The Ghost of Tanforan – Investigating a Haunting at a Japanese Internment Camp

This is a blog I never thought I’d be writing. 

The title is a bit misleading, but I wanted to use a term that would be familiar to people. Tanforan was a detention center for Japanese Americans as they were waiting to be processed into an internment camp. More on that later.

I have to let you know how I ran into this story. I was looking up vintage Hollywood ghost stories for a video I was researching. I’m always drawn to vintage ghost stories, specifically, the first half of the 20th century as the dawn of modern ghost hunting was creeping upon society. During my research journey on the Library of Congress site, I found something about a haunting at the Hollywood Bowl. Bingo. That’s what I was looking for, right? 

The name of the newspaper stood out to me because it had the name Tanforan Totalizer. I knew immediately this was an article from one of the 15 newspapers that circulated around the assembly centers (temporary detention centers) for the internment camps for Japanese Americans. 

I’ve been researching this often-forgotten era of American history, and I find something new every day. This was no exception. I usually keep this area of my life separate from my paranormal life because I never made the connection. This is intentional. I feel it’s tip-toeing a line between being disrespectful and honoring my family.

Many of my followers know that the unjust treatment and internment of Japanese Americans is personal to me. For those who don’t know my background, my family is Japanese and were deeply affected by the internments. My grandfather, who was kicked out of the University of Washington for being Japanese, served in the U.S. Army during World War II. He served in Minnesota training soldiers in special ops. While his experience was rare for a Japanese person, he still had family in the internment camps: his first wife was sent to an internment camp, a brother sent to a prison labor camp, and another brother was in the camps as well. He had many siblings, including a third brother, Ted, who served in the 442nd as a medic and was one of the first to get injured.  The rest of his family remained in Hawaii, where they were subjected to a police state since they were so close to Pearl Harbor. 

Back to the ghost story…almost. 

The barracks at Tanforan Assembly Center. Photographed by Dorothea Lange, WRA, courtesy the National Archives and Records Administration via [National Archives Identifier 537919])

The Tanforan Assembly Center opened on April 28th, 1942, and it was located in San Bruno, California, on the San Francisco Peninsula on the Tanforan Racetrack. It was a thoroughbred horse racing track from 1899 to 1964. During World War II, it was a temporary detention center so the American government could (eventually) process over 8,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps, where they would ultimately live for years. Many families lost everything — homes, businesses, family connections — while encamped.

During their temporary “stay” at Tanforan, the people were housed in horse stalls or in one of the 170 barracks that were quickly built. To give you an idea of the tight capacity the center was dealing with, one of the first Japanese American women to earn a medical degree, Dr. Kazue Togasaki, delivered 50 babies while she was interned at Tanforan for a month. Using the term “assembly center” is a tad too gracious in my opinion.

The Tanforan Totalizer was first published on May 15th, 1942. It was edited by Taro Katayama and produced 19 weekly issues. 

The article was called, “Ghost of Tanforan” and there was a little illustration of a cartoon ghost squeezed into the top right corner. Okay, this is what I’m looking for. The article was published on July 11th, 1942, and it was noted that the incident occurred on July 8th. As I read the article in the Tanforan Totalizer, I noticed that it talked about apartments and I thought that was interesting because the real Hollywood Bowl as we knew it didn’t have apartments. But the area where the barracks were was on the tracks, like a bowl…hence the ironic name, “Hollywood Bowl.” I was definitely not going to find an early 20th-century Hollywood ghost story, full of glitz and glam.

“Ghost of Tanforan” with a little ghost illustration graces page four of the Tanforan Totalizer

The story reports that a mob of curious people was drawn to Apartment 22 because a blue ghost was said to be haunting it. Whenever the light was dimmed, or the room was dark, a blue light appeared on the ceiling. The apartment’s occupants, the family of James Fujitas, decided to move in with a neighbor while contemplating getting farther away from the apartment. The family was quoted saying, “Well, why should we stay in our room with that thing up there?”

It was then I realized that this was a paranormal investigation on a Japanese internment camp. So, we have a classic residential case. Family experiences something extraordinary, and they can’t explain it. In this case, they believed they were seeing a blue ghost. They were so spooked by it that they left their living quarters. 

Keep in mind that this incident happened just a few months after these people were forced to leave their businesses, homes, and everything they knew, just because of what they looked like. They had to leave their lives behind, and there is no doubt they were going through incredible stress and feelings of uncertainty. In the case of the Tanforan internment camp, these folks were living in horse stalls. Using the word “apartment” to describe these living quarters is ridiculously generous.

I’m extremely pleased to read this next part. The Fujitas’ story was heard by a group of skeptics, and they were determined to find out what was going on. They examined the room and determined that a piece of wood on the ceiling had rotted and was giving off a phosphorescent light. They covered the spot with a new piece of wood and the case was solved…maybe. 

Around 11:30pm, Mr. Fujitas, still staying with his neighbor, went back to his room to grab some clothes when he saw something terrifying…the light was back, and it was covering the new piece of wood. He was so freaked out that he went to the apartment of Bob Iki, who lived in Apartment 33, and they got another person with the last name of Satow. They went back to Apartment 22 and saw that the blue light had indeed returned. They closed the door behind them, and as their eyes grew accustomed to the light, something amazing happened.

They realized the blue light was peeking through a crack in a wall. I’m guessing the skeptics didn’t stay in the apartment long enough to let their eyes adjust to the darkness so that they could have found the source of the blue light.

Fujitas, Iki, and Satow closed the crack in the wall, and the blue ghost was never seen again.

I’m sure as the families of those involved moved on to the next phase of their internment process, this was a story that stuck with them as the years went by. I have to wonder, as they covered up the light, if James Fujitas, Bob Iki, and S. Satow appreciated the temporary distraction from this terrifying period of their lives. And was this an experience that stayed with them for the rest of their lives? Or, was it eventually forgotten or lost to the wind, just like the stories of my family that has been lost because no one ever spoke of it again once they were released?

If you return to the Tanforan racetrack today, it’s now a shopping center. If you look near the main entrance, you’ll find a plaque with a commemorative small rock garden that honors those who were once imprisoned there.

At the very least, this story managed to find its way from the darkness and into the light. Maybe it isn’t blue light, but it gives us a glimpse of what life was like in literal limbo between leaving your life behind and moving on into obscurity with an unpredictable future.

For me, this is a story that will stay in my heart and soul.


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