Back row, from left: Stan Yogi, youth judge; Kurt Ikeda and Mike Hagiwara, readers; James Toma, English winner; Akira Tsurukame, Japanese winner; Shige Higashi, Japanese judge; Bill Watanabe, contest committee chair. Front row, from left: Mike Okamura, LTHS president; Sharon Yamato, English judge; Carrie Morita and Sarah Kuhn, youth judges; Akiko Katagiri, reader; Irene Simonian, English judge; Atsuko Miyake, Japanese runner-up; Miya Iwataki, committee member and emcee.
By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
The Little Tokyo Historical Society recognized the winners of its fifth annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest on April 19 at Union Church of Los Angeles.
Winners, who each received $500, and runners-up were honored in three categories: English, Japanese and youth. Each story — read at the reception by an actor or professional speaker — is connected to the past, present or future of Little Tokyo.
Emcee Miya Iwataki, vice president of LTHS and Short Story Contest Committee member, said that the stories “reminded us how special our community is and how nostalgic we can be for what Little Tokyo was.”
She noted that the first contest in 2013 received 60 submissions, and that number almost doubled to 112 three years later. “Submitting writers are from across the country, really diverse. We even have writers from other countries,” she added.
Miyataki also paid tribute to Jayson Yamaguchi, a founding member of Imagine Little Tokyo, who was the driving force behind the Japanese-language category. “He recruited judges, recruited actors and media, and really tried to get the word out to the Japanese-speaking community … He was always thinking of ways of increasing awareness of Little Tokyo …
“Last fall we lost Jayson. He ashes have been shipped back to Osaka, where he’s now reunited with his family.”
The winner in the English category was West Covina City Councilmember James Toma.
The winning story in the youth category was “Remembering” by Madeleine Parga — one of the runners-up in last year’s contest — which was read by JACL leader Kurt Ikeda. Parga was scheduled to address the gathering via Skype, but was unable to do so as she was in Seattle for a high school band competition.
The heroine in the story recovers a forgotten memory associated with a well-known Little Tokyo establishment.
The runner-up was 11-year-old Austen Lock for “The Path to Forgiveness.” He is the youngest writer to be recognized so far.
Writer Sarah Kuhn, who served as a youth judge along with Stan Yogi and Carrie Morita, said, “One of my great passions is expanding the literary canon for Asian Americans as well as other communities of color … [and to]give young people mirrors for their experiences and hope for the future.”
Recalling that it was “really tough” to pick just one winner, Kuhn called Parga “one of the freshest voices I’ve read in a long time, so youthful and funny and thoughtful … This author contrasted the specificity of mundane everyday details with the fantastical … It’s a whimsical tale that charms while also touching on deeper things like the importance of emotion and intergenerational memory.”
The winner in the Japanese category was “Kiju no Tenarai” (A New Hobby at 77) by Akira Tsurukame, also a runner-up for the past two years. The story, read by actress Akiko Katagiri, is about a feisty grandmother who finds a new lease on life with a surprisingly modern hobby — and a little help from her granddaughter. An English translation by committee member Tiffany Tanaka was provided for non-Japanese speakers.
Shige Higashi of Cultural News said he and fellow judges Tomomi Kanemaru and Tatsuya Kawashima discussed the seven submissions at length and chose the story that they enjoyed the most and best reflected life in Little Tokyo. He explained that kiju signifies one’s 77th birthday, one of the special ages celebrated in Japan.
Tsurukame, who thanked his wife for helping him with his story, said that he has a long association with Little Tokyo, having arrived in the U.S. 52 years ago when he was 25. One of the first places he visited was the Sugar Bowl coffee shop, which was owned the parents of his boss, Jiro Takahashi.
Tsurukame was accompanied by relatives of Gongoro Nakamura, who along with Kashu Mainichi publisher Sei Fujii graduated from USC Law School but was not permitted to practice law because he was born in Japan. “Sei Fujii treated Gongoro Nakamura just like his younger brother, they were so close. So the funeral of Sei Fujii was performed by Gongoro Nakamura, and after 1952, when Japanese were permitted to become naturalized citizens, they had a big party at the Biltmore Hotel and Gongoro Nakamura was the emcee … So I really feel very close to Little Tokyo.”
Japanese category winner Akira Tsurukame and LTHS President Mike Okamura.
Atsuko Miyake was honored as the runner-up for “Kagawa Bunichi Story.”
The winner in the English adult category was James Toma, a member of the West Covina City Council and former mayor, for “Life at the Budokan.” He was introduced by Irene Tsukada Simonian, manager of Bunkado, who served as a judge along with Sharon Yamato and Dan Kwong.
“It was all agreed by the three of us how much we appreciated the heart and the thought that went into each and every one of the 14 stories that made the final list,” Simonian said. “We enjoyed reading every single one of them … I thank Little Tokyo Historical Society for focusing thought and attention to Little Tokyo and the deep roots, the history and culture that’s right under our feet. Two stories even mentioned Bunkado.”
Honorable mention went to Jeff Tanaka, who lives in British Columbia and was unable to attend, for “The Legend of Tsutomu and the Great Earthquake 2025.” Simonian said that Tanaka showed “amazing creativity and imagination, although … Little Tokyo gets destroyed in the end.”
She said that Toma’s story was “intriguing to me because it was set in the near future … in the fully operational Budokan. It’s a very touching story featuring an activity that’s very important to many Japanese American families. It gave me a sense of hope for a bright future for the father and the son, and I’d like to think that it also bodes well for the future of Little Tokyo.”
Toma donated his prize money to Budokan, the community sports center that will be constructed on Los Angeles Street.
When he considered entering the contest, Toma did not have a topic in mind until he was inspired by the Little Tokyo Service Center’s groundbreaking for the Budokan project. “My son Cruz plays basketball at the East San Gabriel Valley Japanese Community Center in West Covina … I’m familiar with the CYC Basketball organization … It’s a great setting for a story.”
Thanking his wife Minerva and his brother Mike for critiquing his story, Toma said that LTHS provided the “nudge” that he needed to challenge himself. “I’m a lawyer, so I do a lot of writing, but I don’t do this kind of writing.”
Because so many people expressed surprise that he won and told him, “I didn’t think of you that way,” Toma observed, “We sort of put ourselves in boxes. I’m a lawyer, I’m a politician … People think of you as what they see all the time and don’t think of you as having any possibility of doing other things … Maybe my story … will help motivate someone else out there.”
The story was read by actor and director Mike Hagiwara, who said, “I feel a personal connection to it because I came up in Asian basketball.”
Speakers also included LTHS President Michael Okamura and Short Story Contest Committee Chair Bill Watanabe. Also serving on the committee were Jan Fukuhara, Naomi Hirahara, Alison Minami, Emiko Mita, Eijiro Ozaki, Sindy Saito, Sunny Seki and Nancy Uyemura.
Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo