Blaze in Tokyo mah-jongg parlor
Fire started by blast rips through upper floors of 4-story
Saturday, September 1, 2001
TOKYO -- An explosion and fire tore through a gambling
parlor in a bustling Tokyo nightclub district early today,
killing at least 44 people in one of Japan's deadliest blazes
in years, officials said.
Some people jumped from third-story windows to escape the
fire. Tokyo Fire Department spokesman Takashi Yamagishi
said three people were hospitalized.
Firefighters scrambled up ladders to reach the third and
fourth floors of the building in the Kabukicho entertainment
district, which were gutted by the blaze.
Forty-four people were killed and three were injured and
hospitalized, but their conditions weren't clear, Yamagishi
said. Police initially said that 47 people were hospitalized
Because of the large number of dead and injured in the
fire, the victims had to be taken to 16 different nearby
hospitals, where grim-faced doctors interviewed by television
crews gave descriptions of badly burned victims blackened
by the intense heat and heavy smoke.
"Their hearts and respiration had already stopped
when they arrived here," said one emergency room doctor
whose hospital received four of the blast victims. The fire
was extinguished and a search by rescuers showed that there
were no more victims, according to Japanese public broadcaster
It was unclear how many people were inside the mah-jongg
parlor where the blast occurred, on the third floor of the
four-story building. Some people scampered to the roof and
were plucked to safety.
Witnesses said they heard a loud bang and saw smoke billowing
from the building, which houses several other clubs and
restaurants. Emergency crews quickly cordoned off the area
as hundreds of onlookers crowded around. The fire was put
out after about five hours.
Japan's Kyodo News agency reported that police suspect
arson, but officials declined to comment. Authorities were
trying to determine the cause of the explosion and fire,
said a spokesman at the Shinjuku police station who gave
only his last name, Masuda.
News reports said the explosion occurred at about 1 a.m.
when an employee of the Ikkyu mah-jongg parlor opened the
door of the establishment. Mah-jongg is a popular table
game in much of East Asia and sometimes involves gambling.
Kyodo News agency said the explosion tore open a hole measuring
6 inches by 5 feet in the side of the building, whose tenants
include a casino and an adult club advertised with gaudy
red-and-pink signs on the front.
The Kabukicho area of Shinjuku, where the fire and blast
occurred is Tokyo's most famous red-light district.
The explosion came in the early hours today, when the zone
is most heavily packed with revelers.
The area's narrow streets are crowded with small bars and
restaurants, strip clubs, massage parlors and gambling establishments.
"There are many old buildings that aren't properly
maintained," said Tomonori Nishige, 23, who works in
a karaoke parlor near the site of the disaster. "It's
For years, Shinjuku's Kabukicho district has been the center
of the city's mizu shobai, or sex entertainment industry.
Quiet by day, the area courses with Japanese company employees
by night -- mostly men, who often drink heavily and wander
through a forest of neon either alone or in small groups
from bar to restaurant to bar.
Many of the entertainment establishments are tiny clubs
that occupy entire floors in narrow buildings, much like
the one where the fire broke out.
The fire occurred on Tokyo's annual disaster preparation
day, when the self-defense force, fire department and police
performed huge drills aimed at readiness for earthquakes.
At the start of the drills this morning, Japan's prime
minister, Junichiro Koizumi, appeared on television to say
that he would pray for the victims of the mah-jongg fire.
Koizumi also announced that he was ordering an investigation
into the cause.
"I want the ministries and agencies concerned to carry
out a thorough investigation into the case," he said.