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Thursday, Aug. 15, 2002
Prime Osaka plot haunted by legacy of death
Summer holiday season stirs memories of feudal mass war grave, modern fire tragedy
OSAKA -- In the Bon holiday period, when tradition has it that spirits return from beyond, visitors to temples and shrines in central Osaka pray not only for deceased relatives, but also for those who perished 30 years ago in a tragedy that still haunts local residents.
Located on the west side of the Sennichimae arcade is the site of one of the city's most historically cursed pieces of land, as well as that of a well-known modern ghost story.
Buried deep beneath a building that currently houses a computer and electronic goods store was a mass grave featuring the remains of thousands of people killed during the 1615 siege of Osaka Castle.
Official history on the subject is vague.
Legend has it, however, that after the battle, the Tokugawa shogunate proclaimed that the bodies of those who fell should be buried at several locations throughout Osaka, including the Sennichimae site.
The land above the mass grave then served as an execution ground for Tokugawa Period criminals.
During the first half of the 20th century, the site's infamous history made it an unattractive proposition for many businesses, despite it's prime location in the center of the Shinsaibashi district.
Not knowing about this macabre history, however, U.S. forces had no qualms in establishing an office on the site for a brief period during the postwar Occupation.
After the Occupation, tenants came and went, never staying for too long, until the Sennichimae department store was built on the site in the 1960s.
But on the evening of May 13, 1972, tragedy struck when a fire broke out on the top floor, which housed a handful of night clubs. The fire trapped nearly 200 people on the floor, with the final death toll reaching 118, many of these female nightclub employees who jumped to their deaths.
For years afterward, commuters on the Sennichimae Subway Line, which runs under the store, reportedly heard muffled cries for help, seemingly coming out of the walls.
Rumors circulated that taxi drivers picking up kimono-clad women in front of the Sennichimae arcade late at night, reached their destination only to discover their passengers had vanished into thin air.
The Sennichimae department store was eventually torn down and, after a couple of decades of tenants moving in and out, a Printemps department store was built on the site.
But reports of ghostly sightings continued. As late as the early 1990s, several women reported to local police that they had been alone in the store's restrooms when they saw a ghostly apparition that looked like a kimono-clad hostess disappear into the wall.
Today, Osaka police say they have not received any reports of strange happenings at the new computer store, which replaced Printemps a few years ago. But each Bon season, local merchants visit nearby shrines to remember those who died 30 years ago.
"I've never seen any ghosts. But even today, I still feel uneasy when I walk by Sennichimae, like something isn't quite right. So I think Bon is the proper time to remember those who perished," said Masami Kataoka, who manages a small pastry shop nearby.