Fire in Sennichimae - Dead Passengers

Ghosts, spirits and the world beyond death haunt the pages of two of my novels – “29 Argyle Drive”; and the recently published “Escarpment”

Dead Passengers

Sennichimae is a bustling and noisy shopping and entertainment district located at the south end of central Osaka, its streets crowded day and night with strolling tourists. 

But it has a haunted, blood-drenched history.

In the wake of the 1615 siege and destruction of Osaka Castle, the victor, Tokugawa Ieyasu, ordered that the corpses of the thousands of people who had fallen be buried in mass graves dug in several places around Osaka.

One of these was a piece of land located at the west end of where the current Sennichimae arcade stands. Later, after the Tokugawa Shogunate had established its rule, the Sennichimae land under which the corpses had been buried became an execution ground for convicted criminals.

Local merchants retained the memory of that piece of real estate’s bloody history and were reluctant to build on it, even into the 20th century. But the passage of time eventually dulled remembrance. After the war, GHQ built a facility on the site; following the Occupation, various kinds of businesses opened there. None flourished; all soon closed down.

Then, in the 1960s the Sennichimae Department Store was built.

There were night clubs on the top floor, staffed by pretty, kimono-clad hostesses. On the evening of May 13, 1972, the third floor women’s clothing department was undergoing renovation. A fire broke out there – thought to have been caused by a carelessly discarded cigarette.

The flames spread quickly. Toxic gasses emitted by the construction materials that were stored on the third floor for the renovation work filled the stairwells.

The blaze trapped more than two hundred people on the top floor, staff and patrons of the night clubs. There was nowhere to escape to. The elevators were no longer operating. The stairs were full of smoke and poisonous gas.

Altogether 118 people died. Ninety-six perished in the nightclubs – 93 from carbon dioxide poisoning and three from injuries they received when they were trampled on during the panic to escape. Twenty-four people, mostly hostesses, jumped off the roof. Twenty-two of them died instantly when they smashed into the pavement.

 Ever since, many people traveling on the Sennichimae subway line, which runs under the place where the store used to be, claim to have heard faint, far-away cries for help. 

A few years later, another department store was built on the site. Employees often reported seeing kimono-clad hostesses appear suddenly, usually in the restrooms, walk a few paces and vanish.

But the most persistent reports come from local taxi drivers who wait for fares at the cab rank that stands at the end of the Sennichimae arcade. Their most common passengers late at night, apart from drunken salarymen, are hostesses who work in the district’s clubs, cabarets and snacks. Heading home.

Sometimes, the passenger wears a kimono. There is nothing spectral or spooky about her appearance or her manner. She tells the driver her destination; sometimes, she chats with him. Everything is normal until the cab pulls up outside the condominium where she lives.

And suddenly she isn’t there anymore.