Speakers, judges and committee members at Imagine Little Tokyo event. Front row, from left: Kathryn Otoshi, Yuko Kaifu, Martie Quan Kawahara, Miya Iwataki, Michael Okamura, Naomi Hirahara, Iris Yamashita, Tamlyn Tomita, Consul General Kenko Sone, Jeanne Sakata, Janis Hirohama, Megumi Anjo. Back row, from left: Eijiro Ozaki, Nicole Oshima, DC Palter, Kevin Lew, Nick Nagatani, Greg Watanabe.

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

Imagine Little Tokyo, a short story contest sponsored by the Little Tokyo Historical Society and celebrating its 10th anniversary, announced this year’s winners on May 20 during an in-person event held at the Japanese American National Museum’s Tateuchi Democracy Forum.

Introductory remarks were made by LTHS President Michael Okamura and contest co-chairs Miya Iwataki and Naomi Hirahara.

Actor and activist Tamlyn Tomita, serving as emcee, noted that it was appropriate to hold the event during Asian American-Native Hawaiian-Pacific Islander Heritage Month and that it was significant that it was taking place during the Writers Guild of America’s strike against Hollywood producers. “You’re all writers,” she reminded the audience. “You all must support writers for the stories and the histories you’re able to watch and consume … through film and television.”

Tomita noted that the contest has grown over the years, adding Japanese-language and youth categories, “expanding the pool of short story possibilities,” and recruiting well-known actors to read the winning stories. And although the last three award ceremonies were held virtually due to the pandemic, she said, “the virtual celebration actually was a benefit because it … helped us throw out our short story contest across the nation and internationally as well.”

This year, submissions were received not only from across the U.S. and Japan but also from Uganda, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Canada, India, Armenia, Sri Lanka and Poland, Tomita said, and the prize money was increased to $1,000 per category to celebrate the anniversary.

The winning story in the English Youth Category was “One Thousand Cranes” — a granddaughter’s loving memories of her grandmother, a Little Tokyo shopkeeper — by 15-year-old Jocelyn Doan of Marietta, Ga. Honorable mention went to “Unlocking Memories” by Madeline Thach of Colleyville, Texas and “Ba-chan” by Zoe Lerdworatawee of San Diego.

Imagine Little Tokyo co-chair Miya Iwataki, emcee Tamlyn Tomita and co-chair Naomi Hirahara with strawberry daifuku from Fugetsu-Do served in honor of one of the winning stories.

The English Youth Category judges were Kevin Awakuni, lead librarian, Los Angeles Public Library; Eloise Wong, musician, The Linda Lindas; and Kathryn Otoshi, children’s author.

Awakuni recalled, “What we committee members were charged with was to find a story that captured the spirit and sense of Little Tokyo. The stories we received ranged from robots to teenage time travelers … I found the experience insightful, getting what the next generation of writers and storytellers are thinking about the world, what their concerns are.”

DC Palter, the winner in the English Adult Category, received his prize from LTHS President Michael Okamura.

Of the winning story, Awakuni said, “One of the many things that the committee enjoyed was the specificity … such as the location of various places in Little Tokyo.” He also praised the writer’s “sophisticated rhythm” and “polished and mature voice” in depicting “the beautiful relationship between the grandparents and the main character.”

The story was read by actress Mika Dyo (“No No Girl”) via video and Doan — who has not yet visited Little Tokyo — thanked the contest organizers in a video message.

Japanese Category judge Yuko Kaifu, actress Mayumi Saco, winner Miho Hirayama.

The winning story in the Japanese Category was “Color” by Miho Hirayama of Nagoya. Honorable mention went to “Why Not? Little Tokyo!” by Kosuke Kaburagi of Tokyo.

English Youth Category judge Kevin Awakuni

The judges were Yuko Kaifu, president, Japan House Los Angeles; Keiko Fukuda, author; and Mitsuyasu Sakai, director.

Kaifu, who said it was “so tough” to pick the best submission, explained that the winning story was about a boy who has lost his mother. He and his father relocate from Japan to Los Angeles, and while visiting a shop in Little Tokyo, they are reminded of the strawberry daifuku (mochi) that the father used to buy his wife to encourage her when she was feeling down. “It’s about the family, it’s about friends, and it’s about love and the community.”

The story was read, via video, by voice and theatre actress Mayumi Saco, with English subtitles provided by Mina Otsuka. A video message from Hirayama was shown.

English Adult Category judge Iris Yamashita

In honor of the story, strawberry daifuku from Fugetsu-Do was served after the program.

The winner in the English Adult Category was “The Last Days of the Dandy Lion” by DC Palter of Mar Vista. Honorable mention went to “Aftershocks” by Alison Ozawa Sanders of Santa Cruz.

The judges were Iris Yamashita, screenwriter and novelist; Jeanne Sakata, actress and playwright; and Alden Hayashi, author.

Yamashita discussed the winning story about an old-school Little Tokyo ramen restaurant that faces closure unless it is able to change with the times. “There were so many great stories, so I thought this is going to be hard, we’re not going to be able to find one winner. But amazingly, we all agreed on the winner. I think it was just the amazing specificity of the story and the way he was able to capture the spirit of Little Tokyo, including our two favorite things … food and community.”

The judges were unaware of the writers’ names or backgrounds, so Yamashita was surprised to learn that the winner is not from the Little Tokyo community but did “such an amazing job.”

Actress Mika Dyo and English Youth Category winner Jocelyn Doan

The story was read in-person by actor Greg Watanabe, and Palter was on hand to receive his prize from Okamura.

While living in Tokyo, Palter recalled, he and other foreigners spent a lot of time at a particular restaurant. “Pretty much every night we would just go there, hang out, eat … and drink a lot … Last time I went back, the restaurant was gone and I was just very sad about that. And I thought, I really want to write a story about that shop and the people that hung out there … It was a neighborhood pub where everybody hung out, everybody knew each other.”

Actor Greg Watanabe read the winning English Adult story.

Since he and his wife have lived in L.A. for nearly 30 years, he decided to set his story in Little Tokyo, though he confessed, “We are not Little Tokyo people, we are Little Osaka (Sawtelle Japantown) people.”

Palter noted that Little Tokyo is “just full of people and it’s great. Lots of new shops, lots of excitement, lots of young people. Then I think about the older shops that have been here, and as they start to close down … we lose something as well, and that’s what I wanted to write about.”

The program also included a drawing for prizes donated by local businesses and community organizations.

Members of the contest committee included Jon Kenzo Okeya (poster design), Bill Watanabe, Clyde Fugami, Eijiro Ozaki, Emiko Mita, Janis Hirohama, Kevin Keizuchi Lew, Kathy Tokudomi, Martie Quan Kawahara, Megumi Anjo, Nick Nagatani, Nicole Oshima, Shige Higashi and Steve Nagano.

The winning stories will be published/posted by Discover Nikkei and The Rafu Shimpo.

Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo

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