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Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest

Nihonmachi Serenade

Prologue: September 14, 1992 

I am often drawn back to places that hold a sentimental value for me. That being said, I had not been to Little Tokyo in years, but when I read in the paper that a new museum was opening to honor the legacy of Japanese Americans, I made it a point to pay it a visit.

The Japanese American National Museum was housed in the Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple building on First Street and Central Avenue. The temple had served as a place of worship for a good forty-five years before becoming a local landmark and a nod to the community’s rich past. It looked just as majestic as I remembered as the bus dropped me off at its doorstep.

Entering the museum was like stepping into a time capsule. The intoxicating ether of old stone filled my nostrils and sent me on a tidal wave of nostalgia with everything coming back to me in cinematic images in my memory. It was overwhelming, and caused me to literally stumble through the entrance. Clutching my heart, and feeling the years of weight of the item in my breast pocket, I took a deep breath to regain my composure, and finally had my first look inside.

The tomblike silence proved a stark contrast to the urban white noise outside. A kind docent smiled and offered me a guide as I tentatively walked through the lobby. Mumbling my thanks, I stepped into the museum’s cavernous depths.

Not being a very large museum, I found what I was looking for relatively quickly. It was on the second floor: a stark white room devoted entirely to the 442nd. Display cases showcased belongings like medals, books, and mementos while black-and-white photographs adorned the walls, each depicting young Nisei men in uniform who had been willing to sacrifice everything for their country, despite the adversity they had faced at home. They called out to me across the vast expanse of time, space, and dimensions that separated us.

However, there was one large photograph at the end of the room that made me freeze where I stood. The same dizzying sensation that had taken ahold of me when I arrived began again.

It hung directly at eye level. A little display card on the wall gave the name of its subject and a date: Dan Tanimura in military uniform. Manzanar Internment Camp, June 1944. The familiar face of a charming young man smiled at me, a symbol of hope and optimism despite the bleakness of his surroundings.

My knees were suddenly weak with exhaustion and I fell to the floor, my head spinning in an unpleasant, nauseating way. Fumbling within the confines of my coat, I produced the item from my left breast pocket. It was a small green binder notebook, a journal. Flipping it open to the front flap, a name was neatly written on the top left in faded blue ink: Dan Tanimura.

“At last,” I said, gazing up once more at the young man in the photograph. “I’ve caught up with you, my friend.”


October 27, 1941

This marks the first entry in what is to become my not-so-scathing memoirs. The point is to chronicle my thoughts and experiences so that I may look upon them again at an older age to see how much (or how little) I’ve changed.

Perhaps it’s best if I start off by introducing myself. My name is Dan Tanimura. I’m seventeen years old and live in Little Tokyo with my mother, father, and younger brother, Charlie. Like most people my age, I go to school and try to get good grades. When I’m not studying, I’m usually drawing or writing. I pride myself in having an active imagination. In fact, I work part-time as both a writer and cartoonist for the Sho Tokyo Shinbun, a bilingual Japanese/English publication based in our neighborhood. Sometimes, I have so many ideas that it feels like my head will explode! I wish my boss, old Editor Hasegawa, would actually use one of them every now and then.

Well, I suppose that’s all for now. Dinner’s almost ready, so that’s definitely my cue to leave. I’ll write again soon!


October 30, 1941

I sometimes wonder what life has in store for me. I mean, I know what I want to be when I grow up, but sometimes life works against you and you end up doing the complete opposite of what you’d planned for yourself. My biggest fear is that I’ll be forgotten. I want to leave a lasting impression on the sands of time. That way, I’ll know that I made the most of my life.


November 2, 1941

“The Nighthawk knows all…”

I awoke this morning with that phrase in my mind. It came to me in a dream, and even though I have no idea what it means, I decided to write it down, just in case something comes to mind later on. I’m off to school now, though I only managed to do some of my algebra homework. Those problems were hard!


November 11, 1941

I’m sorry that I haven’t written lately. So much has been happening. However, I now know what “The Nighthawk knows all” means.

Last Tuesday, I went to work as usual. No sooner had I arrived did my boss, Editor Hasegawa, come bursting out of his office like a bull out of a chute. He was ranting and raving about a decrease in readership.

“These are troubling times,” he shouted. “And delivering the news alone is not good enough. Therefore, I am willing to entertain some ideas as to how we can improve our paper and regain our reputation of being a top-notch publication for the community.”

The minute he finished speaking, little clusters of writers gathered together and spoke conspiratorially. I simply stood by my desk and tried to think of something when, out of nowhere, I could have sworn I heard “The Nighthawk knows all” whispered into my ear. A creepy shudder ran down my spine, but I nevertheless spoke up because an idea had occurred to me.

“Why not publish a weekly serial?” I asked.

All eyes turned to me. The silence was deafening. Through it all, I thought I heard the distant echoes of a hearty laugh.

“We could do a weekly serial,” I reiterated. “Some newspapers and magazines print fiction, and they serialize the work so it engages readers and keeps them coming back each week.”

Editor Hasegawa smiled. “Tanimura, you’re a genius,” he said, clapping me on the back. “I’ll put you in charge of it.”

A panic came over me as my colleagues applauded my “brilliant idea.” “Wait, that’s not what I…”

“If this proves successful,” the portly man cut me off. “You’ll get a raise.”

A defeated sigh escaped my lips. How could I say no? “Yes, sir. I’ll get started on it right away.”

“Don’t sweat it,” the chief editor said. “You’re a writer. It’ll come to you in no time!”

The only problem was that it didn’t. I was worried because it suddenly seemed that all inspiration was gone. The deadline for my first installment was fast approaching, and I hadn’t written a thing.

But then, two nights ago, a strange event took place that I shall never forget. I’m only confiding this to you, dear journal, because I fear that anyone else would think me crazy.

The Shinbun had officially closed for the day. I, however, opted to stay after hours in an attempt to write my story. My hands were poised over the keys like a pianist before a concert, but still nothing came.

Then, from the hallway, the sound of hearty laughter caused me to jump. With wide, fearful eyes, I watched as the silhouette of a man with a hat appeared at the frosted-glass door. The knob turned slowly left, then right. The door creaked open…

…There stood a tall, Japanese man. He had a rough but handsome face and a chiseled jaw. Along with the black fedora, he wore a black trench coat with a white dress shirt underneath. The only item of clothing with color was a blazing red tie, the same color as the sun on the Hinomaru.

When the stranger finally locked eyes with me, he smiled a friendly smile, one that instantly drove some of my fear away.

“E—Excuse me,” I stammered, once I regained my voice. “But the paper is closed for the night.”

“I know,” the man replied, his voice a rich baritone. “I’ve come to help you, Tanimura-san.”

My heart pounded and I trembled. “How do you know who I am?”

After a short chuckle, he answered with an air of mystery, “The Nighthawk knows all…”

If my eyes had been wide before, they must have been like saucers at that point. “You,” I whispered. The phrase from my dream, the whisper in my ear, the echo of laughter… It all made sense. “It was you,” I said with wonder. “You’ve been there all this time.”

He laughed that now familiar hearty laugh. “Don’t you see? I was always that idea in the back of your head. I just figured you’d need that little extra push of inspiration, so,” he indicated himself grandly. “Here I am. And let me tell you, I’m glad to be out of there! Your mind is packed with ideas!”

He pulled up a chair and sat across the desk from me. “And now, have I got a story for you…”

The both of us stayed up for the remainder of the night. The tale he related to me could have been ripped out of a pulp magazine. He was a mystic, from the old country, who had psychic abilities and telekinetic powers, which he used benevolently. When he came to America, he settled in Little Tokyo, and vowed to protect his adopted city from crime and evil. I could see the images in my mind’s eye, like a motion picture, as my fingers danced upon the typewriter keys.

I guess at some point, I fell asleep, for when I awoke, it was morning. The Nighthawk was gone, but there, neatly stacked before me was the completed story.


November 18, 1941

What a week it’s been! The first installment of The Nighthawk was published in the Shinbun last Thursday and the reaction has been uproarious. I’m actually getting stopped on the street by people of all ages, telling me how much they love the characters and suspense. It’s funny, but when I bring up that raise to Editor Hasegawa, he suffers from a kind of temporary amnesia.

And of course, there’s the Nighthawk himself. Most every time I’m working on the next installment, he appears again, seemingly out of nowhere, offering advice, suggestions, and a friendly ear. He’s becoming one of my closest friends. My parents, however, are worried that I’m spending too much time “alone.” Boy, if they only knew!


November 25, 1941

Happy belated Thanksgiving!

My weekly serial is still garnering a great deal of praise and positive feedback from the community. To tell you the truth, I couldn’t be happier. It’s not because of the recognition, but I feel as if I’ve finally found my purpose, my niche, on this earth. I owe it all to the Nighthawk.

Speaking of the Nighthawk, he said something rather ominous the other evening while I was wrapping up the third installment. I was typing away, riding the high of inspiration, when he suddenly said, “Something’s going to happen.”

I froze. “What do you mean?”

“I don’t know,” he said, turning away from the window. “I have a feeling that something big is going to happen, and that it will have a huge bearing on this community.”

I sat back, my eyes unfocused as I looked at the page I was working on. “Can you predict the future?”

The Nighthawk shook his head. “No, I just get these feelings, but I can tell from them whether it’s something positive or negative.”

Licking my lips, my heart pounding, I tried to shake it off. “I wouldn’t worry about it,” I said, feigning disinterest. “I’m sure everything will be alright.” In the silence that followed, I could almost hear both our minds thinking I hope so in unison.


December 2, 1941

I’ve received my first award!

Editor Hasegawa threw a big party at the Shinbun offices the other night. The reason, he’d said, was to celebrate our regained reputation as one of the top newspapers in Little Tokyo, and that it had been entirely because of me. He and the staff then proceeded to drink a toast in my honor before presenting me with a wonderful plaque celebrating my “excellence in journalism.” Though the gesture certainly was not necessary, I was grateful to be working in the company of such fine people.

In the back of the room, unseen by anyone, the Nighthawk saluted me with a tip of his hat.


December 7, 1941

Well, the Nighthawk was right about his “feeling.”

This morning, the Japanese attacked the naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. When I arrived at school, that’s all everyone was talking about. Each of my teachers had their radios tuned in to the local news stations. It looks like we’re going to war.

I’ve been feeling numb all day. My parents, who are Issei, cursed the actions of their homeland, but are nevertheless devastated. I certainly wouldn’t want to be in their position.

The Nighthawk paid me a visit when I came home from school. “You were right,” I mumbled before breaking down. He gently patted my back, whispering reassurances. I was grateful for his company.


Epilogue: September 14, 1992

“Sir, the museum is about to close.”

I was startled as an elderly docent appeared at my side. How long had she been standing there? How long had I been standing there? Dan Tanimura continued to smile at me from his frozen moment in time. I discreetly put the journal back in my pocket before she spoke again.

“What a handsome young man,” she said, gazing up at the photograph. “His smile certainly is captivating, but it makes me wish I knew more about him.”

There was a long pause before I finally decided to speak. “I did know him. He was a great guy. So full of hopes and dreams…”

Reaching into my breast pocket, I withdrew the journal once more before handing it to the confused docent. “His biggest fear was that he would be forgotten.” I clasped my hand around hers. “Please see to it that he is not.” With that, I walked away.

The docent, curious, opened the journal to the front flap and saw the name Dan Tanimura written in blue ink. Flipping through the book, she let out a small gasp when she saw a drawing of the man who had given it to her. There was a caption, too, that read: “The Nighthawk knows all.”

 

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

 

© 2014 Chester Sakamoto

california fiction Japanese American National Museum japantown little tokyo short story 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>>