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8th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest

If You Can See the Watchtower

It’s a shame to rush through these streets. With its cozy plazas and meandering pathways, its shop windows stocked with colors and flavors, its nooks and crannies inviting you to get lost in them, Little Tokyo is meant to be strolled through. But, of course, these are days for nothing but rushing when it comes to leaving my apartment. Rush downstairs--avoid the elevator lest you might share the cramped space with someone--run to where you’re headed, for groceries, for provisions. And rush back.

Strolling is a luxury from a bygone era.

I’m rushing back from the market, rushing home to Zoom with Hitomi. She turns five today and happens to be the daughter whose hand I haven’t held for five months and three days, but who’s counting? She also happens to be the last person I actually strolled through Little Tokyo with, and dashing through the plaza at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, I think of the first time here with Hitomi almost two years ago. I had her for the weekend and brought her to Little Tokyo for Nisei Week. It was my first time at the festival as well, and the two of us were equally awestruck, I think. Hard to picture it now, but on that day this plaza was abuzz with activities, the aromas of all the food on offer, a joyous drumbeat echoing from somewhere--people mingling and laughing together, sharing the space. We watched a gyoza eating contest and had our picture taken with Kumamon, the larger-than-life bear mascot of the Kumamoto prefecture, who was surrounded by adoring fans. “You always wonder if celebrities will live up to your expectations when you meet them in real life,” I joked with Hitomi. “But he couldn’t have been more gracious with us, a real class act.”

“I like his red cheeks,” Hitomi answered.

There was a table nearby with posters and brochures promoting Kumamoto, showing the destruction caused by the recent earthquake there, but proclaiming that the region was emerging from the disaster stronger than ever.

“There was an earthquake here?” Hitomi asked.

“Not here. In Japan,” I said. “But we feel it here, too.” I took her hand, squeezing it twice as I always do with her, and I could sense her feeling it now, too. Feeling the weight of it, the somberness, sharing this experience with people across the ocean she’s never met. She’s already someone who is easily moved, I could see in that moment, soaking up the emotions that surround her. She gets that from me.

Now Hitomi’s actually there, across the ocean, living with her mother. “Big Tokyo,” she calls it, although maybe I’m the one who started her saying it. I brought her here for her birthday last year to get her ready for the move. I’m scurrying past Kouraku, whose 1970’s white and mikan-orange sign--Japanese Restaurant, with the kanji characters beneath--is one of my favorites, and I remember Hitomi with me stopping at the storefront nearby, gazing at the array of sneakers gleaming like sports cars. That window is boarded up now--there were riots just two weeks ago. I cross the street, into the Japanese Village Plaza, and I’m alone. I find myself going out of my way a bit for the first time in a while--I hesitate to say it, but am I strolling?--past the shops where I spent so much time with Hitomi that day poring through racks of comic-book-colored t-shirts, shelves of plush cartoon characters, display cases of pastries and mochi ice cream. All the places are here, but the people and the music and joy are gone. I walk through to the other end of the plaza, to the watchtower. Hitomi loved the watchtower.

“A yagura,” I had explained to her. My family name--Hitomi’s surname--happens to be Yagura, and she looked up at the simple red structure with reverence. “In Japanese villages, the watchtower was how the village kept safe,” I told her. “Someone at the tip-top could look out over the village for miles around and make sure everything was okay. If you could see the watchtower, you knew you were safe because the watchtower could see you.” Did I really know what I was talking about? Either way, Hitomi liked that.

“I’m a Yagura,” she sang. “I’m a watchtower, and you’re a watchtower.”

Afterwards, we strolled through the Japanese American National Museum, where I bought her some Japanese alphabet blocks at the gift shop, and to Kinokuniya, one of the Japanese bookstore’s few American locations, where I picked her up a children’s book on Tokyo with drawings that made it look like a magical place. She was excited for her new home.

I ended up coming back here and picking out an apartment with a view of the watchtower. To be closer to work, I could tell anyone if they asked why I came here--just a quick ride on the Metro rail. Is it silly if I tell you the real reason I moved to Little Tokyo was that, somehow, I would feel closer to Hitomi in Big Tokyo?

I cross 1st Street and walk through the plaza by the museum, and the Go For Broke National Education Center, that beautiful ornate building, ancient by Los Angeles standards, which is bedecked with a mural of a dreaming girl, captioned by a Basho haiku. The silence is striking. I’m thinking of my past here, how sudden the sounds of the festival have given way to nothing, and it occurs to me that Little Tokyo has its own past to reflect on, that it’s been through something like this before. How sudden the change must have felt at the outbreak of World War II, when one day crowds of Little Tokyo’s inhabitants were lined up to be counted at this very building, and then the next day all those faces, all those voices--they were gone.

Down the street, I pass a boarded-up storefront featuring another mural, a freshly painted impressionist tribute to George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and I realize how close I am to the old Finale Club where Charlie Parker played with Miles Davis. When this was Bronzeville after the Japanese-American residents had been sent away to camps. When Los Angeles’s African-American community, having been denied practically everywhere else, found a home here, only to be eventually displaced again.

The plan had been for Hitomi to be back here, with me, for her birthday, but that was in that bygone era when we made such things as plans. What would she say if she were here with me now? What could I possibly tell her as we roamed these deserted streets, these shuttered buildings? What will I tell her? Suddenly I’m as nervous as I am before a meeting with an important client. I’ve spoken with Hitomi numerous times these past few months, of course, avoiding the news of the virus, of the unrest. But now it’s her birthday and we’re apart--and Japan has entered a state of emergency as well. I can only wonder and worry about how she’s feeling now. What do I tell her? That no one in the watchtower could have kept us safe from this? That there is no one in the watchtower, that it’s nothing but a replica--a metal model painted to look wooden?

I shouldn’t dawdle, but I end up circling through to the Weller Court, past the Friendship Knot. At the market, people are organizing themselves into a spaced-out line, patiently waiting for their temperature to be checked, waiting to be let inside. Everywhere there are posters with cute cartoon cats Hitomi would like--the cats are wearing masks and asking you to do the same, to stay home if you are sick, to be considerate of the others in the community. I’ve heard from friends living in other places complaining about neighbors who are not cooperating with health orders, not wearing masks, not giving space. But not here. Incongruously, a sugary burst of cheerful J-Pop is spilling out into the streets from the ramen restaurant across the way. The charm of the restaurant is usually its intimacy--an impossibility these days--and the proprietor and crew are arranging tables on the sidewalk out front, assembling an awning and hanging paper lanterns, making the best of the situation. Every day they have to lug all this stuff out and then back inside again every night. I hear them whistling along with the J-Pop tune.

I’m going to be late now, and I cut through a back way behind my building and come around the parking structure. It’s something that happens to you in Los Angeles all the time; you turn a corner a different way than you normally do, come from a different angle, and the sun hits you in a certain way and a street you’ve gone down a million times looks like you’ve never seen it before. It happens to me as I turn from the construction site--the future Metro rail connector--and see an old mural that’s recently been restored, made to look new, and I feel like I’m seeing it for the first time. “Home is Little Tokyo,” it says, and it’s populated with colorful smiles, drawings that make Little Tokyo look like a magical place.

Is there a way for me to tell Hitomi this, too? This feeling I get from these streets today--that even though everyone’s wearing a mask, I know they’re smiling at me? That when it comes time to work together, to trust each other, that’s when you know what a community is made of? That where there’s a history of suffering, there’s also a history of resilience?

I run upstairs to my apartment, putting groceries away after wiping the containers, washing my hands, wiping the counter, washing my hands again. I have a bookcase behind my desk that I have carefully arranged as my backdrop for my Zoom meetings--I rushed to Kinokuniya recently to restock so I could appear more business-minded, and Haruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto made way on my shelf for boring business writers. But already Hitomi’s mother is calling, and I grab the laptop and jump to the sofa instead. I’m reaching back, flipping open the blinds on the window behind me as I answer, hoping not to look like a guy sitting in his room in the dark. “Are you ready to have a conversation with Dad?” my former wife is saying to Hitomi. “Hitomi is excellent at having conversations now,” she tells me with a smirk. And then Hitomi is on screen.

“Happy birthday,” I tell her. I still can’t get over the awkwardness of these calls, wondering if I’m actually being heard.

“Thank you, Dad,” she says. Her voice is a bit more formal now, and she’s saying Dad instead of Daddy. It makes me want to laugh. “Are you doing well, can you tell me?” she asks, sounding rehearsed.

“I am,” I answer, playing along. “And you? Are you well?”

She looks off to the side for a moment. I hear her mother in their kitchen. “We feel it here, too,” she says, earnestly now, sounding like herself. My little Hitomi. She looks at me then, leans in closer to the camera so that I’m getting an up-close view of her forehead. “You’re safe.”

What can I say? I find myself not being able to answer. But then again, she wasn’t asking a question. I realize as she’s falling back into her chair now that she’s looking behind me, and I turn around. “You can see the watchtower,” Hitomi says.

I can. Out my window, like a lovely wisp of red watercolor that someone’s painted with an expert flick of the wrist, it’s there. I turn back to her, smiling at me, and her voice is sing-song, as sugary as that J-Pop tune I can still hear from the restaurant below.

“And the watchtower can see you.”

Actor Greg Watanabe reads “If You Can See The Watchtower” by Jacob Laux.
From the 8th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest: A Virtual Celebration on May 23, 2021. Sponsored by the Little Tokyo Historical Society in partnership with JANM's Discover Nikkei project.


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


© 2021 Jacob Laux

fiction Imagine Little Tokyo little tokyo watchtower yagura

Sobre esta serie

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 >>