nothing yet of leering, groping, beatdowns, hatred, shame. With each suckle, you remember to also breathe. Worry makes it easy to forget how. Inhale. How will you protect her? Exhale. You know better; you know you can’t. Your silence will not keep her safe.

Your daughter is three years old when you decide it’s time. You bundle her into the car and you drive the six hours to Little Tokyo. Just when you think she’ll sleep the whole way, you’re nursing on the side of the road, cows with distended udders crying out in every direction.

You take your daughter by the hand and you find your name engraved on the bricks of the museum courtyard. Seeing your name proves you exist. For the first time you realize you’re all there — every cousin, auntie, uncle — your entire family etched in stone. There are more bricks. Other families, so many names. You approach the Go For Broke monument where you find another name, your grandfather’s. Your people are lists.

You buy striped manju at Fugetsu-Do and somewhere in the distance you swear you can hear the beating of taiko drums and the clanking of pingpong balls bouncing off fish bowls. You buy one of each flavor of onigiri. You break open steaming hot red bean buns. And you hope for your daughter, that she’ll keep coming back to this place.

You show her the Bronzeville plaque. You speak to her of jazz legends and first times, of breakfast clubs, laborers, and hot beds; how when your people were forced out, Black people were forced in, more bodies stuffed into rooms than should ever be considered humane. You tell her everything you know about Little Tokyo in-between. You tell her how you’re meant not to know, how there’s always some history meant to be forgotten. How the system profits from this division; depends on calling out, fears calling in.

When you step foot inside the museum, you remember an essay you wrote — the reason your daddy took you here in the first place. You remember that essay won an award. You remember dragging your daddy and your mama to an open mic night at some small-town coffee house. You remember you were not always silent. You were also the kid who asked questions and wrote everything down, who could stand up on a makeshift stage, holding a microphone and saying everything about Camp that no teacher would ever dare say; how you tried to understand the world by imagining things, by putting two and two together with prose.

When the Chop Suey sign comes on and your daughter looks up, blinking at two-stories of neon light, a giggle explodes from her tiny body. And, in that moment, standing with her in the heart of Little Tokyo, you decide exactly what kind of mother you are going to be.

Together you set the clock to a future of your own choosing. You tell her it can be helped — it must be helped. You don’t have all the answers, but you start somewhere. You paint signs and you march and you raise your fists. You search for passenger lists and old census records. You show her how to wash the rice. You find someone to teach her Japanese. You ask more questions. You teach her to read and write. You yourself put pen to paper again.

One day, when you look into the mirror you no longer hate what you see. Instead you recognize your ancestors, your parents, your daughter. You see survival. You see laugh lines. You see yourself. You see Me. You are Before Camp, After Camp, and everything in-between.

On nights when you wake with worry and fear, you step out onto the balcony, close your eyes, and imagine that neon sign glowing bright in the heart of Little Tokyo. You listen to yourself breathing. Inhale. You press a palm to your chest and feel the beating of your own heart. Exhale. And you think about the stories you will tell your daughter, over and over and over and over again; the spirit of every nihonmachi pulsing through you, embedded deep within your DNA.


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


© 2021 Kendra Arimoto

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 >>