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J is for Junichiro

“Juni, you’ve been fighting again.”

Junichiro Nakashima hoped to hide his hands until he could ice them, but as usual his mother was too perceptive. Junichiro sat on the floor next to the family kotatsu as his mother retrieved her medicine box. Her antiseptic stung the open sores of his knuckles, but her usual monologue stung worse.

“How many times must I tell you not to fight with the other boys? This is the second time this month! Don’t you know what we’ve sacrificed to make this life for you!?”

Her chastisements continued for 15 minutes, and served to maintain his proficiency in Japanese. Junichiro knew there was no stopping her, so he just stared out the window to watch the bustle of the Little Tokyo nightlife.

“Don’t you know what it means to be Nisei? Juni? Are you even listening?” She poured more alcohol.

“Youch! Of course I do Kaa-san!”

Then you tell me this time Juni. What does it mean to be Nisei?”

Begrudgingly, he repeated back the speech his parents had given him so many times before. “My sister and I are Nisei. We are the first generation of U.S born Japanese. You and Tou-san are Issei. Your generation immigrated to Los Angeles and founded Little Tokyo to give us a better life. For that we should be grateful, and proud.” Junichiro added extra emphasis to that last word, not because he believed it, but rather the opposite.

“But Kaa-san, you don’t understand. You don’t have to go to school with them! You don’t have to fake a smile while they stretch their eyes out, or keep eating while they plug their noses at the smell of pickled plum in your lunchbox, or pretend not to hear when even the teachers whisper you’re a spy, as if what happened at Pearl Harbor was somehow OUR fault! 

“I just don’t get it. Why does Aiko get to attend school with the other Japanese children, when I have to go to the American school? And why do I have to study for this stupid spelling competition? You and Tou-san barely speak English and you get along fine!”

At this, his mother’s tone softened. She gently took Junichiro’s hands in hers. “Because Juni, you’re special. We sent you to private school because you have a rare gift for learning. You study because when you win the championship, you’ll prove we’re more American than any of them.”

Although Junichiro wished to object, he simply couldn’t when his mother spoke like that. He kissed her goodnight, promised he wouldn’t fight again, set new coals under the family kotatsu, and pulled his notebooks out to begin his nightly exercises. Word, definition, etymology. Word, definition, etymology. 

Once into his rhythm, his malaise faded away. He would never admit it, but his mother was right. Junichiro did have a gift for language. Each new word spoke to him in new ways. Paradox – a self-contradiction, like Japanese-American. Termination – when his father was fired again for reasons he wouldn’t explain. Liaison – a word of French origin that somehow found its way to America, and describes someone bridging two worlds. At home, his parents only saw him as their American future. At school, his teachers only saw a Japanese student. A foreigner bridging two worlds. Junichiro understood the word liaison

* * * * *

“Hey! Hey Johnny!”

Out of the house “Juni” became “Johnny,” as that was the name the school decided to register Junichiro as. They said it would “help him fit in better.” “Johnny” didn’t think it worked very well. 

The voice was Freddie Miskowitz – Junichiro’s classmate and resident bully. Junichiro knew Freddie never had anything good to say, but also knew ignoring him only egged him on.

“Heyyy don’t be such a cold fish Johnny! Oh sorry, I guess that was just your lunch that I smelled.”

Today’s jokes weren't even clever, but they hurt all the same. Junichiro’s fists clenched, but he couldn't bear to disappoint his mother again. Instead, he lowered his eyes and fled Freddie’s sneering gaggle of seventh-graders.

Teachers never discouraged the bullying; most ignored Junichiro entirely. The worse ones even contributed to the teasing. But worst of all was Mr. Carlson. 

Mr. Carlson never liked Junichiro, and the Japanese attack on Hawaii only made things worse. He didn’t call Junichiro “Johnny.” Instead, he called him “Little Tojo,” apparently for some Japanese general. When Freddie called him names, Junichiro at least figured it was some dumb joke – but Mr. Carlson never seemed to be joking. 

Every day after history class, Mr. Carlson inspected Junichiro’s notebooks. “Alright Little Tojo, you know the drill.” Ostensibly, he was making sure Junichiro “wasn’t engaged in espionage.” But all he ever found were vocabulary words, carefully written in repetition. His interrogations usually lasted longer, but when Ms. Atkins showed up at the classroom door, he was forced to let Junichiro go. 

“Juni, come with me to the Dean’s office please.”

Junichiro immediately perked up. Ms. Atkins was the only teacher that didn’t treat Junichiro as though he were different, as though something was inherently wrong with him. As his literature teacher, it was her idea for him to compete in the spelling championship, and often introduced interesting new words to Junichiro for fun. Junichiro didn’t even mind when she called him ‘Juni’ – a name previously only used by his mother. 

Regardless, her arrival was unexpected, as Junichiro already had literature class that morning. Her demeanor seemed uncharacteristically somber, and after walking in silence for a solid minute, she finally spoke. 

“Juni, I have a new word for you.” This was normally a fun exercise, but something didn’t seem fun today.

“Have you heard of the term Xenophobia?”

Junichiro hadn’t, but he had studied enough Latin to guess. “Phobia… so fear. And Xeno… outside? The fear of being outside?”

“Close, but not quite.” She grimaced. “It’s the unjustified fear of outsiders. I want you to keep that in mind. Remember that it’s not your fault. Nothing is your fault.”

Junichiro wasn’t sure what she meant, but he soon found out. In a long speech, the Dean hailed some new law called “Executive Order 9066.” Apparently, President Roosevelt was worried about spies like Mr. Carlson was, and wanted to move “high risk” populations out of Los Angeles and into detention centers. According to the Dean, if “one drop” of Japanese blood made you eligible, then “full-blooded Nips” like Junichiro were “as good as guilty.” Disenrollment meant no more American school, no more spelling championship, no more being American.

Only Ms. Atkin’s reassuring hand stymied Junichiro’s tears. When the Dean finished, she gently led Junichiro out of the office and asked him to wait on the wooden bench for a little longer. From outside the office Junichiro could hear everything – Ms. Atkins was furious! The Dean made proclamations such as expulsion being “for the good of the school” or that if “the boy hadn’t started all those fights” that he might have a case. In retort, Ms. Atkins called the Dean’s excuses “unconstitutional” and introduced her second new term to Junichiro that day: “horse-shit.” 

* * * * *

Within a month, the Dean’s predictions came true. Military men showed up at Junichiro’s home in the Mikado Hotel, informing them that they were “selected” for relocation to the Santa Anita "Assembly Center." Junichiro did his best at translating, but decided it best not to translate everything his father had to say. And so it was that with their one allotted bag each, mother and sister both crying, and father simply stoic, the Nakashima family boarded the bus to their internment camp, and Little Tokyo was left a ghost town. 

Over the next few weeks, Junichiro settled into his new schedule. Thanks to Ms. Atkins’ fervent appeal to the Dean, Junichiro was allowed to remain a student, but “he was her problem.” When questioned, Ms. Atkins only said that anyone with “a lick of human decency” would do the same. 

Each morning Junichiro woke up early and left the stall his family had been assigned to live in – which just six months ago housed a racehorse. In darkness he would brush his teeth in the community bathroom, pack his bookbag, and wait by the barbed-wire fence. Ms. Atkins would pick him up and make the forty-five minute commute to school, practicing new words as they drove. 

After 8 hours of living as “Johnny” at school, Junichiro returned to Santa Anita. He was young enough that he wasn’t assigned official duties, and for the first time in his youth, Junichiro was surrounded by children that looked like him. For a moment, Junichiro considered that perhaps this was what he always wanted, but he quickly remembered his mother’s words. Junichiro didn’t have time to play with the others like innocent little Aiko did. 

Instead, Junichiro studied. When running chores for his mother, he focused on Latin. When standing in line for his daily rations, he drilled common prefixes and suffixes. Even when the facility lights were shut out, he studied by the light of candles Kaa-san collected for him. Incarceration. Despotism. Determination. Junichiro needed to win the spelling championship to prove that his family was American, and then certainly they’d be allowed to return home. 

* * * * *

The day of the “All-American Spelling Championship” arrived. Junichiro’s family couldn’t leave the camp, so his mother made him a small charm with the kanji for “Victory!” from a scrap of wood she found in their stall. Charm safely in pocket, Junichiro entered the gymnasium. Ms. Atkins walked with him to the registration table, pinned his paper bib to his shirt, and gave him a quick hug before joining the other teachers. “Remember Juni, no matter what happens, I’m proud of you.”

Junichiro took in his surroundings. The other competitors were dressed in fine suits, but since Junichiro didn’t have a chance to grab nice clothes before being interned, he just wore his school uniform. He suddenly felt more out of place than ever.  

“Eww do you guys smell that? Did someone let a horse compete?” Junichiro turned to see Freddie Miskowitz, wearing an ornate cap on the back of his head. “Oh wait, it’s just Johnny.”

Oddly enough, Freddie’s teasing snapped Junichiro back into focus. He didn’t have energy to spare on Freddie’s antics, so he just brushed past him and sat down to wait for the opening ceremony.

The Dean got up to give the starting speech. He included words like “patriotism” and “the American way,” but they sounded hollow coming from his voice. Finally, his diatribe ended, and the competition started.

The first couple rounds were easy. Other students stumbled on basic vocabulary, but not Junichiro. Each time he was called to the stage, his assigned word evoked familiar memories. Dichotomy – a Japanese student born in America. Fallacious – the misguided teasings of his classmates. Tenacious – one who refuses to give in, no matter what. 

Finally only two contestants remained: Miskowitz and Nakashima. Back and forth the two went, neither missing a beat. Vivisepulture. Prodigal. Prescience. Entrepreneur. Fortuitous. Despite all his teasing, Freddie was actually a diligent student. But Freddie hadn’t experienced language as Junichiro had – and Junichiro needed to win. 

“Next up, Johnny Nakashima.”

As Junichiro stepped up and waited for his next word, he heard Mr. Carlson – serving as a judge – chuckle softly. Mr. Carlson announced over the microphone, “Your word… is Jaundice.” 

Jaundice. Despite knowing the spelling, something boiled within Junichiro. He suddenly felt compelled to ask the question. “Could you use it in a sentence please?”

Mr. Carlson couldn’t wait to oblige, smiling wryly. “Jaundice. A term to describe a sickly shade of yellow-ish skin, like that of the oriental vs. the American. Jaundice.” 

Suddenly, painfully, as laughter rippled through the crowd, it dawned on Junichiro. Winning this competition wouldn’t change anything. These people didn’t care whether he won a spelling bee. Their minds were made up the moment he entered the school. The only two people who didn’t appear amused were Ms. Atkins, who was biting her lip, and strangely – Freddie. 

Clutching Kaa-san’s “Victory!” charm, Junichiro finally found the strength to speak. 

“Jaundice. J-...” He paused.

“Junichiro. J-U-N-I-C-H-I-R-O. Junichiro.”

Mr. Carlson chuckled again, but more awkwardly this time. “Uhh, Johnny, you were supposed to spell Jaundice.”

Junichiro spoke again, with more confidence. “No. I spelled exactly what I needed to. My name is Junichiro.  J-U-N-I-C-H-I-R-O. It isn’t Johnny, it isn’t boy, it isn’t Nip, it isn’t Jap, and it isn’t LITTLE TOJO. My name is Junichiro Nakashima. My parents immigrated to America and founded Little Tokyo before I was born. I am Japanese. I am Nisei. And I am AMERICAN.” Junichiro practically shouted the last part as he ended, leaving the room in an awkward silence as he rushed off the stage.

Once in the safety of the literature classroom, the dam of tears finally broke. He had failed his family. If he wasn’t expelled before, he certainly would be now. 

A few minutes later, the classroom door creaked.

“Uhh, hey Johnn-err-Junichiro?” On top of everything, it seemed Freddie couldn’t miss the opportunity to gloat.

“What is it Freddie? I’m not in the mood.” Junichiro wiped his eyes. 

“I…” Freddie swallowed. “I’m sorry. For everything.”

This was the last thing Junichiro expected to hear, so he didn’t know what to say. Freddie sat down next to him, avoiding eye contact.

“Before you came along, I was the one everyone picked on. Polack, Jew-boy, Kike… but then you enrolled, and I wasn’t the odd-one out anymore! I got to be the one making the jokes instead of… well. But when all the adults were laughing, suddenly it didn’t seem so funny anymore.”

The two boys sat together in silent understanding. After a time, Freddie offered his arm to help Junichiro up, and the two boys parted ways.

Ms. Atkins found Junichiro soon after. They didn’t discuss much on the drive back, but she did keep repeating “she had never seen anyone so brave.” Junichiro didn’t feel that way, and felt even less brave when he had to face his family. He expected them to be furious. Instead, his mother just held him and cried. His father, normally so stern, smiled and said it was the best investment he ever made. Little Aiko was too young to really understand, but she gave Junichiro the biggest hug she could anyways.  

* * * * *

Junichiro was indeed expelled from school, but Ms. Atkins came every weekend to tutor him. He and his family would move between internment camps for the next four years, and it would be another forty years before the US government finally apologized for the unjustified incarceration of its Japanese citizens. 

Despite losing the championship, Junichiro continued studying language. He eventually returned to Little Tokyo to become a journalist for Rafu Shimpo, connecting worlds through words. Galvanized – one who has been inspired to action through experience. Stalwart – someone who never backs down from what is right. Resilience – one has the capacity to bend without breaking. Yes, Junichiro understood the word resilience. 


*This story received honorable mention in the English Adult category of the Little Tokyo Historical Society’s 9th Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest.


© 2022 George Cooksey

California fiction Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest (series) Little Tokyo Los Angeles United States
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 captures the spirit and essence of Little Tokyo 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 26, 2022 in a virtual celebration moderated by Derek Mio, noted actors, Keiko Agena, Helen Ota, and Megumi Anjo performed dramatic readings of each winning entry.


  • Adult Category: “Tori” by Xueyou Wang 
      Honorable mentions 
  • Youth Category: “Time Capsule” by Hailey Hua
      Honorable mentions
  • Japanese Language Category: “教えて” (Tell Me) by Nao Mutsuki
      Honorable mentions
    • 回春” (Spring is coming over) by Miyuki Kokubu (Japanese only)

*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 >>
8th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
10th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>

Learn More
About the Author

George Cooksey is an active duty Air Force officer stationed out of Okinawa, Japan, who enjoys writing stories in his free time. His favorite stories are historical fiction, exploring real life experiences through a narrative lens. His story “The Melody of Irirangi” placed Top 10 in the 2022 Writer’s Playground Competition, and may be found published on the Writer’s Playground website.

Updated June 2022

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