By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
The winners of the sixth annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest were announced on April 18 at Union Church of Los Angeles in Little Tokyo.
Opening remarks were made by Michael Okamura, president of the Little Tokyo Historical Society, and mystery author Naomi Hirahara, chair of LTHS’ Short Story Committee.
The winner in the Youth Category was Austen Lock for “A Reason to Be Proud.” He was introduced by Jim Sherod of the Little Tokyo Public Library, who served as a judge along with Stephanie Nitahara of Kizuna. The story was read by actor Scott Keiji Takeda, who recently appeared in Luis Valdez’s play “Valley of the Heart” and is currently on the Netflix series “Huge in France.”
Sherod explained the selection process: “We based it not only on the written quality of the pieces but also on the essence of Little Tokyo that each piece displayed, because that is part of this writing contest. ‘A Reason to Be Proud’ exhibited a focused use of the narrative to display the thoughts of the character development throughout the story … Reaching back through a journal to include the influence of a great-grandfather, this created a quite textured feeling to the story … The tension of the newest generation and the previous generations was a realistic and integral part of the story and we also found that to be very reflective of the Little Tokyo that we see.”
Honorable mention went to Dylan Graff for “Rediscovery” and Oscar Depp for “The Retrograde Hikikomori.” A total of eight stories were submitted.
The winning story is about a young man who is embarrassed to be Japanese American until he learns more about his heritage.
Austen, a student at McAuliffe Middle School in Los Alamitos, said, “Little Tokyo is an amazing place and a chance to enter a contest for this area is incredible … My baachan was the one who first told me about this contest, and my parents were the real push to get my story completed. Although I never met him, my great-grandfather, who served in the 442nd during WWII and received the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, largely influenced both my story from last year and this year.”
Austen’s great-grandfather, William Terao, was wounded in the battle of Bruyeres, France, became an interpreter for U.S. forces in occupied Japan, and was ordained as a Buddhist priest, working at the Gardena and Orange County Buddhist churches.
The winner in the Japanese Category was Naoko Okada for “Ben and Aiko.” She was introduced by Shige Higashi of **Cultural News** who served as a judge along with Duncan Williams, author and USC professor. The story was read by actress Megumi Anjo, an actress, singer and dancer who has appeared in a number of short films. Committee member Tiffany Tanaka provided a written English translation.
Higashi said the story was about a Kibei Nisei man who is also Hapa and a Japanese woman who comes to the U.S. to study. “Ben and Akiko bump into each other by accident during the Nisei Week Festival in Little Tokyo, and that would be the start of the connection that would span from Ben’s role as Akiko’s English language instructor at her school, another chance encounter at a performance at a theater, and then a letter exchange.” Ultimately the two would meet again in Tokyo and yet again in L.A.
Higashi said he was reminded of stories he had heard from couples in the Japanese American community.
Okada, who works for the Nibei Foundation, thanked Hisako Terasaki, Akira and Joann Hirose, singer Chinatsu and her family for coming out to show support.
“This is my third time submitting a short story and finally I could get chosen,” she said. “Thank you, Mr. Higashi, for choosing my story and Mr. [Sunny] Seki for letting me know that there was short story contest three years ago.
“I created the story based on my experience in the ’80s in Los Angeles, when I came to visit for the first time. I will keep writing stories for the future.”
Honorable mention went to Hiromi Ishimaru for “Toko’s Letter.” A total of six stories were submitted.
The winner in the English Category was Cody Uyeda, a student at USC’s Gould School of Law, for “Promise Me You’ll Remember.” He was introduced by Teresa Watanabe of The Los Angeles Times, who served as a judge along with poet, novelist and educator Sesshu Foster and Irene Tsukada Simonian of Bunka-do. The story was read by actor Jonathan Ohye, whose TV credits include “General Hospital,” “Magnum P.I.,” and the forthcoming “Grand Hotel” and “What/If.”
“It was so difficult to choose because there was so much great writing … and we finally had to boil it down,” recalled Watanabe, who said of the winning story, “We believe it really reflected the spirit and sense of little Tokyo in addressing the very pressing issue of the neighborhood’s survival while reflecting Japanese and Japanese American values of perseverance and staying true to your word.
“It was beautifully written. There were beautiful lines, lovely turns of phrases like a strand of hair ‘giving off a scent of coconut shampoo’ or ‘a splash of moonlight under a lone maple tree.’ And we felt that the prose was both very lush but also very spare without any wasted words. There was no excessive exposition and he didn’t engage in needless dialogue that really didn’t add to anything.”
The narrator remembers how he met his deceased girlfriend, a community activist. “Although we never did learn her name, we were able to feel through his writing her vibrant, bright presence and her singular passion to save Little Tokyo’s iconic Japanese garden,” said Watanabe.
Discussing how the story came to be written, Uyeda said, “I was an English major as an undergrad, but my focus was poetry and nonfiction writing. So it’s actually the first fictional short story I’ve ever written … It was quite a surprise [to win] but also it felt in a way validating to be able to share a story that I hope resonates with some big issues and values and ideas. Little Tokyo has meant a lot to me as a fourth-generation Japanese American … so that was kind of my inspiration for writing it.”
Honorable mention went to Nina Louise for “Meet-Up at the Shabu Shabu House,” which also earned high praise from Watanabe. There were 15 finalists out of more than 20 stories submitted.
“This is our sixth annual contest and I have to admit, when we were planning this, we were kind of thinking, ‘Should we do another one? Is there enough interest to do another one?’” said Hirahara. “And I think for me personally, these are some of the reasons.”
One is Rubén Funkahuatl Guevara, a two-time runner-up, who is adapting one of the short stories he submitted into a play.
Another is Ann Malaspina, a finalist, who took her short story and made it into a children’s book, “A Scarf for Keiko,” which was recently published.
A third example is Sarena Kuhn, who didn’t win the first time she submitted but won the second time. Now a freshman at UC Berkeley, she is majoring in civil and environmental engineering and hopes to minor in creative writing or double-major in English. During her last year in high school, she participated in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards in New York.
“My senior writing portfolio received a gold medal, so I got to stand on stage at Carnegie Hall and receive a $10,000 scholarship,” Kuhn wrote in a letter to Hirahara. “I don’t think I would have had the confidence to submit my portfolio had I not won the Little Tokyo contest two years ago. That was really my first form of validation as a writer. That was a time where I felt like I was truly a part of the Japanese American community, which opened up a new perspective I could write about within my portfolio, and I plan to continue to write about that experience in my future work.”
Hirahara noted that Kuhn is also writing articles for UC Berkeley’s newspaper, The Daily Californian, including “Uprooted: Remembering Japanese American Internment in California and My Family’s Past.”
Hirahara’s message to aspiring writers: “There are people who come up to me and say, ‘I have this great idea for a story.’ Or they say, ‘Read this first part of my story,’ and I read it and it’s really good, but they never finish it. So I want to laud every single person who has finished a story for a contest, because just finishing is a huge accomplishment. You could do a lot with a finished story, and they’re a really good beginning.”
In addition to Okamura, Hirahara, Higashi and Tanaka, committee members included Jan Fukuhara, Miya Iwataki, Emiko Mita, Sindy Saito, Nancy Uyemura and Bill Watanabe.
The winners’ and honorable mentions’ stories will be posted on the LTHS website (www.littletokyohs.org) by July 1 and on the Japanese American National Museum’s Discover Nikkei website (www.discovernikkei.org), which has a global audience. The winning stories will also be published in The Rafu Shimpo.
Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo