My name is Eric Ramirez, and I’m proud to say that I’m helping Los Angeles build a subway system.
You may have seen me before. You know that big construction site in the middle of Little Tokyo, across from the Japanese American museum? There are a couple of spots along the sidewalk where you can look through the fence and see what will eventually be an underground light rail station. Yeah, I’m one of those construction guys you might see over there.
Sorry about the mess.
About a month ago, I was down in a corner of the big pit, double-checking some concrete. I was by myself, away from the rest of my usual crew.
Well, all of a sudden, I had this funny paranoid feeling — like somebody was sneaking up on me. I even thought I saw someone out of the corner of my eye. It wasn’t one of the other guys, or a foreman or a supervisor.
It was a child — a young long-haired Asian-looking girl wearing some sort of light pink kimono. She was smiling. My mind flooded with questions. Who was she? How did she get there? Was she trespassing? Why wasn’t she wearing a hardhat?
So I turned around to talk to her, but there was nobody there. Whoever it was had vanished into thin air. That was strange.
On my way out, I asked a couple of the other guys if they had seen anybody lurking around — a missing child, perhaps?
“What are you talking about, man. There hasn’t been anybody here but us,” Foreman Mike says with a laugh. The others I talk to all agree. No kids had accidentally wandered into the area. None of us had invited a daughter to come see what daddy does all day.
“Go home and get some rest,” Mike suggests.
It was probably just my imagination, I think to myself. I don’t believe in ghosts. I head home and don’t think about it for the rest of the evening.
That night, I had a dream. I was in Little Tokyo. At least, I think it was Little Tokyo. It looked different. The big, glass museum building was gone. That Japanese hotel on First Street was gone. There were trolley tracks down the middle of the street, but no subway tunnel construction. Stores, shops and restaurants were all closed.
And the people looked different, too. It was like one of those old Hollywood movies where the men all wore suits with fedoras. You know what I mean.
Men, women and children — all Japanese American, I suppose — had gathered around. Some of the men were carrying suitcases, while others had big bundles or packages.
Then I noticed the buses. That’s when I started to understand. The people weren’t just standing around, they were waiting to be hauled off.
I couldn’t see their faces very clearly. Were they worried, concerned, confused, angry or just resigned to their fate? The crowd seemed surprisingly orderly.
At last, the buses were all loaded up, and I was the only person left. Except, there was still one girl left behind. It was that same little girl in the kimono that I had imagined seeing earlier. She watches the buses leave, and then she shakes her head in silent disbelief. I saw her fade away as she walked off down the empty street.
And then I woke up.
The next morning, I had the day off, so I decided to head downtown. I wanted to see the Japanese American museum.
I already knew a little bit about the history of the area that we were digging up. Metro had put historic photos on the fence around the subway project. I knew how we had locked up all of those Japanese Americans during World War II.
But my strange kimono girl confused me. Had anybody managed to stay behind when they took them all away to the desert? When I arrived at the museum, I found a museum guide and asked him if anybody had been forgotten in all of the confusion.
“No no, that couldn’t be,” said the guide, a gray-haired Asian American gentleman in a purple vest. He sounded surprised that I would even suggest it. “People who moved to the East Coast were able to avoid the camps. But they wouldn’t have left anybody behind here. I can’t imagine it.”
I thanked the man, and looked around the historic exhibits. Little Tokyo sure looked different back then. My dream seemed pretty accurate so far.
I was getting hungry, so I left the museum in search of a bite to eat. I avoided the famous ramen noodle house with the huge crowd out front.
Instead, I wandered into Japanese Village Plaza and found a small cafe near the Hello Kitty store. It appeared to be a two-person operation, with a man behind the counter cooking. A woman, possibly his wife, was doing all of the waitressing. It was after 1 p.m., and I seemed to be their only customer at the moment.
“So, what brings you to Li’l Tokyo?” she asked, when I was done with my teriyaki bowl and about ready to leave.
“Would you believe I’m on a ghost hunt?”
“A ghost hunt?”
“Yeah, I know it sounds dumb, right?” I answered.
“Oh, it’s not so dumb,” she replied. “Mom has seen a ghost. Would you like to hear about it?”
Before I had a chance to protest, she called out to a little old Japanese lady who was apparently her mother. I hadn’t noticed her earlier. She must have been sitting in the back of the cafe. She was not much taller when she stood up.
As soon as I realized what was going on, I got up from my table and headed over to where the old lady was. I towered over her. She sat back down and I found a chair.
“Mom,” whose name was Chiyo, had a short conversation with the waitress, June. Chiyo didn’t hear well, but eventually she got the idea that I wanted to hear about ghosts.
(In the meantime, I noticed that a couple of new customers had arrived. June’s husband got out from behind the small kitchen area and took their orders. I felt sorry for the guy.)
Chiyo spoke slowly, and June nudged her along. But between the two of them, I got a rambling story that was more about the history of Little Tokyo than about ghosts.
As it turns out, Chiyo was actually June’s mother-in-law. Chiyo had been in a Japanese American concentration camp as a child, but June was born after the war.
Postwar Little Tokyo took time to rebuild. Parker Center ate a large chunk of the community in the 1950s. A lot of Japanese Americans moved to Torrance or Gardena. But, Chiyo’s family lived in Boyle Heights, closer to downtown. Chiyo’s older brother ran a small cafe that would evolve into the one that I was sitting in.
Redevelopment in the 1970s led to evictions and protests. But the community fought to keep local mom-and-pop businesses open and to get senior housing built.
In the middle of all of this turmoil, Chiyo’s family lucked out. The people who built Japanese Village Plaza wanted Japanese American-owned businesses, and the family’s cafe was a perfect choice.
As one of the first tenants, the family was invited to a ceremonial grand-opening event at the entrance to the Japanese-themed shopping center.
“It was boring,” Chiyo explained. “A lot of fancy people gave speech. I needed to stretch my legs. Take walk. Look around.”
If anybody noticed that one of the guests had wandered off into the brand new shopping center, nobody seemed to care. Chiyo didn’t walk very far before she decided to head back to the entrance.
But before she could return to the ceremony, she thought she sensed somebody behind her. She turned around to look.
That’s when Chiyo saw her. It was a young long-haired girl wearing a light pink kimono. The girl smiled, but said nothing.
“I thought she must be part of the ceremony,” Chiyo said. “But something didn’t feel right.”
Chiyo looked away from the girl for a brief moment. Of course, when she looked back, the girl had vanished.
“She showed me the spot once,” June added. “There is nowhere for a girl to run off to, or to hide. She definitely had to have vanished.”
Chiyo finishes up her story, and I thank them for their time.
After lunch, I walked around the shopping center for a little bit. I need a bit of time to digest my lunch — and digest what Chiyo had told me. If she’s correct, I’ve seen a ghost. But, like I said, I don’t believe in ghosts.
The shopping center is nice. They seem to have a little bit of everything, from toys to traditional clothes to a bakery. When I reach a fork in the path, I glimpse a familiar-looking kimono girl walking away to the right.
It can’t be her, I think. My eyes are playing tricks on me. Still, I head to the right, and find myself walking down into an indoor mall. It seems that all the shops down here are dedicated to Japanese animation, video games and other random bits of Japanese pop culture. A giant robot stands in one window, and I think I see Godzilla in another storefront. There are school uniforms, ninja outfits and Pokemon cards for sale. I see posters and cardboard cutouts of anime characters.
A couple of pink-haired teens walk by wearing costumes. Is there a convention event going on downtown? Or are these just store clerks?
I slowly realize that I must have followed a fully-alive human being into the anime mall, not a ghost. None of the people I see look like how I remember the young kimono girl looked. Although, I have to admit that a kimono ghost would not attract much attention down here.
I headed back to the museum. I wanted to learn more. Were there ghosts haunting the Little Tokyo neighborhood?
“Well, we did have some special events for Halloween last year,” the young woman at the front desk information counter tells me. “They had ghost tours of the neighborhood. You know, they went down spooky alleyways where ghosts have been seen.”
She shows me an old poster for the Halloween events. I ask if she remembers any specific ghosts.
“I’m sorry, I wasn’t on any of the tours,” she explains. “Perhaps you’d like to speak with George? He’s our resident ghost expert.”
I meet George in the museum’s library on the first floor. George is taller than the museum guide I spoke with earlier. He leads me to a conference room where we can talk.
I describe the girl to him, and he immediately recognizes her.
“So you’ve met Kimono Girl, have you?” George asks. “Yukata would be more logical, it seems to me. But witnesses tell us kimono, so the name stuck.”
George shows me a notebook that he carried from the library. The notebook contains a list of sightings of the girl. It is a long list, with details for each appearance. He tells me that the girl first appeared in the 1890s, when a handful of Japanese shops and restaurants grew into a real community.
“People claimed to have seen her during the first Nisei Week back in 1934, but it’s hard to know for sure,” he says.
George gives me a brief explanation of the Nisei Week summer festival, and it does sound like something a Japanese American girl ghost would like.
“There would have been a lot of people in yukata, wouldn’t there?” he says. “She would blend right in, wouldn’t she?”
He says that people had also seen the girl at Little Tokyo’s various Obon festivals. He hesitates to add that Obon is a traditional festival honoring the dead.
“I don’t mean it quite like that,” he quickly adds. “I don’t think she’s your typical ghost haunting. I mean, look at all these other sightings.”
According to George’s notebook, Kimono Girl was spotted at the old Japanese Union Church in 1949, at Little Tokyo Towers in 1975, at the cultural center in 1980, outside the museum in 1992 and at the Go For Broke Monument in 1999. Others claimed to have seen a mysterious girl strolling through the cultural center’s Japanese garden. Our girl has also been spotted mourning in front of the Onizuka astronaut memorial at Weller Court.
And finally, a mysterious girl was seen after the groundbreaking ceremony for the Budokan, George says.
“I guess you haven’t heard,” George explains. “It’s going to be a gym. Apparently, she was holding a basketball.”
He flips through some pages in the notebook.
“A friend of mine told me he saw Kimono Girl dancing on the rubble of the old Parker Center last year,” George says. “But I think he was just pulling my leg.”
So what does this all mean, I ask.
“Perhaps she represents the spirit of Little Tokyo,” he says.
I wait for him to make a joke or something.
“I’m serious,” he adds. “Look at the dates in my notebook. A lot of them coincide with some major event — a new building, the founding of a new business or new organization. During the war, she couldn’t leave Little Tokyo, because she is Little Tokyo.”
“But why is she always a little girl?”
“Perhaps because Little Tokyo has been rebuilt and reborn so many times. She’s never grown up.”
I guess that makes sense, I think. I have one final question; the one thing that got me involved in all of this in the first place.
“So what about my Kimono Girl sighting? I mean, the one in the pit?”
“You say you think she was smiling?”
“Then, maybe she approves of the construction,” George says. “A lot of people who come to the museum say they took the train here. And this new subway, it will just bring more people, won’t it?”
We chat a little bit longer about the subway, the Dodgers and other stuff. By now, it is just about closing time for the museum, so I thank him and head out.
I am left with a lot to think about. If George’s story is true, then Little Tokyo has a spirit, and she is still here after all this time. The camps didn’t kill her. Redevelopment couldn’t finish her off.
And perhaps, I’m making my contribution to Little Tokyo’s survival. It is a comforting thought. I don’t believe people come back as ghosts. But a community spirit I can deal with.
That’s my story, and I swear it is all true.