Following is the 2019 winner of the Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest in the Japanese Category. The English translation is by Tiffany Tanaka. The original story in Japanese also appears below.

It’s been seven and a half years since the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The Tokyo Olympics’ huge success resulted in our Japanese American community here in Los Angeles flourishing as well. 64 years after Fred Wada’s achievements led to the 1964 Olympics being held in Tokyo, Los Angeles will host the Olympics, and the venues are almost completed.

The Terasaki Budokan opened the same year as the 2020 Olympics, and increased people’s awareness of sports even more, attracting a whole range of people. There are also an increasing number of elderly who are exercising daily, in order to achieve greater health and physical fitness through exercise.

Separate from the Olympics, various improvements for the elderly were installed in Little Tokyo, and of course, quite a few elderly people utilized the Budokan. There were facilities where the elderly could gather and spend time, and transportation connecting the facilities was established as well. It’s great that there are so many resources available for the elderly, more than ten years after the sale of Keiro Nursing Home that occurred in 2015 divided the Japanese and Japanese American communities.

The nature of retirement facilities has changed dramatically from 2018. “Elderly,” a growing demographic, was hard to define by a person’s age or physical strength. Second-generation baby boomers are in their 60s to 80s, and there was an increase in the population of people who are living long lives, or who are active members of society. This is the story of how Ben and Akiko — two lively souls — met.

Ben was born in 1945, right after World War II ended. He is a Kibei Nisei, who was a young child growing up in the aftermath of the war — experiencing hardships and poverty in Japan before returning to the United States. Akiko was born in Japan, in the latter half of 1955, and was raised there until she came to Los Angeles as an international student. She had not experienced the war, and since her parents were well off, they granted their daughter’s wish to study in the United States.

Akiko was not very fluent in English and needed to attend a language school first. Her parents found her a homestay with a Japanese American family in West Los Angeles. There were also many Japanese students at the language school, and Akiko ended up speaking Japanese at school.

A few months after Akiko arrived in L.A., Nisei Week began, and Akiko visited Little Tokyo for the first time. Parade-goers were already claiming seats off First and Second streets. The view was similar to festivals in Japan, but also felt like a time travel to the early Showa period. A candy-art store caught Akiko’s eyes as she looked for a spot to watch the parade.

A man in his thirties named Ben, with fair skin, bright green eyes, and light brown hair, bumped into Akiko. “Oops, sorry,” Ben’s gentle voice said. “Gomen nasai,” he apologized a second time, in fluent Japanese. Ben’s father was of European descent, and his mother was a Nisei. Japanese and English was spinning in Akiko’s head until she finally blurted out, “Go..gomen nasai.” Ben and Akiko’s first encounter ended with this short exchange of words.

A few months later, Ben showed up as a teacher at Akiko’s language school. Ben had completely forgotten that he had bumped into her in Little Tokyo, but Akiko was shocked to see him. She sat in class, wide-eyed with her mouth open. Ben wondered if she was okay. During the break, Akiko asked Ben in Japanese, “Do you remember me?” Ben answered firmly with a gentle voice, “You can’t use Japanese in my classroom, Akiko.”

“Gomen nasai…Sorry, sorry. Uh.. do you remember me? You bumped me in Little Tokyo. In front of candy man performance.” After several seconds, he finally said, “Oh, now I remember.”

Ben was a strict teacher, and his class was divided into the studious group and the group that just wanted to have fun. Ben was a great teacher to students who wanted to learn, and Akiko decided to start taking her studies seriously so she could attend college. She hadn’t yet realized that she was developing feelings for Ben.

After six months, Akiko was a college student, immersed in college life and pursuing cultural anthropology, and her English had improved to the point where she could do presentations. Specifically, she wanted to research histories of Sansei, and to create a database by examining the connections between each person’s Japanese ancestors and current relatives.

Just before she was set to graduate college, a friend gave Akiko a ticket to a kabuki show at the Aratani Theater. It had been a while since her last visit, but Little Tokyo was unchanged, greeting Akiko with the look of the good old days of early Showa years. Much to Akiko’s surprise, the man seated next to her was Ben. She hadn’t been in contact with him since finishing her language school program.

“Ben Sensei!” Akiko called out. “Oh, Akiko-san, it’s been a while.” he replied in Japanese. It was four years since they first met in Little Tokyo. The two reminisced about their first encounter with each other, and Akiko briefly talked about college and her research before the kabuki show started.

They finally exchanged numbers after the show, and Akiko’s feelings for Ben were revived, but since she would graduate college and return to Japan, she felt like Cinderella before the clock struck midnight. Life in the United States was painful but fruitful.

Two weeks after the kabuki show, Akiko received a letter from Ben, who wrote how he was surprised to see her again and how proud he was of her hard work. Akiko replied that she would return to Japan in a few months. In his next letter, Ben asked Akiko to come to a restaurant in Little Tokyo for her farewell party. Akiko was delighted and accepted the invitation. At the farewell party, she saw several language school classmates, including those who she went to her first Nisei Week with. Time passed, and Akiko returned to Japan.

Akiko had gone on to graduate school to continue the research she began in college. One day, a letter from Ben arrived. He was coming to Japan, and asked her to show him around. Akiko happily obliged. She felt like it was fate that would reunite the two in Tokyo instead of Little Tokyo this time.

No one knew at the time, that Akiko would return to the United States after graduate school, and work on creating organizations for the elderly, or that she would be working on the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.


Naoko Okada works for the Nibei Foundation in West Los Angeles. This story, based on her experiences when she visited L.A. for the first time in the 1980s, was her third submission to the Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest. For more information on the contest, visit the Little Tokyo Historical Society’s website at

-リトル東京story Ben&Akiko編-














「Oops, sorry」











「You can’t use Japanese in my classroom, Akiko」


「ご、ごめんなさい。Sorry sorry. Ah, えとーdo you remember me? You bumped me in Little Tokyo. In front of candy man performance」


「Oh, now I remember.」






「Ben Sensei!」










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