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Haunted Japantowns

The historic Japantowns have served our community for over 100 years, but there are many untold stories that reveal a spooky side of these neighborhoods.

On Saturday, the Japanese American National Museum, Little Tokyo Historical Society, Little Tokyo Community Council, and Visual Communications hosted a Little Tokyo Ghost Tour, led by ghost reporter Bill Watanabe. This article will cover some of the spooky stories told during the event.

The Side You Don’t See

As nighttime falls upon Little Tokyo, the neighborhood remains filled with people. Visitors congregate in the Japanese Village Plaza, looking to grab a fresh imagawayaki from Mitsuru Cafe or okonomiyaki from Chinchikurin. Across the street, the Far Bar and all of the other restaurants are bustling, and through the large glass windows of the Japanese American National Museum, you can see a reception taking place.

The historic Japantown that has served generations of Japanese Americans comes alive, especially at nighttime, but frighteningly, in more ways than one. You probably won’t see a ghost floating through the Japanese Village Plaza, but on a seemingly normal night, paranormal encounters may not be out of the picture. From individuals hearing the sound of children’s laughter when they were all alone, to spirits roaming the kitchens of restaurants, or even witnesses seeing things move on their own, there are some happenings that simply cannot be explained.

Little Tokyo, along with the other two official Japantowns in San Francisco and San Jose, have each been around since the late 19th century and early 20th century, and while they have their own stories to tell, we’ll be taking a look at some of the spooky stories within Little Tokyo.

Union Center of the Arts

The first story of paranormal activity comes from Kennedy Kabasares, a staff member at Visual Communications. Along with East West Players and LA Artcore, Visual Communications is located in the Union Center for the Arts, formerly the home of Union Church.

On one afternoon, Kabasares was in a meeting when all of a sudden, two video tapes shot out of a bookcase and fell to the floor. The tapes didn’t just fall subtly out of the bookcase; they flew out, launched about two feet off the shelf before falling to the ground. Unsure of what to make of the incident, Kabasares and the other meeting participants put the tapes back on the shelf and resumed their meeting, but they couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable with what had just transpired.

“What makes it interesting, is that Kennedy is not the type of person who’s not in his right mind, he’s just honestly trying to tell you what he saw,” said Little Tokyo Historical Society ghost reporter, Bill Watanabe.

Kabasares had another petrifying experience in the East West Players theater, located in the upper section of the building. As he was preparing for a show in 1999, Kabasares took off one of his earrings as he sat in the men’s dressing room. With no one else around, he suddenly heard someone whisper his name right next to his ear. “Kennedy!” Thinking the voice was inside his head, Kabasares continued on with his business until he heard his name whispered again twenty seconds later. “KENNEDY!”

Convinced that he was being pranked, Kabasares got up from his seat and checked the hallway, but failed to find a culprit. As he returned to his seat and was staring into the mirror, something fell from above him onto his lap and onto the floor. It was his earring, which he had previously taken off and placed on his dressing table. Completely spooked, Kabasares got chills from the inexplicable voices and falling earring.

Sperl Building

Just down First Street, the A. Sperl building, which has been around since the 1880s, has been home to many supernatural experiences as well. Tony Sperl, the great-grandson of the original owner of the building, lived in the loft from 1995 to 2013, and didn’t experience anything out of the ordinary for the first few years of his residence. However, that changed one morning when he noticed something unusual.

Sperl had a chair for the elderly in the bathroom that he never used and would occasionally put things on top of, but when he woke up that day, the chair was lying on the ground eight feet outside of the bathroom. The rubber coatings on the bottom of the chair, which prevent the user from slipping in the shower, had been pulled off, which isn’t an easy thing to do. Because the building had been burglarized before, he thought that someone had broken into the loft, but found that absolutely nothing had been touched except the chair.

In another incident, Sperl had a heavy bookcase that had been standing against a wall for five years. As someone who helped rescue animals, Sperl frequently had cats in his building. On one particular bad day, he got fed up and though he didn’t mean it, he threatened to “put all the cats to sleep.” As soon as the words came out of his mouth, the heavy bookcase fell forward, slamming against the ground. Eyes wide open and completely horrified, Sperl immediately took back his threat and assured whatever entity had caused the incident that the cats were safe.

Photo Credit: KCET

Sperl’s final story occurred during the winter one year, and because his building lacked insulation, it often got extremely cold. Thus, he had an army jacket that he would wear to keep himself warm. One night, he had just finished his dinner and placed his plate on the table, when he turned, and saw his plate fly into the wall. After initially thinking his army jacket had hit the plate, he realized he was too far away from where the plate had been to have caused the accident.

Many others have had their own encounters with spirits in the building, but there is truly no explanation for who or what was behind Sperl's experiences. However, as someone who scoffed at the notion of “ghosts” in the past, Sperl now recognizes that paranormal activity is well within the realm of possibility.

“Obviously, paranormal activity has been happening up and down this street for a very long time,” said Sperl. “They’re very old buildings, there are people still evidently here that were here a long time ago, and for whatever reason are sticking around, but it’s working out fine between all of us.”

Come for the Thrill

There were many stories that couldn’t fit in this article, such as people witnessing ghosts of a young woman dressed in white, a short priest, or children playing in the basement of the Japanese American National Museum. The stories told in this article only account for experiences in Little Tokyo, but the Northern California Japantowns also have their own unique stories to tell.

With Halloween a few days away, it’s only fitting to delve into some of the ghost stories that our community has to share. Little Tokyo, and the other Japantowns, will remain the beloved areas that they always have been, but if you’re looking for a scare, you may not have to look much further than our historic neighborhoods.

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October 2020
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