RECLAIMING KABUKICHO

Cops and citizens bid to blitz street sleaze

by Eric Prideaux

In an ideal society, various branches of the state interact to put criminals behind bars. Talk to those involved in law enforcement, though, and most will say there’s only so much they can do without the cooperation of private citizens.

That’s where Masaru Jo comes in.

Jo used to be an insurance-company salaryman. These days, though, he’s the director of the Kabukicho Shotengai Shinko Kumiai (Kabukicho Shopping Center Promotion Association) and can read chapter and verse on every extortion scam and illegal enterprise Japanese gangsters use to make money.

After all, Kabukicho, in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward, is probably the busiest entertainment district in all Japan and major organized-crime groups have their offices there.

Jo wants that to change.

“Removing organized crime from Kabukicho will be tough. But if we don’t do it now it will only get worse,” said the powerfully built 50-year-old who, despite the grim challenge, still manages to smile a heck of a lot.

Jo’s association of local merchants plays a central role in the lengthily named Shinjuku Shopping Center Committee to Expel Organized-Crime Groups. This joint effort, launched in July 2003 by government agencies and private citizens, aims to replace with legitimate enterprises the area’s host of porn shops, sex businesses and unlicensed street vendors — which Jo believes all have to pay gangsters to operate there.

The crusaders have decided on a strategy of making themselves a visible presence — visible, as in Day-Glo visible.

On a recent Friday night, Jo and his partners from the shopping-center association donned garish neon-yellow windbreakers emblazoned with the English slogan “We love KABUKI-CHO” and set out on an hour-long patrol of the entertainment district.

It was part pamphleteering aimed at encouraging merchants to report extortion . . . and part show of force. The latter was thanks to Jo’s 10-strong band being accompanied on their rounds by high-ranking officials from Shinjuku Ward Office and Metroplitan Police’s Organized Crime Control Bureau. Most importantly, considering the locale, there was also a contingent of 20 stony-faced uniformed police, pistols at their sides and batons at the ready. Though joint patrols are nothing new to the area, said Jo, never before had police offered this much backup.

The event got off to a dramatic start when, just down the street from the flamboyant Kabukicho gateway, a cop loudly ordered an unlicensed food vendor — a foreign man — to take a hike. When he resisted, a brief shoving match ensued as the Kabukicho crowd gazed on in surprise. It was clear who was calling the shots, though, and before long the man was on his way.

Other vendors, Japanese and foreign, were next. Ragtag purveyors of everything from clothes and accessories to flower bouquets to “second-hand” (scavenged or — some said — event stolen) magazines were shooed away like flies and told never to come back. Jo, thrilled at the support his organization was getting from the police, bobbed along with obvious glee. “Until now,” he said, “you’d only ever see one or two cops working the area at any given time.”

Winding their way through the narrow streets, uniformed police also went after the ubiquitous luxury cars driven by men the locals said were gangsters making their rounds. One cop knocked on the shaded windows of a Toyota Celsior and firmly reminded the driver that cars were banned overnight in Kabukicho. A plain-clothed officer noted the license-plate number before the silvery-gray behemoth lumbered away through the crowd.

Once warned, said Jo, anybody who returned to commit the same violations faced a chushi meirei (injunction order). Repeat offenders risked arrest, he said. (The metropolitan police declined to comment on this or other aspects of the night’s patrol.)

To be sure, the patrol left cleaner streets in its wake that Friday night. Still, participants harbored few expectations that the exercise alone would rid Kabukicho of organized crime.

Warily eyeing a double-parked monster sedan, one official echoed what other colleagues were also saying: that chasing away vendors could only harass, not expel, syndicates with huge investments in the sex trade, amphetamines and pornography.

And, though none of the volunteers likely discussed it, critics have voiced concern that increased collaboration between law enforcement and local communities, however well-intended a response to organized crime, could actually result in regular citizens reporting on each other to police in a manner reminiscent of pre-World War II militarist Japan — an outcome that would certainly be at odds with a healthy civil society.

That night, however, such worries were far from the minds of merchants gathered beneath awnings to cheer the patrol on, showing just the kind of civic spirit the event was meant to inspire.

“It’s about time somebody got around to doing this!” exclaimed one woman, a restaurant worker in an apron standing outside her shop. All the shady Benzs and Celsiors parked outside her shop scared customers away, she told Jo, and the swarms of hawkers for “esthetic salons” — many said to offer sexual services — were just as bad.

Shigeo Kitada, a longtime Kabukicho sushi chef and also a member of the merchants’ association, concurred.

“Fifteen years ago, Kabukicho was a place a guy could bring his family. But not today, what with all these billboards of naked ladies,” grumbled Kitada, 56, who inherited the sushi shop from his father in 1971. “Little by little, our revenue has dropped.”

Kitada said he had taken part in a community patrol twice before, on days he didn’t have to mind the shop, and would proudly do so again. Told that the merchants’ association planned to distribute a sticker calling for the ousting of organized crime, he announced, “I’m putting one up.”

Jo, for his part, ended the patrol by stuffing sex-for-sale fliers he’d pulled off alleyway walls into a garbage bag. Sure, he said, the campaign was still in its infancy. But he described himself as cautiously optimistic that cooperation between government agencies and the local community would one day stanch the flow of money to organized crime.

“We’ve finally all banded together,” said Jo. “We’ve said, whether our actions are small or big, let’s give it our best shot.”