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In November 2019, unsettling news broke that the bones of 187 human bodies had been excavated between 2013 and 2015 from the construction site of Tokyo’s new Olympic stadium. It turned out the area where the venue was being built was an Edo Period (1603-1868) cemetery.

While the discovery wasn’t particularly surprising — old burial sites are frequently unearthed during large-scale infrastructure projects — it was enough to revive an urban legend: the Tokugawa curse.

Around 330,000 square meters of land in present-day Sendagaya in Shibuya Ward, near where Olympic facilities such as the new stadium stands, once belonged to the main lineage of the Tokugawa family, descendants of the Tokugawa Shogunate that ruled feudal Japan.

When the shogunate was overthrown in 1868, members of the clan were chased from Edo Castle and moved to Sendagaya, an area where the Kishu branch of the Tokugawas held residence. It was here that Prince Tokugawa Iesato, the first head of the Tokugawa family after the shogunate was dissolved, lived.

A powerful figure in Japanese politics and diplomacy, Iesato was president of the national organizing committee for the “phantom” 1940 Olympics — games that never materialized due to the outbreak of World War II. Iesato died the same year the competitions were supposed to be held in Tokyo and Sapporo. His family’s fortunes quickly dissipated — the vast land they owned was purchased by the Tokyo government in 1943.

“When various troubles began erupting during preparations for the 2020 games, I began digging into the history of the area and the Olympics and discovered the Tokugawa connection,” says Yuki Yoshida, a writer and occult researcher who has penned articles on the so-called Tokugawa curse. “Needless to say, I didn’t expect the event to be hit by a global pandemic.”

As Yoshida says, it has been a rough ride for organizers of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The new national stadium, where the human bones were found, was at the center of controversy during its inception for its enormous size and price tag. Meanwhile, accusations of plagiarism and bribery as well as high-profile gaffes have been attracting a steady stream of bad press. Finance Minister Taro Aso even called the games “cursed” last year in reference to how the quadrennial competitions have been overshadowed by unexpected circumstances in 40-year intervals.

“After losing their land, another tragedy struck the Tokugawas in 1964, the year Tokyo hosted its first Olympics,” Yoshida says. “That gave birth to Sendagaya Tunnel, one of the capital’s most haunted spots.”

Back then, the city was undergoing an unprecedented infrastructure drive in time for the games. The medieval sewage system was being overhauled, new roads and highways were paved, and thousands of offices and residences were erected in a concerted effort to transform the city’s urban landscape.

Sendagaya Tunnel in Tokyo is thought to be haunted. It was built underneath the cemetery located on the grounds of Senjuin temple. | ALEX K.T. MARTIN
Sendagaya Tunnel in Tokyo is thought to be haunted. It was built underneath the cemetery located on the grounds of Senjuin temple. | ALEX K.T. MARTIN

Sendagaya, home to the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium and near the Olympic stadium, was also getting a makeover. In a rush to build new roads, developers decided to dig through land belonging to Senjuin temple. The institution was the family temple of the aforementioned Kishu branch of the Tokugawas and had close ties to Oman-no-kata — the concubine of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder and first shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The project resulted in a 61-meter tunnel running directly beneath Senjuin’s cemetery.

Reports of supernatural occurrences ensued, often involving a female ghost with long hair hanging upside down from the ceiling of the tunnel. People claimed to find mysterious handprints on their car windows after driving through the tunnel. Victor Studio standing near the underpass is also considered to be haunted, with unexplainable wails making its way into recordings.

There’s more to the story. In a piece that ran in The Japan Times in 2014, author Robert Whiting said many facilities built for the 1964 Olympics were placed on former Tokugawa land.

“Tokyo Prince Hotel, by the Seibu Group, which own one-sixth of all the real estate in Japan, was built on land that once housed the graves of Tokugawa family members. Parts of Zojoji, the temple of the shogun, burned during World War II,” he wrote. “Postwar, the Seibu Tsutsumis grabbed much land from former Imperial princes who lost their holdings due to GHQ (the General Headquarters, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers) purges and taxation. Along the way, Seibu also obtained former grave sites maintained by Zojoji and built the Tokyo Prince Hotel in time for the 1964 Games.”

Even the iconic Tokyo Tower has one of its legs on former grave plot land, he said, blaming a death that occurred during the tower’s construction on the Tokugawa curse.

Whether or not there is any truth to the urban legend, Tokyo 2020 has been a tumultuous affair, compounded by COVID-19. With spectators limited and all public viewing events in the capital canceled, the games will likely be the quietest in the modern history of the competition.

The mouth of Sendagaya Tunnel greets visitors approaching the new Olympic stadium from Harajuku Station. A cobweb of chalk markings decorates the ceiling — traces of countless repair work conducted over the decades since the tunnel opened in 1964 and a legacy of how games-related construction scarred the face of the old city.

Above the tunnel are the graves that dot Senjuin’s cemetery. The scent of incense wafted from the cemetery during a recent trip to the temple. Despite cars roaring underneath its premises, the atmosphere was tranquil, as visitors silently paid respect to their ancestors.

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