As any good street tout will tell you, high foot-traffic is the key to success. Sure, he might toss out his chest, flash his best smile and smoothly sell you an explanation for the apparent contradiction between the shapely, high-class ladies he promises and the remarkably low entry price to his establishment, but even a true charmer will not be effective talking to a sidewalk of empty concrete.
So it is conceivable that with the opening of Tokyo Midtown, Tokyo’s newest mixed-use, high-rise complex, lucrative business opportunities will be abundant for the throng of hustlers roaming the pavement of Gaien-Higashi- dori just west of the intersection with Roppongi-dori. Or will they?
Standing a mere 50 meters from the doors of the project one recent chilly Tuesday evening, a Nigerian tout turned his gaze upward — not at any of the development’s hulking towers lurking overhead — but rather at a domed security camera that he said had been installed two weeks before.
“Private Eyes closed,” he huffed of the strip club a few blocks behind his business. “Velfarre shut down.” He then pointed to no less than three other new security cameras in the immediate area.
My new friend, who wished that he and his club remain nameless, didn’t spell it out, but his roundabout message was that Roppongi, one of Tokyo’s sleazier burghs for Japanese and foreigners alike, is being made respectable.
Some of the first rumblings can be traced to a year ago, when a crackdown on all-night dancing began. Though rarely enforced, the Adult Entertainment Business Law stipulates that clubs cannot operate beyond 1 a.m. Velfarre had its application for an extension of business hours rejected by the Metropolitan Police Department on the basis that foreigners were responsible for much of the criminal activity in the area. In November, a half-dozen other clubs, including multiroomed nightspot Vanilla, also felt the heat from the police. Velfarre wound up spinning its last disc in December. The Lexington Queen, known as much for being a dive as the foreign models it attracted, closed earlier this year.
In addition to clubs and bars, Roppongi is rife with operations classed mizusho- bai (hostess businesses). On any given evening, hundreds of ladies in their best high heels, bouncy hair, and tight clothing clip-clop to work beneath the crusty sign above Roppongi crossing that bizarrely announces “High Touch Town Roppongi.” The tout later told me that hostess club One-Eyed Jack also had closed.
Inside the police station at the Roppongi intersection, one police officer, who also wanted to remain anonymous, claimed that the security cameras, which have sprung up in front of various businesses on the east side of the intersection (Hard Rock Cafe and Excelsior, to name two), had nothing to do with Midtown’s imminent opening; rather it was simply a continuation of a protocol set in Shinjuku. “We’ve had a lot of problems with fighting in the streets lately,” he explained.
Yashuhiro Ogahara tends bar at a watering hole near the Shinjuku Ward Office in Kabukicho. That legendary center of sketchy activity also is under pressure to clean up, with Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara leading protests. Veter- ans there sense that Roppongi’s days as a hedonistic haven are similarly numbered. “Business is dying,” said Ogahara. “Sometimes customers will roll in here at 2 or 3 a.m. because various clubs in Roppongi have closed.” His conclusion is that the sudden squeeze is due in part to the government’s belief that corporations are better sources of tax revenue than shifty entertainment proprietors.
The battle lines between corporations and smut are being drawn. In what might be a first for corporate Japan, a blue-chip company, technology giant Fujifilm, will house its headquarters at the edge of a group of sex businesses. Just sand-wedge-distance from their offices at Midtown will be a gentlemen’s club whose sign reads “Topless Topless” and another, OL Bombers, whose emblem is a young lady bending over seductively to emphasize her rear end.
Furthering the creep of credibility is Roc Mon, the complex near coffee shop Almond. With Outback Steakhouse as a tenant, it is backed by industrial giant Nippon Steel. Providing fortifications to the north side is the high-end residential and office complex Izumi Garden Tower.
The stuffiness doesn’t end there. “Art Triangle Roppongi,” which a decade ago might have been assumed to be the title of a porno film by a director with avante- garde aspirations, is the promotional moniker for the National Art Center, Tokyo, the Suntory Museum of Art (in Midtown) and the Mori Art Museum of Roppongi Hills, which when it opened in 2003 was one of the first waves of decorum to strike the area.
Given that the author of the “high touch” motto was more than likely seeking a “high class” notion, he is proving to be eerily prescient. The question now is this: what will remain once the dust settles?
“There are rumors, rumors, rumors,” said the Nigerian tout of the uncertainty of where the invisible hand will land next. “I am here now. You can see other guys on the streets as well. But for tomorrow, I have no idea.”