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Unlocking Memories


“What’s in this box, Bachan?” Emi asked, handing the box to her grandmother as she sat down next to her on the couch.

“I’m not sure,” Emi’s bachan replied, turning the wooden box around in her hands. Its design showcased a circular indentation in the lid and an engraving of the Japanese ji meaning ‘Tradition, Spirit, Community.’

“I can’t figure out how to open it.” Emi tried to pry off the lid without success. “Look - I think there’s something trapped under the lid!” Emi gently pulled on the visible corner of the object until it dislodged. “It’s an envelope!”

“Oh! I wonder what that’s doing there.”

“Let’s find out!” Emi opened the flap and pulled out a thin, faded note covered in beautifully handwritten Japanese ji. Curious, Emi began to read the page aloud.

This is Little Tokyo’s treasure box. Inside are priceless items contributed by members of our community. We may be required to leave our homes, so we’re preserving our most cherished possessions inside this box for future generations.

We have hidden three keys in different places within Little Tokyo and enclosed three photographs to guide you. When the keys connect and are turned clockwise, the box unlocks. Each key symbolizes a different part of Little Tokyo’s heart: Tradition, Spirit, and Community. Enjoy your journey!

-Chiyoko Hayashi, Treasure Box Organizer & Nisei Week Queen 1941

March 23, 1942

Emi finished reading, then voiced her own thoughts.

“Wait a minute, wasn’t Sōsobo named Chiyoko? Does this mean that my great-grandmother created this treasure hunt?”

“It appears so!”

“Since I don’t see any keys, I guess the box has never been opened. Maybe we can find the keys and open the box together - I’ve always wanted to learn more about our heritage!”

“Who knows what we might discover!”

“Let’s start with the photos.” Emi pulled three small black-and-white photographs out of the envelope and laid them on the coffee table.

“Here’s the first one.” Emi picked up the photo labeled ‘Key 1: Tradition.’ It showed a silky-looking textile embroidered with flying cranes. “This pattern looks familiar.”

“It reminds me of the red kimono with the cranes on it that your Ōoba Shiori framed and hung on her wall. It originally belonged to your Sōsobo - I think she wore it when she was crowned Nisei Week Queen.”

“You’re right - the cranes in that print look just like these! But what happened to the kimono after Ōoba Shiori passed away?”

“Hmm…” Bachan paused and thought for a moment. “I can’t seem to remember right now. Your father might know, though.”

* * * * *

Moments after dialing her dad’s number, Emi was greeted by his warm voice.

 “What’s up, sweetie? I’m headed to another session soon, but I have a few minutes,” Emi’s dad said over the noise of the convention crowd.

“Bachan is having trouble remembering things, just like you expected, ” Emi replied.

“If she’s having trouble, try showing her something related to what she’s forgotten - sometimes that helps jog her memory. Is there any way I can help?”

“Actually, you can - do you know what happened to the kimono Ōoba Shiori displayed on her wall?

“I think she bequeathed it to the JANM in her will.”

“Oh great! Thanks, Dad!”

“You’re welcome. I have to go now - love you!” After her dad hung up, Emi called the museum. Sara, a curator, confirmed that the kimono was in their collection, but not currently on display. So, Emi scheduled a private showing to see the kimono the next morning.

* * * * * 

After breakfast the next day, Emi and Bachan took a short walk to the JANM, where Sara led them to a small room in the employees-only portion of the museum. Inside, Emi and Bachan could see the kimono lying on a low table.

“It’s beautiful!” Emi exclaimed, winking at Bachan to remind her of their plan. “May I touch it?”

“Yes, provided that you wear gloves,” Sara said, producing a box of white cotton gloves from a drawer. Emi put on a pair and began carefully touching the kimono to locate the key while Bachan struck up a conversation with Sara to distract her. Feeling something solid in the kimono’s cuff, Emi gently reached inside a gap in the hem’s stitching and navigated the object out of the fabric. It was a small, semi-circular piece of wood with the ji for Tradition carved on it - the first key!

* * * * *

After lunch, Emi and Bachan decided to continue the treasure hunt.

“Let’s check out the second photo,” Emi suggested, picking up the photograph labeled ‘Key 2: Spirit.’ The image showed a capital letter ‘Y’ that seemed to glow. “Could this be part of a building’s sign?”

“I bet it is! In fact, it looks like neon!” Bachan exclaimed.

“Exactly! I think there are several businesses with neon signs in Little Tokyo - let’s walk around and see if we can find one that matches this picture.” Emi slid the second photo into her pocket along with the third picture, just in case they needed it.

* * * * *

Emi and Bachan had been strolling the streets of Little Tokyo for over two hours, but hadn’t found a sign matching the picture.

“I’m sorry, dear, but I’m getting a bit tired,” Bachan said with a sigh. “Do you mind if we rest for a moment?”

“No problem! Actually, I’m getting hungry. How about we head home and make an early dinner? We could make your famous beef udon,” Emi suggested.

“Oh, Emi, I hate to disappoint you, but I tried to make some last week and I couldn’t remember the recipe. I just can’t remember anything these days.” Bachan was clearly upset with herself.

“It’s okay, Bachan. We can eat out tonight instead - there must be a great restaurant nearby because something smells delicious!” Emi smiled warmly and patted Bachan’s hand.

* * * * * 

After their meal, both Emi and Bachan were feeling energized. As they walked out of the restaurant, a colorful glow caught Emi’s eye. Ahead of them hung a neon sign that read ‘CHOP SUEY’.

“Look, Bachan!” Emi exclaimed, pointing at the sign. “That letter ‘Y’ looks just like the one in our picture!“

“It does!” Bachan agreed.

“But if the key is hidden up there, how are we going to reach it? The sign is at least two stories high!”

“Maybe we could use that ladder. I saw someone using it earlier to clean the windows, but I think it would be fine if we borrowed it.” Bachan pointed to a tall ladder standing almost directly beneath the neon sign.

“Great idea!” Emi jogged up to the ladder as Bachan followed. Climbing up several steps, Emi admired the lovely view of Little Tokyo’s historic district from her new vantage point before refocusing on the sign. She couldn’t see any hiding places on either side, but when she ran her fingers underneath it, she discovered a small knob on the bottom, nestled next to the sign’s glowing arrow.

As Emi carefully began pulling on the knob, it released! In seconds, the knob, along with a piece of wood, fell into Emi’s hand. The piece of wood was shaped similarly to the first key and had the ji for Spirit carved into it. Smiling, Emi slid it into her pocket, pressed the knob back into place, and stepped off of the ladder.

“I got it, Bachan!” She reported.

“Wonderful! Let’s head home before it gets dark.”

“Sounds like a plan - we can look for the last key tomorrow.”

Hand in hand, Emi and Bachan walked further down 1st street, approaching the historic Mikado hotel.

“Wait a minute! Do you see that address?” Emi pointed to the building address above the hotel’s main door, which read ‘331 ½.’

“I do, what about it?” Bachan cocked her head.

“I’ve seen that number before. Give me a second.” Emi reached into her pocket and pulled out the third photograph. “Look!” The photo clearly showed the number ‘331 ½.’

“Maybe this is the last hiding spot! How did you know?”

“I…may have accidentally peeked at the last photo when we left your apartment.”

“Silly you!” Bachan chuckled.

“So, where do you think the key is hidden?” Emi slid the photo back into her pocket.

“Well, since the clue was the address, maybe it’s hidden near the door.”

“But where? There aren’t any hiding places in this smooth brick or tile.” Emi leaned against the front of the building as she spoke.

“Actually, there are! Look behind you!” Bachan gestured toward the bricks Emi was leaning against. The face of one of the bricks had hinged partially open, revealing a tiny hollowed-out space.

“Wow! A false brick - just like in the movies!” Emi reached into the secret compartment and pulled out the third wooden key. Unlike the other two, this key was rod-shaped like a handle. Admiring its carving of the ji for ‘Community,’ Emi slipped the key into her pocket.

“Now we just need to figure out how to close this secret compartment…”

* * * * *

Back at Bachan’s apartment, Emi and Bachan were ecstatic.

“We did it!” Emi exclaimed, high-fiving Bachan before placing the Community key next to the other two.

“Are you ready to open the box?” Bachan asked.

“Let’s do it. You first.”

Smiling, Bachan placed the Tradition key in the left side of the indentation. Then, Emi placed the Spirit key in the right side. The subtle notches in the first two keys fit together perfectly, leaving a circular gap in the center. Together, Emi and Bachan inserted the end of the Community key into the gap and turned it clockwise. A ‘click’ sounded from the box, and together, Emi and Bachan grasped the lid and lifted it off.

Inside the box was a menagerie of yellowed newspaper clippings, small black-and-white photographs, handwritten notes, and a few keepsakes including a decorated hair comb and a tiny stone Maneki-Neko. With joyful anticipation, they began lovingly examining each item.

* * * * *

Time flew as Emi and Bachan poured over the contents of the box. Each item they discovered sparked a new memory in Bachan’s mind. As the evening neared, Bachan excitedly recounted stories that her Okasan had told her that she’d forgotten. Bachan’s spirit seemed to be renewed, as if a candle had been lit inside her in a place that had been dark for a long time. Suddenly, Bachan gasped.

“Are you okay?” Emi asked worriedly.

“You won’t believe it! Here’s a copy of our family’s beef udon recipe! It says that this was the first recipe my Okasan ever learned to make. I never knew that!” Bachan exclaimed.

“Wow! Let’s make a batch together tonight to celebrate!”

“I would love to!” Bachan set the recipe aside, beaming.

“Look - there’s a whole book in here!” Emi lifted a leather-bound book out of the box and opened it to the first page, revealing her Sōsobo’s handwritten ji. Surprised, Emi began to read the page aloud.

May 3, 1941

My name is Chiyoko Hayashi. I turned 17 today, and this notebook was a gift from my parents. I’m going to use it as my diary and record things that I want to remember.

“Wow! I never knew that Sōsobo kept a diary when she was just a few years older than me!”

“I didn’t either! Shall we read it?”

Emi and Bachan spent hours reading Chiyoko’s diary, following her adventures as she attended school, made friends, and was crowned Nisei Week Queen.

On December 7, 1941, Chiyoko wrote the first of several entries detailing her conflicting feelings about Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor. Over the following weeks, Chiyoko recounted occasions of her classmates ridiculing her for her ancestry, emphasizing that while she was saddened by the actions of Japan’s government, she refused to be ashamed of her heritage.

In late February of 1942, Chiyoko poured out her anxiety over the signing of Executive Order 9066, authorizing the government to relocate Japanese-Americans, who were deemed a ‘threat to national security,’ to internment camps. Her spirits lifted the next month as she wrote about her idea to create a treasure box to protect the memories that her community held most dear.

Key members of the community embraced Chiyoko’s idea and volunteered to help her make the treasure box a reality! Soon, she was watching her Otōchan, a master carpenter, build the wooden box and keys. She helped her Okasan, an accomplished seamstress, create the cuff pocket in her kimono.

She was fascinated by how the area’s only Japanese-American welder created the knob on the neon sign. She followed her neighbor, a professional photographer for one of Los Angeles’s newspapers, as he captured the photo clues. She even spent an afternoon helping Seiichi Kito, the original owner of Fugetsu-do, make mochi for the local construction team who created the false brick in the hotel’s façade! In her last entry, Chiyoko wrote:

Any day now, everyone in Little Tokyo could be taken to an internment camp. Being forced to leave the community we love will be difficult to endure, but we are resilient and I know we’ll come back stronger. Until then, I’ll keep the memory of Little Tokyo near; it’s been my home ever since I can remember. Its places and people define what it means to me to be Japanese-American. Little Tokyo is a part of me, and I know it will always be the place I call home.

Goodbye for now, Little Tokyo. I will always keep you in my heart.


Emi took a deep breath as she gently closed the diary.

“Your Sōsobo was an incredible woman, Emi. No matter what happened to her, she remembered her values and stood up for herself and her community.” Bachan spoke softly.

“Was she ever taken to an internment camp?”

“She was, and that’s where she met your Sōsofu. They fell in love, but were separated when he volunteered to join the US Army.”

“Oh my! What happened then?”

“He fought bravely and attended college after the war ended. Then, he and your Sōsobo got married and had your Ōoba Shiori and me!”

“Wow! I’m so proud to be a part of our amazing family!” Emi gave Bachan a big hug.

“That’s very sweet, Emi.” Bachan hugged her back.

“You know what, Bachan? It would be sad to hide all these wonderful things back in your closet. My Sōsobo’s story of the heart of Little Tokyo is powerful and deserves to be shared! If it’s okay with you, I’d like to donate the box and its contents to the JANM. That way, Sōsobo’s treasure box can help everyone discover the tradition, spirit, and community that make up Little Tokyo’s heart!”

“I think that’s a wonderful idea, Emi, and I think your Sōsobo would have agreed! Let’s call the JANM tomorrow morning and make an appointment to discuss the donation with them. In the meantime, who’s up for some homemade beef udon?”


*This story received honorable mention in the English Youth category of the Little Tokyo Historical Society’s 10th Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest.


© 2023 Madeline Thach

California fiction Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest (series) Little Tokyo Los Angeles United States
About this series

Each year, the Little Tokyo Historical Society’s Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest heightens awareness of Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo by challenging both new and experienced writers to write a story that captures the spirit and essence of Little Tokyo and the people in it. Writers from three categories, Adult, Youth, and Japanese language, weave fictional stories set in the past, present, or future. This year is the 10th anniversary of the Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest. On May 20, 2023 in a celebration moderated by Tamlyn Tomita, noted actors, Greg Watanabe, Mika Dyo, and Mayumi Seco performed dramatic readings of each winning entry.



*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 >>
5th 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 >>
9th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
11th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>

Learn More
About the Author

Madeline Thach is a 14-year-old homeschooler from Texas. Her awards include first place in the international Saugus Halloween Ghost Story Contest and two first prizes in the National Association of Teachers of Singing regional competition. She is also a recipient of the national American Hero history scholarship from the Rush & Kathryn Adams Limbaugh Family Foundation.

Madeline is passionate about using social media to spread her love of learning. She creates educational and entertaining stories, videos, and articles for people of all ages! Visit to explore her content and subscribe to her free weekly newsletter.

Updated June 2024

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