In 2013 Little Tokyo seemed to be going through a lull; not a lot of people were coming to eat, shop, hang out. So the Little Tokyo Historical Society “imagined” a new project – a contest that would help promote interest in Little Tokyo by seeking and encouraging writers to create stories about Little Tokyo.

I mean, what better way to excite interest in and celebrate the specialness of Little Tokyo than to experience its history and legacy through creative storytelling?

That year, the Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story contest was introduced. We set a deadline for submissions. We had no idea what the response would be — would we even receive anything? By the time of the deadline, 60 stories were submitted!

On Thursday, July 23, at 6 p.m., Imagine Little Tokyo will hold its 7th Annual Awards Program, where the winning stories in three categories – Adult, Youth and Japanese language – will be announced. Naomi Hirahara and I are co-chairing this year.

Winners, runners-up, readers and judges at last year’s Imagine Little Tokyo event. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

Ghosts and Spirits in Little Tokyo

Imagine Little Tokyo has three separate Judging panels for each category. These panels have no interaction or even know who is serving on the other panels. Surprisingly, the winning story from each category turned out to have a theme of ghosts or spirits of Little Tokyo!

Many people who have lived, worshipped or worked in Little Tokyo have seen or heard at least one ghost story. For example, there is a long list of ghost sightings at the Old Nishi. It’s said that several security guards saw the ghosts and were scared out of their wits. There have also been sightings at East West Players, the former Union Church. The ghost of an old man has been seen a number of times in the balcony. He is said to be the former caretaker, who lived there for many years.

In fact, every Halloween, the Haunted Little Tokyo tour is a top attraction that is quickly sold out.

There are also ghosts that embody the spirit of Little Tokyo.

Bill Watanabe of Little Tokyo Historical Society leads last year’s Haunted Little Tokyo tour. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

With the growing concerns around gentrification, the construction around the Metro Regional Connector and closures of a growing number of heritage shops and businesses, a spirit of support and survival has kicked in, drawing in more support and interest in Little Tokyo. An awareness of the importance of community-owned property, and protecting the heritage and cultural legacy of LT is growing. Longtime community institutions/bodies like Little Tokyo Service Center and Little Tokyo Coordinating Council are focused on Saving LT, as well as new efforts like the Little Tokyo Community Impact Fund.

With the pandemic and protest, the community spirit of Little Tokyo is even more visible.

LTSC’s Little Tokyo Eats is delivering delicious meals to seniors who are sheltering in place three times a week for only $3. Community Feeding Community (LTCC) has raised funds to provide free meals three times a week to those who lost their jobs due to COVID-19. Individual efforts such as the meal delivery program at Teramachi coordinated by Steve and Patty Nagano are feeding those sheltering in place there.

All these programs are coordinating and rotating equitably among the restaurants in LT that are all struggling with the effects of the pandemic on their business. This is the Spirit of Little Tokyo. You can feel it all over.

So that’s why it seemed so serendipitous (yes, that’s a word) that all of our Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest winners happened to center around a ghost or spirit of LT. They are wonderful stories, and they will be read by top actors: Tamlyn Tomita (“Karate Kid II,” “Joy Luck Club,” Commodore Oh on “Star Trek: Picard”), Derek Mio (“The Terror: Infamy,” “Medal of Honor” episode about Hershey Miyamura-Netflix), and Eijiro Ozawa (“Letters from Iwo Jima,” “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”). The marvelous Marilyn Tokuda (Cold Tofu, East West Players) will emcee the awards program.

Imagine Little Tokyo was scheduled to take place at JANM, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the program will be presented through a Zoom platform! Going virtual is exciting and scary (for us) on so many different levels. Please join us for an entertaining evening of original storytelling on Thursday, July 23, at 6 p.m. You will need to pre-register by going to A Zoom link will then be emailed to you before the program.

See you there!



Miya Iwataki has been an advocate for communities of color for many years, from the JACS Asian Involvement Office in Little Tokyo in the ’70s, through the JA redress/reparations struggle with NCRR while working for Congressman Mervyn Dymally, to statewide health rights advocacy. She also worked in public media at KCET-TV, then KPFK Pacifica Radio as host for a weekly radio program, “East Wind.” She can be reached at Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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