This story was originally written for the 2021 Little Tokyo Historical Society's annual short story contest, and creates a "post-racial" dystopia to emphasize how current and future gentrification, exotification, and commodification of Japanese American history, space, and culture harm our bodies, community, and memory. I was particularly curious about the sensory: what could gentrification taste like? How might erasure alter sight and sound? As an older Gen Z nerd who grew up on The Hunger Games, Divergent, and Star Wars, I had a delightful time exploring these questions through evoking literary tropes of guerrilla disruption and revolution in a less directly violent, but equally harmful context.
You step off the regional connector, the smooth hiss of the cold metal doors sliding shut behind you. The new Little Tokyo Metro line is one of the big changes you remember hearing about the last time you were home, and here it is, tangled metal rails slicing themselves through First Street. “You’re not the only one that’s changed,” you think to yourself, squinting in the pale spring sunlight of a Los Angeles Wednesday.
Mask pulled snugly over your nose and mouth, you walk past streets you haven’t seen since you left for college. It wasn’t like you had intended to be away for so long; after all, who hasn’t felt the stifling pressure of too much home at one time or another, when the walls that hold you up constrict you into smaller versions of the person you ought to be? Who were you to turn down a scholarship at one of the best universities in the country, even if it was on the wrong coast? And yet, here you are, four years later, trying to remember the days when Little Tokyo seemed like an answer rather than a question about who you wanted to be.
However, Little Tokyo doesn’t seem to be much of anything anymore. The plastic bags tumbling across the deserted concrete hold a new and eerie kind of silence. Yes, Little Tokyo sometimes feels empty. You know this from the Wednesday afternoon eye doctor appointments in elementary school, when your mom would drive down to the office on2nd Street. On those weekday afternoons, you’d only see the occasional baachan running errands when you gazed out the car window. But as your sneakers hit the pavement now, something feels a little more hollow.
“Must be time,” you think. After all, you’re no longer the same kid who went to the optometrist every month because your eyes were so bad, who squinted through too-big lenses at the rows of nonsense letters as your mom talked to the receptionist about their friends’ friends’ kids for at least thirty minutes after the exam was over. “Of course, waiting around was worth it,” you reminisce, “because then we were finally able to….
“To do what again?
“Wait, what exactly happened afterwards?” you ask yourself, feet pausing. You suddenly, inexplicably, can’t remember exactly what the reward was for going to the eye doctor. It definitely made the exhilarating feeling of leaving school early even better, but the actual memory feels like the wispy vestiges of the grey clouds above you in an otherwise brilliantly blue sky.
Except when you look up, the sky no longer seems as brilliant. In fact, the sky suddenly doesn’t seem to be blue at all. You can’t describe what color it is, exactly, because it’s more that it’s absent of any color. So, too, are the buildings and the storefronts. You walk faster, concerned that this might be the start of the kind of horror movie where the person of color always dies first. The odds of this seem pretty high, since it also seems like other people have disappeared altogether. “No,” you realize, “they’re all headed towards that bright orange archway, the one that says ‘Welcome to Suuyobi: We’ll Make Wednesday the BEST Day of Your Week!'’' Not one to question the only thing that seems real, you race through.
Once inside, your feet slide to a screeching halt. Your brain doesn’t know how to process what your eyes are seeing, which is an explosion of garish colors and lights. Nauseating oranges and pinks spell out katakana words on neon signs, advertising everything from new “kawaii” backpacks to new anime and manga. People wolf down boba while browsing the stationery shops that proliferate on street corners like Starbucks, and every alley seems designed for a trendy Instagram photo shoot. Pop-up stores sell pins with Mt. Fuji designs and pillows shaped like poop emojis to cosplayers and aspiring influencers wearing aggressively Oriental silk robes.
You can’t help but notice that all of them are white.
“Welcome to Suuyobi! We’re so excited that you’re here to enjoy a day of authentic Japanese culture!” burbles a sudden voice to your left. “My name is MEE-YEAH-KUH and I’m one of our welcoming specialists! Would you like some mochi?”
You turn around and see a perky blonde woman in a skimpy Sailor Moon outfit, mascara pulling her double lids into a fox eye. She holds out a tray of bright pink samples.
“Thanks…” you say nervously, gingerly picking up the dessert that you know is called manju. “If you don’t mind me asking, what happened to the family that used to make…’mochi’ at the shop across the street? I was friends with their kid.”
“Well, we make mochi now! But it’s 100% Japanese inspired, so don’t worry, we’re just celebrating your traditions!”
“Are any of the people who work here Japanese American?” you ask.
A smile stretches across MEE-YEAH-KUH's face, a little too wide for comfort. “We’re all global citizens here! But yes….right, Tai?”
To your shock, she grabs one of your former Los Angeles Buddhist Coordinating Council camp cabinmates, whom you haven’t seen in years.
“Yes, we are all global citizens!” repeats Tai, with absolutely no hint of recognizing you at all. “Suuyobi makes us feel great about our culture!”
Now you know something is very, very wrong, and you slowly back away.
“Cool,” you say nervously. “I’m just going to enjoy my mochi….over here….” you say, heading for a side street covered in bubble letter kanji that was just vacated by two cat ear-wearing selfie-takers. MEE-YEAH-KUH is still glancing over at you, so you take a small bite.
As soon as the manju passes your lips, however, you almost spit it out. It tastes like sand; no, worse than sand. You definitely took a bite out of sidewalk chalk, and you can barely keep it down. “What is going on?” you think. “COVID-19 vaccinations were almost two years ago, so why can’t I taste anything?”
Suddenly, a face that you haven’t seen since your days of JA basketball and Boy/Girl Scouting pulls you into the shadows.
“Don’t spit it out. Pretend like it’s the best thing you’ve ever had and smile, right here in front of that security camera.”
“Devon Fujioka? Is that you? What’s going on?” you say, plastering a fake grin on your face as you choke down your mouthful of manju.
“We have to go, quickly. They’re already watching you, and they can’t know you don’t taste the food.” You let Devon pull you by the hand down one street, then two, until you reach the basement of a manga shop. Devon pushes aside a shelf of poorly translated volumes to reveal a small passage. It seems that Suuyobi isn’t the only one hiding secrets.
You emerge into a small storage room where a surprising group awaits you. There’s Sydney, the owner of that little café who always gave you an extra donut when no one was looking. Kay, one of the old time radicals from back in the 70’s. And many more people you know, or at least know of, sitting on overturned shipping boxes and zabuton cushions.
“What’s going on?” you ask. “What’s going on with the food here? The stores? What happened to Tai?”
Devon grabs your wrist and looks urgently into your eyes. “Listen, we don’t have much time. Suuyobi came around after you left for college and started buying up all the land in Little Tokyo. They told us they loved and respected Japanese culture, and wanted to re-brand Japanese products after all the racism and vandalism from the pandemic. That’s part of the reason they were able to expand so quickly. So many places went out of business, including Fugetsudo, my parents’ shop. Some people happily signed up to work for Suuyobi because they acted like they were diverse; others were just happy that Asians were cool again.
“But some of us started to notice real quickly that something was…wrong with Little Tokyo. The best way we can explain it is that Suuyobi and all of their culturally appropriative products started sucking the life out of all the community spaces. The bigger and brighter their properties became, the more the rest of Little Tokyo seemed sick, and both the spaces and our memories of them get covered in a kind of colorblind fog. We’re not sure how they do it, but we know the results. And when someone opposes Suuyobi, they disappear for ‘diversity re-conditioning’ and come back like Tai.”
Now you really hope you’re dreaming, but the chalky taste of the manju reminds you that the odds are not likely.
“What’s wrong with the food though?” you ask, dreading the answer. “Why would they want to recondition me because I can’t taste it?”
“To us, the food tastes like dust because there’s no memory here. Like that manju you ate? They don't understand that manju is memory. It’s more than mochiko and sugar; it’s a way of feeding and nourishing ourselves that we’ve fought for and protected and preserved for generations. We carried this manju across oceans, through barbed wire and scorched deserts. We soothe our sadness with it after every funeral and embrace possibility and wonder with the first bite of ozoni every New Year. And we eat it together. Always.”
You don’t know how to explain it, but you can feel, in your very being, the weight of Devon’s words. You’re reminded of a paper you read in college but didn’t quite understand, which said that a single grain of sugar encompasses the entire history of globalization. The desire of the European palette, it went on, built plantations that displaced Indigenous peoples through Black enslaved labor and that of the coolie Asian migrants that followed. Sugar, when digested, is passed from mother to child; so too was the terror embedded in its production. Gazing at Devon’s hands, now holding a piece of suama, you wonder about the power of transmutation. Perhaps, you think, when the pain of sugar is mixed into grains of rice, pounded smooth by centuries of hands and machines, we transform our labor into something else. The hands of our parents scraping off skins and seeds make cutting fruit into love, after all; the history of manju makes it into something new entirely.
This realization cascades across your face, and everyone seeing your epiphany lets out a relieved exhale. “Okay,” you say, “But what can we even do? How can we fight something so powerful, especially when no one will admit they’re evil?”
“You have to try and remember,” Devon says. “Remembering, believing, supporting, it’s the basis for the kind of action that gives this place a future. If we don’t collectively love and claim and nourish the parts of ourselves that are Little Tokyo, the fog gets in. What’s the first memory they took from you?”
“It’s something about my eye doctor’s appointments that I had once a month on Wednesdays in elementary school. I always used to go somewhere afterwards, but I can’t remember where.”
“Wednesdays?” Devon asks, face alight with a flash of understanding that quickly turns both crestfallen and hopeful. “I know where you went.”
“Yeah,” Devon utters with a wry smile. “You came to see me.”
You pause. “What?
“On Wednesday afternoons, once a month. You’d come to Fugetsudo and get one plain suama.” Devon smiles sadly. Manju, it seems, wasn’t the only thing you forgot.
“Really?” you ask. The memories feel like they’re crawling up the insides of your skull, but the fog is still there. “I’m sorry,” you say, shaking your head, “I just can’t recall.”
“Well, the good thing is that we might have a quick fix. Some of my family’s suama is here right now,” Devon says. “All you have to do is take a bite and focus on remembering. If the taste can jog your memory, we might be able to push back.”
“Does that really work?” you ask earnestly. A sea of heads nod in response.
“When Devon and I started realizing what was going on, we started trying to bring people back,” Kay explains. “It seems like specific meaningful experiences can trigger memory. For Sydney, it was putting on a family apron. For Devon, saying gassho in front of an obutsudan. We’ve made pretty decent progress in beating back the fog on First Street, but we have to do these things regularly or the memory loss creeps back.”
“I-,” you stutter, “I don’t know if I can do it,” you admit. “What if this doesn’t work and I let you all down? I haven’t been here in years.”
“That’s the most important part,” Kay replies urgently. “We’ve struggled finding new people to help; most people are sucked into the Suuyobi or they’ve left Little Tokyo entirely. If we can get more people like you to come home and invest in a community-led future, we might have a real chance at stopping them.”
“Okay,” you say. “I have to at least try, right?”
Devon places the manju in your left hand, and takes your right. You hold the dango gingerly as he extends your entwined hands out, joining them with Kay, with Sydney, with everyone else huddled in the small basement storage room.
“Close your eyes,” Kay says. “What do you remember?”
“Please,” Devon begs you, in a voice not so much broken as actively breaking, “remember.”
You bite down.
The sound of the Fugetsudo bell clinks when your small hands press open the glass door.
All of the waiting at the doctor’s office is worth it just for this moment of
pushing your head into the glass display case
Rows and rows of manju delicately nestled in white fluted paper
Even though you know exactly what you’re going to order
go straight for the suama every time
that a pretty rainbow dango can have such a solid and dependable flavor
no bells and frills,
just plain rice in a world that seems to get more complicated every day.
You wave goodbye to Devon, who is sitting behind the counter
get into the car where
you pull the mochi out of the crinkly white bag
Home explodes in the curve under your lips
The second your teeth touch rice.
You savor each green and pink stripe but
it’s all too soon that you’re
wiping the leftover mochiko against the dark blue fabric of your car seat.
"Don't fall asleep," your mom says from the driver’s seat,
but how can you resist the lull of a concrete lullaby:
tires rushing against the freeway,
sweetness still dancing on your tongue.
For the first time in weeks, your eyes don’t feel too small and slanted
As they flutter closed
And then open again. You grasp Devon’s hand so tightly you can barely breathe, no longer afraid of the space between your palms.
Across the street, the striped Fugetsudo awning flickers with color.
Biggest thanks to Kristin Fukushima and Craig Ishii's Kizuna curriculum, for which this story is essentially an extended metaphor. Thanks also to Lynda Paul for all of the writing advice, and to Devon Matsumoto for being a creative co-conspirator and loyal editor for all of 2020-2021.