Select a primary language to get the most out of our Journal pages:
English 日本語 Español Português

We have made a lot of improvements to our Journal section pages. Please send your feedback to!

5th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest

Life at the (Little Tokyo) Budokan

Jeff maneuvered his sleek black Audi off the freeway. He peered in either direction, unable to get his bearings. “This is just great,” he mumbled. He hadn’t been to Little Tokyo in years but had figured it would come back by memory once he got downtown.

“You know how to get there, right?” asked his son Craig, slouched next to him, his blue and gold Sabers uniform draped loosely over his wiry frame, a pair of black headphones wrapped around his neck.

“I know where we’re at,” Jeff lied.

“Sure,” Craig deadpanned and went back to gazing out his window.

Jeff had told Craig’s mom they would spend time together after the Budokan opening ceremony. He had barely seen him since his new marketing job. But the day hadn’t started well. An argument over who was supposed to order Craig’s new basketball uniform had put everyone in a bad mood.

After a few wrong turns, Jeff found his way to Little Tokyo. They pulled into a parking spot off First Street and Jeff checked his phone. There was still time. The street was bustling. Pedestrians jammed the sidewalk and cars rolled up and down the street. Chugging, crashing sounds echoed off the buildings from the metro station construction site.

Craig paused. “Hey that guy looks like you,” he said. A photo banner at the Japanese American museum publicized an exhibit, “15 years of the hapa project.” Jeff’s father was a Sansei, his mother of Irish and German descent. There had been a few other hapa kids growing up in suburban West Covina. Still, being a mixed kid was rare and he could still hear the taunts, even after all these years. “What, we all look alike?” Jeff faked a smile and play-punched Craig, who rolled his eyes.

“Who are we playing today?” he asked.

“It’s just an opening ceremony. The bonus is you get to hang out with your old man afterward.”

“Great,” Craig responded, checking his hair in a window as they entered the Japanese Village.

Jeff thought of all the basketball events he had attended as a boy. He had been a fixture at the East San Gabriel Valley Japanese Community Center gym. His Sabers team started as 5-year olds, dragged in by their parents, some literally kicking and screaming. A few teammates had come and gone but the core group stuck together for over a decade. Their schedule included two regular seasons every year, and weekend tournaments in the San Gabriel Valley, Los Angeles, and as far away as Las Vegas.

They walked through the tourist-filled plaza, passing Japanese restaurants, specialty stores, and a community stage. Jeff suggested they get a bite and they wandered into a corner café called Café Dulce. Craig ordered a donut and a mocha. Jeff ordered a latte, wondering when his son had started drinking mochas. They sat at the window stools, caffeinating, looking out onto the plaza and watching the crowd drift by, young and old, talking, laughing, and snapping photos.

Craig looked up from his mocha, a chocolaty mustache now lining his upper lip.

“Were you a baller?” he asked.

“What?” Jeff asked, lost in thought.

“You know,” Craig said, “a good basketball player.”

Jeff had never talked with Craig about playing basketball as a kid. He had been a good player, taller than his teammates thanks to his mom whose family sported a couple 6-footers. He had loved the game, played on all-star teams and even got mentioned in the Rafu. It killed him to stop playing when he started college.

Jeff took a sip of his latte and smiled, “Yeah, I was good.”

Craig sat silently, processing this information. Jeff looked at his son. He was Craig’s age when basketball was his own obsession. He was mature enough to know the NBA wasn’t in his future, but they had fun together and had a small fan following of family, friends, and girlfriends. Frank, Kuni, Walt, Roy – the Nikkei Fab 5, they used to call themselves.

“I bet you couldn’t beat us,” Craig said.

Jeff didn’t know if that was true; he hadn’t seen Craig’s team play in a long time. It was like comparing Steph Curry’s Warriors to Magic’s Showtime Lakers: different generations and styles. Kids back then had positions and roles– the big guys filled up the key, rebounded, and blocked shots; the little guys ran around top, distributed the rock, and made steals. In reality, the “big guys” weren’t much bigger than the “little guys,” but they took their roles seriously. Now, every team played the same up-tempo style, looking for the three-pointer; players were interchangeable, positions diffuse.

Kids in basketball uniforms began to stream by with their parents headed in the direction of the Budokan. The Budokan was a sports/martial arts gym and community center, envisioned by Little Tokyo community activists years ago. Jeff had read the pamphlets describing the multi-million dollar project that would bring the Japanese American community back to Little Tokyo. Bringing the community together had been the mission as long as Jeff could remember. This was the latest effort. Well, Jeff thought, it brought him to Little Tokyo, with his son, so maybe they were on to something.

He took one last sip, made a mental note that now you can get a good latte in Little Tokyo, dusted the crumbs off his jacket and they gathered up their things.

They walked down Second Street past Weller Court where Jeff imagined the savory smells from the Curry House. He recalled the Kinokuniya bookstore inside, where he used to spend hours browsing manga and VHS tapes. They used to park in a big lot across the street, but a metro hip, apartment complex was now built on top of it. As they approached the Doubletree hotel on the corner, they saw more families converging on the Budokan. Like a full court press, Jeff thought. The day had warmed up, and his mood soared as it came into view.

The Budokan was an elegant mix of contemporary design and Japanese tradition, modern glass wrapped in organic, dark wood. Much more pleasurable to look at than the dirty, gray concrete gyms he was used to. He felt a little pride and a tinge of envy. “You’re lucky. We played basketball in dusty old school gyms.” Craig nodded absent-mindedly, scanning the crowd for his teammates.

A tall man in a sweat suit walked up to them with a big smile, “Hi Jeff, long time no see!” Mike Yamamoto was Craig’s coach and he had his own son in tow, smiling brightly as well. Yamamoto jabbed his finger in the air toward Craig and looked at Jeff, “You must be proud.” Jeff raised an eyebrow, glancing at Craig. “Yeah of course I am,” he trailed off, but Yamamoto bailed him out. “Twenty points in the tournament, all those steals – a real breakthrough, don’t ya think?” Jeff couldn’t recall if Craig had mentioned a tournament. Yamamoto looked back and forth between the two. Clearing his throat, less enthusiastic now, “Anyway, it’s great to see you, it’s been too long. We’ll see you inside.” The coach and son wandered back into the crowd, chatting and waiving at friends. Jeff and Craig stood awkwardly for a moment, avoiding each other’s eyes, then walked together into the Budokan.

Inside, they were immersed in a sea of athletic color: Tigers, Bruins, Dragons, Sharks, Knights, Sabers, and Ninjas, a swarm of predators and warriors in their jerseys, shorts, elbow and knee bands, socks, and basketball shoes.

“So, you had a good tournament?” asked Jeff.

“Yeah,” Craig nodded.

“You didn’t mention it.”

“You didn’t ask.”

Jeff suppressed his snide retort, figuring it wasn’t worth it. Things used to be different, he thought, as he checked the time, remembering not long ago when Craig used to look up to him.

In fact, he was Craig’s first basketball coach. Jeff thought it would be fun coaching his son’s team, until he realized it was more babysitting than coaching. A kindergarten teacher with a tiny bit of patience could do better. He quit after a year. Craig’s interest in the game increased, while his own interest faded like his once steady jump shot.

“How’d you score your twenty?” Jeff asked.

“You know, with the basketball,” Craig replied.

They emerged onto the main gym floor. Hundreds of kids, coaches, parents, grandparents, and siblings were milling about. “Catch you later,” Craig said, brightening as he spotted his teammates and rushed toward them. “I’ll be in the stands,” yelled Jeff, but Craig was already gone, so he took a seat by the aisle next to an elderly man in a black 442nd baseball cap, who looked up and smiled at Jeff.

Jeff watched the kids below on the polished maple wood floor, bubbling with excitement and laughing at whatever caught their attention. It reminded him of the days when this was his life– basketball, friends, family, and gyms. He used to worry that Craig wouldn’t stick with basketball, that he would miss out on the camaraderie, the get-togethers and team parties, and more importantly, the competition, the highs and lows, yelling at a teammate one minute and then high-fiving him the next, the thrill of the big shot, and the joy of a playoff win. Jeff looked around at the throng of parents and supporters – a young mother trying to keep her toddler from tripping over a basketball, an old man perusing the program, a father adjusting his camera lens. They weren’t together but they all seemed connected.

Maybe Craig had already experienced those things, Jeff thought, and he just hadn’t been around to see it.

He looked to the spot on the floor where he’d last seen Craig, who was now clowning around with a group of his teammates. He was laughing and moving about restlessly. He looked alive and eager. Periodically he cast his eyes about the gym, taking in a 360-degree view, excited and a little awed.

Then he looked to the stands, pausing when he spotted Jeff. They looked at each other for a moment and Craig smiled. Not self-conscious, smug, or pitying, just the smile of a young man now at ease. He had sprouted a couple inches in the last year, it seemed. No baby fat – all skin, bones, and floppy hair. Something that felt like regret seeped over Jeff, and a suspicion that he had missed a lot more than just some basketball games.

Craig left his team and ran over to him, giving Jeff his warmup jacket, “Reece says the CYC championship is gonna be here. If we win Saturday, we’re in!” “That’s great,” Jeff nodded, caught up in Craig’s enthusiasm. “I’m going to make the first shot EVER in the Budokan!” Jeff laughed, “You still have to win, you know.” “Yeah, I know dad, you’ll be there, right?” Without any pause, Jeff replied that he wouldn’t miss it for the world. Craig looked up, sheepishly. Jeff saw Yamamoto waiving over at them and told Craig to get back to his team.

As he watched Craig jog back to his friends, images flickered through Jeff’s mind and his resolve grew. He thought of all the games he would see his son play here at the Budokan and the conversations they would have afterward over mochas, or ramen, or sushi.

A whistle blew sharply, shaking Jeff out of his brief reverie. A baritone voice over the speakers announced that the program was about to begin, and a man in a suit from the Little Tokyo Service Center emerged from the group of dignitaries, making his way to the microphone. The crowd quieted down and Jeff glanced around, reawakened to his surroundings.

The old man next to him turned to Jeff, a playful look on his wrinkled face. “This place,” he nodded his head, “It’s nice, yeah?”

Jeff smiled at the old man. “Yeah,” he replied, breathing in deeply. It’s just great, he said. He meant it. There was still time.


*This is the winning story in the English Language category of the Little Tokyo Historical Society’s Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest V.


© 2018 James Toma

basketball budokan community fiction Imagine Little Tokyo little tokyo lths son sports

About this series

The Little Tokyo Historical Society’s fifth-short story contest concluded with an Awards Reception held on the evening of Thursday, April 19, 2018 at the Union Church of Los Angeles in Little Tokyo. The winning stories were read by three professional actors. The purpose of the contest is to raise awareness of Little Tokyo through a creative story that takes place in Little Tokyo. The story has to be fictional and set in a current, past, or future Little Tokyo in the City of Los Angeles, California. 


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

1st Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
2nd Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
3rd Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
4th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
6th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
7th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
8th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>