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1st Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest

The Guardians

The temple stood at the edge of Little Tokyo, its delicate roof and garden just beyond the harsh shadows of the surrounding urban landscape. Across the street was a warehouse with graffiti and iron bars on the windows. Beyond that, the gutters were littered with needles and glass pipes, the sidewalks teeming with lost souls searching for a home, searching for peace.

For generations, the denizens of Little Tokyo had labored to preserve the ways of their native land in a city filled with endless flux and struggle. That’s why many were surprised when a young woman became the caretaker of the temple. True, she came from a famous family of priests in Japan who had led their Buddhist sect for centuries. But still, a woman looking after the historic temple? It was against tradition, they exclaimed. Still, others argued that sometimes you have to change tradition to survive.

* * *

The intrusions occurred at night. The temple was empty during the first break-in but the burglar ran away when the alarm finally sounded. The second time he crept in through a cusped kato-mado window outside the main hall. Yukiko was sitting in the darkness, praying for the clarity of purpose that was so elusive in her life.

She heard the footsteps in the butsu-do and caught a glimpse of the intruder. He had long hair, glassy eyes, pale skin, and the ashen face of a yurei. The ghost advanced stealthily with the confidence of a warrior. His flashlight passed over the glittering gold altar with its incense urns and tributes of food and flowers. The naijin was the manifestation of the pure land, the place of enlightenment that stands apart from the world we live in. But the intruder wasn’t looking for this.

After his retreat, Yukiko remained frozen in her seat for hours, scared to move a muscle until the first rays of morning.

* * *

“It’s not the first time,” she told the responding officers, a middle-aged white guy paired with a young, fresh-faced Japanese American man.

“Then you know you’re at risk,” the older policeman said as he inspected the broken window. “Your security system hasn’t been upgraded for years.”

“Finances have been difficult.”

“I heard about that. Why don’t you tell the neighborhood chamber of commerce? Maybe they could do a fundraiser,” the younger one said.

Yukiko wasn’t sure that was a good idea. The leaders in the neighborhood were Japanese American, not Japanese. There was a big difference. How could they understand her journey? How could they understand the shame of a woman who left her family, who foolishly came to America to follow a faith born in Japan? How could they understand the stigma of failure for a woman caught between two worlds?

“If this is your temple you better protect it,” the older cop explained, stifling a yawn. “You got to understand how it works in this country. We can’t defend this place for you. We only come after something has already happened.”

* * *

Amerika kowai yappari.” Her mother said over the phone. America is a scary place, just as I suspected.

“I am going to get a guard,” Yukiko insisted, the fact that her mother was 5,000 miles away didn’t make the conversation easier.

“If you came back home you wouldn’t need a guard.”

“Father said we need to spread our message to people around the world.”

“You need to think of the people you came from. You need to marry someone who can take over the family temple here now that your father’s gone. That’s your duty.”

“Times have changed,” Yukiko pleaded. “I told you I need to do something different.”

Itsumo jibun katte, anata,” her mother scolded. It’s always about you.

* * *

The black man wore a leather jacket and olive green slacks. He entered the lobby of the temple in quiet, measured steps. He introduced himself as Darrell and showed her his security officer registration card. She had posted the position on the Internet and received an avalanche of applications. But Yukiko sensed immediately that this man was different. He had an energy that was purposeful and strangely familiar.

“Do you have a firearms permit?”

He nodded. “I carry an M-9,” he said, reaching into his jacket.

“That’s OK,” she said. “I don’t need to see it.”

“Sorry.” He shrugged.

“How did you find out this job?” she asked.

“Job site for vets.”

“You served in the military?”

“Three tours. Iraq and Afghanistan. After that my partner and I stayed over in Tokyo for a while.”

“How did you like Japan?”

“Wish I could’ve stayed longer.”

“Why here, Darrell? There are many guard jobs downtown.”

“This is the job I want. You have something here worth guarding.”

* * *

After the interview, Darrell walked to Union Station. His leg still ached from the explosion back in Fallujah. He’d thrown out his last prescription painkillers. Darrell wasn’t afraid to feel old wounds, he just wondered if they’d ever stop hurting.

During his ride on the Metro he looked out the window at the neighborhoods of his childhood, the streets where cops made his older brothers lay face down at gunpoint for hours under the moonlight, the blocks that burst into flames and rebuilt through years of grinding effort.

All his life they’d expected him to fight. Then he and his partner went to Japan. He became gaijin san, an outsider. He could walk alone and let the world see him with new eyes. He reimagined his life, just like his partner had.

Maybe it wasn’t Darrell’s fate to fight forever.

He remembered the trail to the temple, through the woods on the edge of Tokyo. He’d go there alone while his partner explored Roppongi. Darrell felt like he was walking down a pathway to a place in his soul he never knew about.

In the midst of the ancient forest, they stood at the temple gates. Two ferocious stone warriors perched on fluffy clouds, hurtling through time and space with infinite power. The first giant bared his teeth and clenched his fists. The second one shut his mouth tightly with arms positioned to strike. They were the guardians of the temple, defenders of the tranquility on the other side of the gates.

Darrell exited the Metro near his apartment off of Exposition. In his bedroom he lit a stick of incense and set it by his photo of the Nio guardians. Darrell could feel his worlds coming together. The fleeting peace he found on the other side of the ocean was finally following him home. He would get the security job in Little Tokyo. And it would be the last place he would ever work.

* * *

They quickly agreed on salary and schedule. The neighborhood was humming with tourists, young professionals, and artists during the day. He would start his shift at night when the intruder was likely to prowl.

Yukiko tended to work long days in her first floor office, coordinating the weekly services as well as the special ceremonies like weddings and funerals along with the day care run out of the basement.

She was still paying bills the night they heard the footsteps and heavy breathing in the garden. Darrell ran through the hallway in front of the butsu-do, his pistol held tight. Next to the rocks symbolizing the Eight Immortals, they found a man lying in the grass. His eyes were wide and anguished, staring at the stars under long, straggly strands of hair. He gasped and clutched his chest as if possessed by a demon.

“This the one you saw break in before?” Darrell asked.

“No, it’s not him,” Yukiko replied.

“I think he’s having a heart attack,” Darrell holstered his gun and pressed his strong fingers against the man’s chest. “Call an ambulance.”

They waited in the courtyard until the paramedics arrived and stabilized him.

“Cardiac arrest is the number one killer for these guys on the streets,” one of the responders told them. “It’s a good thing you found him. He wouldn’t have made it overnight.”

“You sure he wasn’t the one?” Darrell asked after the ambulance took the man to the hospital.

“I am sure. The man you saved tonight couldn’t steal anything.” Yukiko started to cry. She couldn’t get that suffering face out of her mind. “How does someone end up so lost?”

“Some people search their whole life and they just can’t find a place to fit.”

“I know,” she said, holding on to Darrell’s hand. She had tried to protect this temple for so long on her own, the tides of hostility forever thrashing the outside walls. It was only a matter of time for they breached the gates.

She couldn’t do it alone any longer.

They hid under the cherry tree and embraced each other passionately, forming a perfect, protective circle with their bodies. A monk once told Yukiko that life starts and ends alone. She must accept that reality but not now. Now she’d accept the love and comfort that came into her life so unexpectedly.

* * *

The next day Darrell stood on the corner of San Pedro a few blocks south of the temple. The sidewalk was crowded with meandering bodies and the smell of sweat and plastic smoke. He faced his old army partner Alex, veteran of two wars and the Roppongi underworld. After the combat tours, their paths diverged in Japan. Now they were coming together again in L.A.

“The plan don’t change just because you met some girl,” Alex said.

“It’s not that. The cops are onto you. The place ain’t worth the risk,” Darrell explained. Alex hid his glassy eyes behind sunglasses and slicked his hair back in a ponytail. “Besides you already make good money slanging down here.”

“Keeping these fools in the clouds just sets me steady. Ain’t enough to get ahead.” The yurei grinned as his doped customers hovered in the distance.

“Why you want to mess with that temple? No fence in L.A. can move that stuff.”

“I’m not thinking about them. I’m thinking of my people in Roppongi. They told me something’s in there more valuable than gold. One of a kind. That’s why I promised you a taste if you got the job.”

“Things are different now. If I don’t guard that place it’s finished.”

“What did we learn in the service, Darrell? Guarding other people’s riches is a sucker’s game. You got to take that shit for yourself.”

“I ain’t looking for riches no more, Alex. I’m just looking for peace.”

Alex shrugged. “Just remember, peace don’t come without a fight.”

* * *

Darrell and Yukiko held each other in her bed during the twilight hours before his shift. Her apartment in the Arts District was far enough to hide secret passion behind closed doors, as long as they maintained the gaiken of outward respectability and nobody knew anything in Little Tokyo.

Darrell put on his uniform for work. He was searching for his gun on the dresser when she asked him to wait.

“I am coming with you,” she said as she dressed. “There’s something I want to show you.”

The block surrounding the temple was quiet and empty under a cloudy night sky. Yukiko punched the security code for the rear entrance, leading him up a narrow staircase to the second floor.

“This is the kyozo where we keep the sacred scrolls and sutras,” she said, lighting a candle as they entered the small room. In the center was a revolving rinzo storage case with a wooden frame and golden shelves. Darrell saw a photograph of her sect’s main temple in Japan, framed by two Nio guardians like the ones that lingered in his memory. Yukiko showed him a scroll marked in ancient Japanese script.

“This is our most sacred possession,” she said. “It’s the writings of Suzuki Shosan, the founder of our sect. He was different than the other priests. He believed in the eternal peace of the Buddha. But he also believed in the death energy of the guardians. He said that true enlightenment doesn’t happen in seclusion. It happens doing the tasks of the real world, like plowing the fields or confronting an enemy in the heat of battle.

“My father’s ancestor was one of his first followers. And it’s continued that way for twenty generations. The sons become priests and the daughters marry men who become head priests. I broke the tradition and came to America, against my mother’s wishes.”

“What were you looking for?”

“I am not sure.”

It was only then she realized they were not alone. She set aside her fear and turned to face the yurei.

* * *

“Give me the scroll,” Alex demanded. He carried an M-9, same as his old partner, just like the ones they trained on in the Army.

“I told you not to do this,” Darrell said.

“You know him?” Yukiko said.

“Of course he knows me,” Alex said, snatching the scroll with one hand. Darrell reached reflexively in his pocket and realized his gun was missing. Alex shot him once in the stomach and he crumpled to the floor.

Alex looked down with disgust. “I tried to help you. I told you to stop wasting your life guarding other people’s riches.”

Alex never heard as Yukiko approached from behind, raised her lover’s gun and unloaded it into the base of his skull. The yurei had underestimated this woman. He didn’t understand the teachings in the scroll he’d tried to steal.

She stood over the dead thief and aimed at Darrell with tears in her eyes.

“How could you betray me?”

“You don’t understand,” he said. “I was lost. I was looking for something I felt over there and I never knew how to find it until I met you. Then I realized I couldn’t steal what I was looking for. I could only defend it.”

“You thought I was a fool.”

“You have to be a fool to feel love,” he said, clutching his bloody stomach. “Give me another chance to feel the peace I felt with you. Or else let me die right here.”

“If you want another chance at peace, then you have to struggle. Not just tonight, but every day for the rest of your life.”

* * *

Many years later, Yukiko returned to Little Tokyo as a visitor. As her tour group strolled through the Village Plaza, their guide from the travel agency told remarkable stories of the ever-changing neighborhood, such as the American guard shot defending the local temple. After this near-death experience, this man dedicated his life to Buddhism, becoming the first non-Japanese head priest of the temple. It was certainly against tradition, many locals still exclaimed. Still, others argued that sometimes you have to change tradition to survive.


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


© 2014 Dmitri Ragano

buddhism fiction Imagine Little Tokyo little tokyo priest short story Temple

About this series

As part of Little Tokyo Historical Society’s 130th Anniversary of Little Tokyo (1884-2014) celebratory activities throughout the year, Little Tokyo Historical Society 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:

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