By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
Three winners of the third annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest were announced on April 21 during an awards reception at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center.
Emcee Miya Iwataki, a member of the contest committee, said that this year’s submissions “made us laugh, moved us to tears, stretched the imagination, and made us nostalgic for the Little Tokyo that once was.”
Noting that the inaugural contest received 60 submissions, she said, “Now we’ve almost doubled to 112 submissions, this time from young people, Japanese-language people and English-speaking adults … from all over the U.S. and all over the world, from Okinawa to Maryland, from Arkansas to New York, and even the Armed Forces. About 5 percent of our entries come from across the world, and 25 percent are from outside California. We added the youth category last year.”
In the youth category, the winner was Sarena Kuhn of Los Alamitos for “Kumiko with Hidden Worlds,” which involves an eerie search for kamaboko that leads to a mysterious, subterranean Little Tokyo. The runner-up was Yuriko Chavez of West Covina for “Home Is Little Tokyo.”
Kuhn, who was a runner-up last year, was introduced by one of the judges, Sean Miura, producer of Little Tokyo’s Tuesday Night Café. He thanked the other judges, who were unable to attend — Paul Matsushima, program manager at Kizuna, and Cynthia Kadohata, award-winning author of books for young readers, including “Kira-Kira” and “Weedflower.”
The winning story, Miura said, “explores an alternate sort of fantastical side to Little Tokyo … It does allow us to imagine Little Tokyo … what it can be now and what it can be tomorrow, informed by what it has been in the past.”
“Kumiko with Hidden Worlds” was read by actress and writer Alison Minami, whose play “Face to the Sun” had a staged reading at East West Players and who appeared as a storyteller on “The Moth Radio Hour.”
“Thank you so much for really bringing that story to life,” said Kuhn, who also thanked LTHS “for giving me this opportunity to write about a place that I truly love and giving me an excuse to spend a day here for research.”
The other youth finalists were Lilian Bodley, “Yokai Aren’t Real”; Niki Borghei, “Escape”; Sarah Chan, “To Be Japanese in America”; Maia Hito, “Freed Captive”; Christina Liu, “The Cultural Connection”; Hanna B. Obolsky, “Samoti’s Legacy”; Sara Aiko Omura, “Six Wandering Souls”; and Rebecca Torrence, “If Only.”
The winner in the Japanese language category was Shirley Watanabe-Nishida of Los Angeles for “Obon, the Town, and Grandpa,” in which a young boy learns the real meaning of Obon during a poignant visitation from his late grandfather. The runners-up were Akira Tsurukame of Lomita for “Father and Daughter and Little Tokyo” and Takiko Morimoto of Manhattan Beach for “Fusion City.”
Deputy Consul General Izuru Shimmura, who served as a judge along with Dr. Hiroko Higuchi of the Little Tokyo Service Center’s South Bay office, actor Eijiro Ozaki, and children’s author Sunny Seki, said, “The four judges … had a very active exchange of views and opinions … through email exchange and meetings. A final decision was made in the last meeting, which continued for more than two hours in March.
“All judges were highly impressed with not only the quality of the entries but also the passion and affection for literature and Little Tokyo. A hard part of the decision-making was the wide range and wide variety of entries … The judges came up with ideas for the future development of the contest. One is to add a Japanese youth category … (and) encourage Japanese schools to participate in the contest.”
He said of the winning entry, “Its description of family love, history and future of Little Tokyo from a small boy’s point of view touched the hearts of all judges.”
“Obon, the Town, and Grandpa” was read by Ozaki, whose credits include the movies “Letters from Iwo Jima” and “Little Boy” and the TV shows “Heroes” and “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” A written English translation by committee member Tiffany Tanaka was provided for non-Japanese speakers.
“I’m glad that I got this opportunity to have my writing out for people to read and for a chance to explain how Little Tokyo used to be back when I was younger,” Watanabe-Nishida said.
The other Japanese language finalists were Shousei Higa for “Riding Along Interstate 5” and Masao Mike Okamoto for “The Big Blue Sky.”
The winner in the English language category was Jo Wocoski of Gaithersburg, Md., for “Last Master of Go,” a futuristic tale that explains how a total lunar eclipse, an earthquake, and the passing of the last go master at the age of 124 are connected to the fate of Little Tokyo.
The judges were actress Tamlyn Tomita, whose latest film, “The Unbidden” was shown at the L.A. Asian Pacific Film Festival; Marilyn Tokuda, arts education director at East West Players; and the late Don Nakanishi, former director of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center.
Iwataki called Nakanishi “a respected leader and scholar who gained national recognition for Asian American studies as a viable and relevant field for scholarship, teaching and community service. We lost Don on March 24 and we miss him greatly.”
Bill Watanabe, founding member of LTHS and chair of the contest committee, added, “We were hoping that Don Nakanishi would be doing this part. He and the judges had just finished doing their judging and I was going to email him after a meeting that we had that night … To our surprise, he had passed away that day. It was quite a shock … a great loss to the community.”
Watanabe noted that there were more than 60 English adult stories, and six readers narrowed the number down to 15 finalists. “If you’re a finalist … consider yourself having accomplished a lot because we had a very large pool …The judges had a hard time … trying to pick one winner and one runner-up.”
“Last Master of Go” was read by Darrell Kunitomi, an actor with the Grateful Crane Ensemble, a board member of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, and a volunteer with Go For Broke National Education Center’s Hanashi oral history program.
Wocoski was unable to attend, but was reached by webcam. “The reading was superb … He really brought out the characters,” he told the gathering.
Although he doesn’t play go, Wocoski said he was inspired by Yasunari Kawabata’s novel “The Master of Go,” which he read about 40 years ago. In the book, the master’s last game takes several months; in Wocoski’s story, the game takes several years.
Watanabe noted that this year’s English language runner-up, Ruben Guevara of Boyle Heights, whose story is titled “Merry Christmas, Mario-san,” has participated every year and has been a runner-up twice.
The other English language finalists were Jeridal Banks, “Little Tokyo Sonata”; Greg Beatty, “Remembering Little Tokyo”; Monique Bloomfield, “Anpan for Two”; Eira Fukuda, “Nihonmachi Receives Visitors”; Daniel Hopewell, “Boketto Forever”; Kent Morizawa, “Evergreen”; Tony Osumi, “Why It Never Snows in Lil Tokyo”; Trina Phillips, “Big Fun in Little Tokyo”; Karen Quintanilla, “The Day Fish Fly”; Chester Sakamoto, “Little Blue Tokyo”; Heather Smirnoff, “Other Tongues on Azusa”; Vinnie Stevens, “Adrift in Memory”; and Debbie Yasaki, “Ninja Problems.”
“For all the writers who participated, thank you and I hope you keep writing, keep trying … It takes some courage to do so and time and talent, so I want to encourage all of you to continue to do that,” Watanabe said. “There’s a tremendous art in the written word as well as the spoken word, which creates for all of us images that we can share and we can enjoy.”
LTHS President Michael Okamura said the number of submissions this year was “a remarkable achievement considering this is only the third year we’ve done it … With such great support, we’ll continue to do it as long as we can.”
Other committee members included Naomi Hirahara, Emiko Mita, Gwen Muranaka, Sindy Saito, Nancy Uyemura, and Jayson Yamaguchi.
This year’s platinum sponsor was Bunkado gift store. Speaking on behalf of store owner Irene Tsukada Simonian was her nephew, Colin Nozaki.
“This competition means a lot to my family,” he said. “We’ve been a part of the Little Tokyo community for 70 years now … 70 years of friendship, love and stories … As a Yonsei who grew up in Bakersfield, New Orleans and Virginia, it was hard to connect with the Japanese American community, so Little Tokyo really offered that cultural education, the background, the bonds necessary for me to understand and appreciate what it means to be a Japanese American.”
Winners each received $500 cash; runners-up received gift certificates from Toshi Sushi. Winning stories will be published in The Rafu Shimpo; finalists’ stories will be posted on the Discover Nikkei and Little Tokyo Historical Society websites.
Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo