Tadanori Tanaka mimics the sounds that convinced him his new home is haunted. "Bam, bam, bam," blurts the 69-year-old carpenter, pounding his fist on the wall of his apartment. "Or 'tchi, tchi,' like the snap of a whip." Noises, he says, have erupted from the walls without warning since he moved into the newest public housing block in Tomika, a hamlet 300 kilometers southwest of Tokyo, in 1999. Last spring the curtains in the room slid open "as if dragged by a spirit" while he sat petrified on a tatami mat. Surprisingly, these revelations didn't shock the neighbors. " 'It's kind of awkward,' they said when I told them, 'but we've been having some problems, too'."
So began Japan's latest kaidan, or ghost story, a spine-chiller set in a typical small town. Until a few weeks ago Tomikacho was known, if at all, for its sweet strawberries, shimmering green fields and rolling foothills. Now it is famous for Japan's newest "haunted house." Residents of the 24-unit complex report creepy noises, and tell stories of erratic clocks and showers and hairdryers that start by themselves. In one case, dishes came smashing down from a cupboard (a phenomenon unknown in Japan until the 1980s Hollywood blockbuster "Poltergeist"). Three inhabitants say they've seen a ghostly woman dressed in an old-fashioned kimono lurking about. And on the top floor, in apartment 405, an 11-year-old girl claims she's been touched by someone--or something--invisible. "She felt a gentle tap on her shoulder," says her father, salaryman Yasuhiro Yamada, "but when she turned around, nobody was there."
Residents called in local officials to investigate in July. But when the officials failed to explain the building's mysterious problems, families began hiring exorcists. The first medium, a venerable Shinto ascetic in her 60s, scattered offerings of fruit and squid, then declared that "an unfortunate death had occurred here," feeding rumors that a distraught housewife who hanged herself from a nearby tree about 30 years ago now haunts the premises. Her attempted exorcism made the news on (appropriately enough) Friday the 13th, in local newspaper article topped with the titillating headline: ghosts? That's when things got really weird. The phones at Tomika's town hall began ringing with tourists, tabloid journalists and amateur psychics. "The most troubling thing is that we can't continue with our jobs," Toshihiro Kawasaki, a local construction-department official says pointedly to two reporters. "We have to deal with the media."
Soon an army of journalists arrived for a round-the-clock ghost watch. In apartment 404, vacated two weeks earlier by a terrified family of four, a television crew set up shop in the hope of shooting flying tea cups or a gremlin or two. Nothing much happened, but still there was plenty to see. One amateur ghost-buster traipsed around with a sack of what looked like used coffee grinds chanting "calmly enter the bag." And someone claimed in a note that the complex stands "where [police] used to chop the heads off criminals." It warned that "within the year, you'll have three corpses in this building." Residents dismiss the note as a prank.
Newspapers have also hired "experts" to investigate local ghost stories. Weekly Playboy, a tabloid-style magazine, brought in a sexy teenage psychic dressed in a clingy pink sweater, tight mini-skirt and boots with five-inch heels, and had her ascend the stairs. "From the third floor on up, my body felt cold all over," she said. "We're going to do a story combining my feelings with interviews with inhabitants."
Outside, gawkers from near and far clustered on a narrow street. "It's the first time I've ever run off to see a ghost," quipped a 67-year-old man who had ridden his scooter 30 kilometers to be there. "It's good to witness this with my own eyes so I can go back home and tell tales." Beside him, a middle-aged engineer who said he was "interested in UFOs and other unexplained phenomena" pondered whether his two-hour drive from Nagoya was worthwhile. "If the building was old with spider webs and things, then we might feel something," he said. "Come to think of it, maybe it's more difficult to see the spirits during daylight?"
Few Japanese will celebrate Halloween this week. But roughly half of all students in the country believe in telepathy, reincarnation and "after-death worlds," according to a recent survey. Tomika town officials are a bit more skeptical. Residents are pressuring them to share the bill for a powerful Shinto or Buddhist medium to rid the public housing complex of spirits, but so far they haven't given in. "That would violate the [constitutional] separation of church and state," explains Masahiro Hibino, a local official. Residents already paid one medium $700, but she returned the money because the exorcism didn't take. Perhaps Tomika locals could raise more money by selling the movie rights to their ghost story.