Kabukicho: where worlds collide

About 1 a.m. on the morning of Sept. 1, 2001, a fire of undetermined origin swept through the No. 56 Myojo Building in Shinjuku’s Kabukicho district, resulting in the deaths of 44 people on the upper two floors. While investigators say they have ruled out arson, stories in the tabloid press continue to advance the notion that the blaze was set by an unidentified Chinese gangster.

This suspicion may be unfounded, but there’s no question that soaring crimes by Chinese — and Iranians, Colombians and other sojourners in Tokyo’s largest entertainment district — have created a headache for the authorities.

For the public, though, it’s not even necessary to venture into Kabukicho to obtain vicarious thrills: the area figures prominently in numerous vernacular books, including Arimasa Osawa’s hardboiled fiction series featuring a world-weary police detective named Samejima, and Hirokatsu Azuma’s 1994 nonfiction work, “Shinjuku: Where the Mafia Lives.” Then there’s “Fuyajo (Nightless Town),” director Shusei Hase’s bloody hit film that evidently drew inspiration from the homicidal theatrics of the Corleone family.

If these tales are to be believed, within the confines of those few congested city blocks in Shinjuku Ward, foreign gangs go head-to-head with homegrown yakuza, gunning down rivals and lopping off heads with broadswords. Foreign prostitutes strut darkened streets trolling for clients. Bars squeeze unwary customers for outrageous sums. Indeed, so ruthless are its gangs, so lawless has the district become, that writers frequently assert that “Kabukicho is no longer part of Japan.”

Writing in the January 2000 issue of the monthly magazine Gendai, Tsukasa Yoshida considered why so many Japanese writers and film directors are inclined to romanticize Kabukicho and its exotic attractions. Perhaps, he suggested, Japanese feel attracted to the primitive simplicity of the lifestyles pursued by the area’s gangsters and foreign criminals — who, like modern reincarnations of the charismatic antiheros of TV samurai dramas, can settle a dispute simply by chopping off a rival’s head.

It’s a world that ordinary Japanese, whose own lives are infinitely complicated by hierarchial relationships and obligations, find infinitely appealing.

At the same time, Yoshida speculated that the exaggerated portrayals of Kabukicho provide a catharsis, allowing Japanese to assume the role of detached observers, peering down disapprovingly on these vicious, petty squabbles among rowdy foreigners.

Double-double trouble

There’s certainly nothing fictitious, though, about crimes committed by foreigners. In 1991, according to National Police Agency data, “foreign visitors” (a term applied by the NPA to distinguish foreigners who are not established foreign residents) were involved in 6,990 prosecutable violations of the Criminal Code. Two years later, the figure had nearly doubled, to 12,771, and by 1997 it had almost doubled again, to 21,670. A disproportionate number of these crimes were committed by Chinese, including ethnic Chinese from Taiwan, Malaysia and other Asian countries.

Clearly, Kabukicho’s reputation as a hotbed of illegal activity is undeniable. One reporter calculated that in terms of the number of crimes relative to land area, crime in Kabukicho is 96 times the Tokyo average.

In an effort to reduce crime in the area, the Metropolitan Police Department announced that from this spring, it would be installing several dozen observation cameras at selected points on the streets. These Orwellian devices would be monitored at the nearby Shinjuku Police Station, and patrolmen quickly sent to deal with any suspicious activities.

“We’re very concerned over this problem,” says an editor at Zhongwen Baodao, a vernacular Chinese weekly newspaper published in Tokyo with a circulation of more than 80,000.

“There are over 400,000 of us in Japan now. Every Chinese here has the right to live in safety. Our newspaper makes an effort to report the situation accurately and is committed to seeing justice done.”

The economic “bubble” in the late 1980s drew many foreigners to Japan to fill labor shortages. But the recession has not deterred more from coming: According to Shinjuku Ward Office data, the number of registered foreign residents has increased from 19,793 in 1998 to 26,995 by last November — a rate of 12 percent a year. Only a small portion of Shinjuku’s foreign residents work in Kabukicho, of course, and though there are no reliable figures for how many non-Japanese make up the estimated 50,000 people who work in the area’s ethnic restaurants, nightclubs, hostess bars, coffee shops, movie theaters, adult bookshops, massage parlors, love hotels, discount stores, game arcades, strip clubs and gambling joints.

Some, such as the young Africans who tout for nightclubs and casinos, the Israelis peddling knickknacks on street corners, or the Turks selling doner kebabs from a small truck, are immediately recognizable as non-Japanese; others, like the hostesses from Shanghai or Seoul with dyed-brown hair and locally purchased clothes, can often pass for Japanese until their accents betray them.

Kabukicho may be Japan’s answer to New York’s Lower East Side: a place where new arrivals with limited language skills get their start, living six to a small room, slurping down a quick meal of noodles straight from the saucepan, then heading out to earn a living at so-called 3-D (dirty, difficult, dangerous) jobs.

Meanwhile, although the number of Koreans and ethnic Chinese in Shinjuku Ward are roughly the same, the former tend to be far more visible than the latter. As you approach Shokuan-dori (Unemployment office street), as the broad street bordering Kabukicho on the east is popularly known, signs on the supermarkets, restaurants, variety stores and video-rental shops begin to change from Japanese to Korean. Voices echo the accents of Seoul, Taegu and Pusan; the aroma of kimchi wafts in the air.

Improving relations

Close to 10,000 Koreans have made the adjacent Okubo district a thriving immigrant community. Catering to the spiritual needs of the community is Tokyo Banjaku Church, located on the fifth floor of a commercial building. Its congregation of Koreans, Chinese and Japanese gather at four services every Sunday, conducted alternately in Japanese and Korean. Instead of an organ and choir, music for services is played on guitar and electronic drums.

“Many of the young foreigners here are lonely and alienated,” says Presbyterian minister Kong Chan Min. A native of Seoul, Kong established the church with his wife in October 2000. He says that young Koreans who come to Japan to study or work don’t encounter a great deal of overt discrimination. “Most frequently, they come to talk to us about their frustrations here, having to get things done in a foreign language; visa problems crop up a lot, too.”

Kong was positive about improving relations between Japanese and Koreans, noting that not long after his church was founded, an incident occurred that made a major impact on the local community. On Jan. 26, 2001, Korean student Lee Su Hyon was one of three men killed by a train at nearby Shin-Okubo Station when attempting, with a Japanese man, to rescue a man who had fallen onto the Yamanote Line tracks.

“It was tragic to lose such a fine young man, but Koreans here were deeply touched by the sincere reaction of ordinary Japanese and the government to honor Lee’s sacrifice,” Kong says.

How it all began

All this is a far cry from before Kabukicho came into existence shortly after World War II. Bookstore owner Ei’ichi Machida, 78, born and raised in the area, remembers when the district was a quiet residential neighborhood with a bus depot, a hospital and a girls’ high school. Then, on April 13, 1945, a B-29 firebombing raid laid waste to much of the area.

Eight days after Japan’s surrender on Aug. 15 that year, a recovery plan had been drawn up. A committee of local businessmen was convinced Shinjuku could be developed to rival Ginza and Asakusa. They foresaw a glittering complex containing several cinemas, a skating rink, a theater for traditional kabuki drama (to be called Kikuza), and even a department store (Kabuki), that was never built.

Anticipating — wrongly, as it turned out — that the Kabukiza theater in Ginza would accept the organizers’ invitation to hold regular performances at Kikuza, the name “Kabukicho” was coined. It became official on April 1, 1948.

Old-time residents say Kabukicho’s earliest foreign presence — mainly Taiwanese and Koreans who arrived here prior to World War II — got a foothold there not with bars, but tsurekomi yado, precursors of the “love hotels” that now do a thriving business in the district. Yet that fails to explain Kabukicho’s mutation into a foreign enclave. Rather than violence or the underworld, the situation came to pass as a result of real-estate restrictions. Foreign arrivals, short of “key money” and often facing discriminatory treatment, naturally gravitated to places owned by other foreigners — in this case, the Taiwanese and their descendants, who, some sources say, now own 70 percent of the property within the district.

Foreigners’ rising numbers and increased crime in Shinjuku have at least one prominent politician worried. Last April, Tokyo’s outspoken Gov. Shintaro Ishihara stirred a major controversy when he remarked that Ground Self-Defense Force might be needed to quell civil disturbances by “gangs of foreigners,” if the capital were hit by a major earthquake.

Even if Ishihara were empowered to sic the military on unruly foreign civilians — which the Constitution clearly prohibits — the growing specter of foreign crime in Shinjuku would still weigh on many peoples’ minds.

“Needless to say, there are people against immigration, and Ishihara may wish to tap into them, as he attempts to tap into a lot of urban discontent,” observes John Lie, Korean-American author of “Multiethnic Japan” (Harvard University Press) and currently a professor of sociology at Harvard.

Lie agrees that Shinjuku has been “a very interesting place, at least since 1945.”

“It’s not just Kabukicho, but also its ‘Golden Gai’ [a separate area adjacent to Kabukicho] that has attracted all sorts of newcomers from the countryside, and it’s also in Shinjuku that a lot of people noticed the ‘problem of foreign workers’ in the 1980s,” he says.

However, Lie sees the “virtual absence” of an anti-immigration movement in Japan as “fairly remarkable.”

Shinjuku’s ability to attract soaring numbers of foreigners notwithstanding, Lie doubts that it represents the future pattern of their assimilation in Japan. “Shinjuku has been something of an oddity for a while,” he says. “And I do think journalists tend to generalize too much from the experience of Tokyo — Japan strikes me as a lot more diverse than people make it out to be.”

Call it an anomaly — or an extreme example if you will — but Kabukicho stands out as a fascinating microcosm of how foreigners are making their own distinctive mark on a changing Japan.

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