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Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest

A Wedding in Little Tokyo

It was Saturday evening. Mitsue Yamashita’s fingers moved nimbly over a pair of kimono panels. She threaded a needle through the autumn design, stitching the panels together which were the last to be assembled for the kimono she intended to wear for the Little Tokyo Nisei Week festivities. It was the fifth year of the worst economic downturn anyone could remember and everyone feared the festival would fail to attract people outside the Issei and Nisei community.

Mitsue and her friends sat in a circle sewing their own kimonos from fabrics imported from Japan. The other girls thought Mitsue the prettiest of their lot and therefore one of the loveliest girls in their neighborhood. They held her in envious awe, were proud of her beauty, expecting that with her slender neck and small features she would be named queen and they, alas, her court.

Reiko, Mitsue’s best friend, chattered away, as usual, paying slight attention to her work. She pricked her finger with her needle and cried out when she noticed a small bubble of blood had stained the gold thread of her nearly completed kimono.

“Oh, Mitsue,” said the frenzied Reiko. “I’ve pressed a bloody fingerprint into my gown. What shall I do?”

Mitsue frowned at her friend’s stained fabric, realizing the spot couldn’t be easily removed from silk without leaving a water mark. Reiko burned with shame at her clumsiness.

Mitsue said, “Perhaps we can hide it. A little rice powder helps to cover my blemishes. Why not this?” Reiko wished her own skin were as smooth, lips as pink, and teeth as white as Mitsue’s instead of her own accursed chubby hen’s body with matching complexion. Reiko brightened with hope, accepting without reservation both Mitsue’s cleverness and beauty.

The Hit Parade played softly in the background playing the Andrews sisters. Reiko tossed her kimono aside and skidded across the smooth maple floor in her black and white saddle shoes, treating the laughing girls to her cockamamie version of the Lindy Hop. It felt good to dance to the American tunes even if many people outside of Little Tokyo called them un-American.

Their entertainment was cut short when Hiroshi Watanabe, the vegetable seller’s son, burst in.

“Have you heard the news?” he asked breathlessly.

“What news?” Reiko stopped her dance in mid leg-thrust. Her meticulously plucked and penciled eyebrows, as doll-like and fashionable as Claudette Colbert’s, arched high over questioning eyes.

“A new law to rub our noses in. Dad says we have to register with the FBI as aliens now. We have to tell them where we live and if we change our residence.”

“We’re not aliens,” said Mitsue, angrily. “Your grandma came here decades ago. My mom left Japan when she was a young girl. We’ve been here longer than the Grunewalds and the Albinis. Do they have to register as enemy aliens?” Mitsue already knew the answer. She attended Catholic school that accepted girls of all ethnicities because the public schools refused to enroll girls of Japanese descent or herded them into separate classrooms with the Negroes and Spanish.

“But they’re citizens,” sighed Hiroshi. “They don’t have to register, at least, not yet.”

“Why can’t we be citizens?” chimed Mitsue.

“Everyone thinks we’re still loyal to the emperor. The States are supporting China against the Japanese forces.”

Mitsue glanced down in despair at the beautiful cream colored fabric, with beet red pomegranates arranged against green banana leaves symbolizing fecundity in the Shinto religious tradition. Her cheeks flushed in frustration. Of course she was loyal to the Japanese. They were her people, they spoke her language; she had been rocked in the cradle of their sufferings, their triumphs, beliefs. But how could she explain how much more she loved the America of her birth than any nation across the sea.

The Yamashitas had left nothing in Shiga prefecture when they came to America. Only a cousin, Miraku, born the same year as Mitsue, remained there in a house at the edge of their mountain town. Miraku had been burned as a baby and her face bore an ugly scar resembling a lick of soot across her cheeks. Because of that scar Miraku had been left to work on the farm. She would not be married nor come to America as the rest had. Her future was grim. Mitsue didn’t understand why she was thinking of Miraku.

Hiroshi interrupted Mitsue’s reverie.

“Dad said the farmers and vegetable truckers across Broadway want to close us down, confiscate our land and businesses, send us packing back to Nippon. The whites say they’ll do just fine without us. I’ll bet those hicks from MacAfee’s Garden Specialties, would think it swell if they could get rid of us.”

Hiroshi balled his fists in a show of manly resolve but there wasn’t much anyone could do if the plan to dispossess them gained traction with politicians. Hiroshi said the bank could foreclose on them at any time. If people turned against them, where would they go? How would they survive?

“Look,” squealed Reiko rushing to press her face between the window curtains, “lanterns, rows and rows of glowing paper lanterns floating down the alley. I don’t see anyone carrying the lanterns. I don’t see anyone at all. Someone must be playing tricks. Maybe it’s a ghost bride’s wedding."

“Not now,” sighed Mitsue, used to Reiko’s flights of fancy. “Can’t you see we’re discussing something serious?”

“Think what you like,” said Reiko huffily, “but I know something mysterious is about to happen.”

Mitsue indulged her friend and peered through the window. A dim paper lantern swung listlessly in front of the Nippon Lounge, nothing more. A dismal rain fell on the street. For some reason, she felt an ache of disappointment. Weren’t rows of paper lanterns on a rainy evening supposed to be part of a wedding party of a fox king and his bride? But there were no weddings and no foxes in Little Tokyo.

* * *

In a forest, outside a small mountain village in Shiga prefecture near the ancient city of Kyoto, Miraku, a slender black-haired, brown-eyed girl with skin as white as rice paper, plucked what the land would yield that day. She found a few pine nuts, some fat red berries, and a mound of golden mushrooms sprouting from fallen tree stumps. She placed them in the twig basket she had fashioned. She would trade these in the village market for rice cakes and fish. As she worked she remembered the music she had heard played on the koto when the traveling kabuki show came last spring.

Lost in thought, Miraku trod lightly over a forest floor muffled by millennia of dry moss and pine needles, when she heard a high-pitched sound followed by low growls and barks that made her neck hairs stand on end. She pulled her black kimono tightly around her and pulled down her straw hat. She worried the sound was a troop of mountain ghosts, searching for some living soul to capture. She hid in the shadow of a maple tree hoping the ghosts would not notice her.

Again she heard the cry and, in the midst of it, something sinister. She followed the sound until she reached a thicket of twigs buttressed by rows of large boulders. A wild dog sat grinning, its teeth and paws covered in blood. At its feet lay two fox kits, now lifeless. Another kit fox cringed between the rocks just out of reach of the dog’s muzzle. Miraku found a tree branch and swung it hard at the she-dog several times before the dog abandoned her rights to the kill.

With gentle hands Miraku lifted the trembling fox, cradling it until its hysterical panting gave way to fitful sleep. The girl also dozed. She awakened to the glow of a green light that seemed almost fluorescent in the forest’s foliage. She believed she had slept until the new dawn.

As the light danced through the trees it moved toward her with apparent purpose and direction. Suddenly Miraku heard another burst of barks which roused the kit puppy. Pushing a snout through the pine branches, there appeared a snow white fox, a kitsune. Miraku counted five fluffy white tails arched over the vixen’s back and another four carried closer to the ground. Her eyes expressed quickness beyond the cunning of an ordinary fox. Miraku knew she was face-to-face with a vixen of great age and wisdom, capable of wondrous, magical feats. As the fox gazed cautiously at her, Miraku sensed a delicate sensitivity in the kitsune which gave the aspect of a lovely human courtesan. The fox bared her teeth when she spoke and the guard hairs around her nostrils moved together as a field of poppies traced by the wind.

The fox’s remaining pup leapt between her paws as she surveyed the disaster that had befallen her family. “Because of your courage, my last pup was spared. For this I shall repay you. I am Getzu, a spirit of Inari, Lord of the rice crop that sustains the people and all things newly born. I see fire has scarred your sweet face, and now humans shun you because they are unable to perceive true beauty.”

The fox removed a rice ball from her thick fur, chewed it to a fine paste and applied it to Miraku’s burned skin which at once became as smooth, white, and plump as a babe’s. Then the fox twitched her tail seven times and the low hanging, early autumn gingko leaves turned to golden coins. “We must make haste,” said the kitsune. “Events are moving swiftly with your family in America and we must not tarry.”

* * *

Reiko cooed, “I heard Mary Pickford is coming to Nisei Week as a guest of Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt.”

“It’s Tom Mix that’s coming, Reiko,” answered Mitsue. “Don’t you listen?”

“And she’ll be Grandmaster of Ceremonies,” continued Reiko, “and ride in the romantic Lincoln limousine…like Charlie Chaplin did for the first Nisei Week. Then they’ll judge the beauty contest, see how wonderful you are and give you a screen test for the movies.”

“You read too many fan magazines, Reiko,” said Mitsue, frowning. “Why must I always claw you down from the clouds? The judges will be the mayor, Dr. Engstrom from the clinic, and Mrs. Robinson from Robinson’s department store.”

“Oh, pfft. I can’t wait to see them eating sushi with chopsticks,” pealed Reiko.

“I’ll make sure they get plenty of wasabi.”

* * *

Reiko ran the six blocks from the Little Tokyo Grill on Alameda Avenue to Mitsue’s father’s auto repair shop. She climbed the steps of the Yamashita family apartment and pounded on the door. Only then did she catch her breath.

“Oh, Mitsue,” she called out. “Tell your mother and come quickly. A mystery woman has arrived at the Matsuhara Hotel, in a taxi. She must be rich as Croesus to come from Kyoto on the New Star Line. She must be a film star.”

The girls waited and when the woman emerged again from the hotel, hailing another taxi, Mitsue noticed that she wore the most beautiful kimono she had ever seen, abalone-white silk, wrapped with a plum-colored obi. She wore many kanzashi in her hair, geta platforms on dainty feet, and a magnificent fox fur.

The girls followed the taxi and were stunned to find it parked in front of Mitsue’s residence. It appeared the beautiful foreigner had business with the Yamashitas. There were many tears when the young woman introduced herself as Miraku, the lost, disfigured cousin of Shiga prefecture. Mitsue, paying rapt attention, noticed that Miraku took great care placing her belongings in her room, especially the white fox fur she carried.

That night, while everyone slept, Getzu, disguised as Miraku’s fur stole, stirred and the nine-tailed fox called kitsune, prepared to carry out her plan. She took the form of a mist and floated softly to the Watanabe greengrocers. She made her way behind the store front where lay two acres of luscious crops: tomatoes, lettuce, daikon radishes, carrots, and cucumbers, and even a few plump mice. Once close to the soil she assumed her most feminine kitsune form. Everything she desired was in the Watanabe fields and she indulged herself with delight. With a flash of her nine tails, like nine bolts of lightning, she bewitched the Watanabe fields and shop so others might see only what she wished them to see.

The next morning, Mr. Turnbull, president of Great Locke Bank, arrived unexpectedly at the Watanabe greengrocer. The Watanabes were surprised to see him emerge from his chauffeur-driven Bentley, remove his top hat, and assist a wealthy dowager from the back seat. No one noticed the dowager’s shadow resembled a fox slinking on its haunches.

The fat banker pounded his fist demanding the Watanabe’s pay the full amount of their mortgage at once because the new law allowed a take-over of the property since the owners faced expulsion from the country. He was covering his risks he intoned. It wasn't personal. Sadly, Mr. Watanabe walked the banker out to examine his well-stocked fields. But the banker was shocked to find the golden fields had turned as black as pitch on a dung heap.

The mortified banker apologized profusely to the dowager for the miserable condition of the property he had been so sure she would buy. Here, instead, was an unsalable piece of land for which he would now gladly accept his tenant’s modest monthly payments. Outraged, the fox/dowager advised Mr. Turnbull she would close her accounts at his bank forthwith.

The Watanabes were overjoyed at their good fortune. When the Yamashitas came to join the celebration Mitsue introduced her beautiful cousin Miraku who wore the wonderful white fox fur about her neck. Only Miraku could feel the beating heart of Getzu.

Mr. Watanabe said, “When I was a child in Shiga prefecture the mountain men tried to frighten us with old Shinto tales of forest spirits, especially the powerful kitsune tricksters who could shape-shift and cast spells. They said one must be careful always to behave in ways that pleased the fox spirit, because if crossed, they could be dangerous.” He reached for the fox pelt, cold and dull-eyed. He said, “I see so many fox furs on ladies these days, but none as grand as this one. It must have brought us luck.”

And so it came to pass that Mitsue won the Nisei Week beauty contest. The brothers Hiroshi and Nioshi Watanabe fell deeply in love with Mitsue and Miraku Yamashita. When spring came there was a double wedding in Little Tokyo. It was a grand affair with row upon row of lighted paper lanterns carried by happy children. And it rained that day while the sun was out—a lucky sun-shower—always a good omen for a fox wedding.

 

*This story was one of the finalists in the Little Tokyo Historical Society’s Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest.

 

© 2014 Avril Adams

discrimination fiction fox kitsune little tokyo Nisei Week short story spirits World War II

About this series

As part of Little Tokyo Historical Society’s (LTHS) 130th Anniversary of Little Tokyo (1884-2014) celebratory activities throughout the year, LTHS held a fictional short story contest that awarded cash prizes to the top three. The fictional story had to depict the current, past or future of Little Tokyo as part of the City of Los Angeles, California.

  • First Place: “Doka B-100” by Ernest Nagamatsu.
  • Second Place: “Carlos & Yuriko” by Rubén Guevara.
  • Third Place: “Mr. K” by Satsuki Yamashita.

Some of the other Finalists:


*Read stories from other Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contests:

Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest II >> 
Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest III>>