Kabukicho is Tokyo’s infamous entertainment district and suburb of sleaze. A heavily populated square of sleepless activity northeast of Shinjuku Station, it is home to a haphazard mix of movie theaters, hostess bars, strip clubs, and seedy nightclubs. An illicit atmosphere permeates the air.
Toward the back entrance of the garishly neon-lit Kabukicho area, nestled between love hotels, host bars, and the predominantly Korean district of Shin Okubo, sits the Japan Social Minority Center, an NPO rescue center run by philanthropist, author, and public speaker Hidemori Gen.
The center caters to those on the run and those in trouble who don’t know where to go, whom to turn to. The Japan Social Minority Center, staffed by three, is also dubbed a kakekomidera after the temples that used to shelter runaway women in the Edo Period. The center also provides advice for people in seemingly desperate situations.
A counseling service of sorts, its proprietor Gen also has a wide network of lawyers and safe-houses he avails himself of in order to help people. Through the center’s glass doors come people who are in trouble with loan sharks, stalkers, yakuza, and pimps. Women also come to escape abusive relationships and domestic violence.
Gen has run this center for seven years and is well-known in many sectors in Japan largely because of his books — nine of which are non-fiction anecdotes and memoirs, or motivational manuals, three of which are manga comics. The profits from book sales, along with donations from the general public, enable him to run the center.
Many of the people who come to the center are, he says, “often unable to go to the police, because their cases will be ignored, or are youngsters who can’t approach their parents.”
Gen has also appeared on television numerous times and gives regular talks.
Meeting Gen at the center, a simple, cafe-like office, the atmosphere is incongruously domestic. The fresh-faced, upbeat 52-year-old Osakan speaks with a thick Kansai dialect and exudes a larger-than-life demeanor that causes one to instantly warm to him.
“This year there are a lot of suicide-related inquiries,” he says of people coming to the center for advice, “and of course domestic violence victims, but when I say violence in the home it is often from the children to the parents. Then there are hikikomori,” he says of a growing number of people who hole up in their rooms, sometimes for years, “and kids running away, people getting chased by loan sharks and those with other money problems.”
His personal motto is to “never reject anything that comes my way, and to not chase those who leave.”
“My job is to fix people’s wings so they can fly away. I want them to forget me as soon as possible. The reason being, when they meet me it is when things are at their worst. When they get better I want them to move on.
“Sometime they might mail me to let me know they have a kid, or give me a donation, but I never reply. I don’t want to remind them that I helped them”
Naturally, not everyone is happy with what Gen is doing. Over the years, he has had “over 100 assailants” come in and threaten him with weapons. He has come close to being stabbed.
The location, he admits, inevitably leads to problems. “Kabukicho has a lot of people, and with this many people, many are bound to be solitary and lonely.”
“I see many incidents related to boryokudan,” he says, referring to gangs of thugs, “or cases such as where a girl, who is supporting some bar host, gets hit for a bill for ¥3 million on top of that, and she comes running here.
“And then there are the gangster types who come in and say, ‘Bring out the woman! I know she is hiding here.’
“I’m particularly good at dealing with these cases. I’m not scared of them, because I talk to them as people. If you talk to them as men, it makes no difference if they are yakuza or not.”
Gen is no stranger to violence and the underworld, and his books go into his shady past, which he he says he is “trying to amend” through his help center.
Gen was born in a poor area of Osaka’s Nishinari to a father who was a Korean illegal immigrant, and a Korean mother whom he never knew. He was raised by a number of women, subjected to school-yard bullying and his father’s violent whims on a daily basis and ran away from home.
In junior high school he became a delinquent, was arrested five or six times, and worked several jobs to feed himself. These included running loan shark offices, small bars, a pub, a detective company, and a construction business. His companies walked a fine line between “illegal and legal activities” that “frequently cheated people,” often resulting in brawls with yakuza. Despite this, he became a Rotary Club member as the success of his businesses grew.
Gen considers his first book, “Shinjuku Kabukicho Kakekomidera” his most important. “It is a reflection on my life and is easy to read. It has my personal history, and you can see what a total mess (my life) was.
“I probably have five times the amount of experience most people do, both in the regular sense and the underworld sense. I think this experience is the basis of my knowledge and it gives me the confidence to save anyone.”
Strangely enough, at one point in his life Gen started commuting to Mount Heizan and met with a famous Buddhist monk, Dai Ajari of the Tendai sect. At the age of 32, Gen became a monk under Dai Ajari’s training.
After the Great Hanshin Earthquake, Gen did volunteer work for half a year at a tent village for quake victims. It was during this time that he came to appreciate the benefits gained from helping others, as well as the importance of life itself.
Despite his claim that his center is entirely secular, and that “you can’t help people with religion alone,” Gen himself is Buddhist, from his time as a monk. He says he learned that “there are no criminals or sinners. It’s a matter of destiny and situation. A person is in circumstances where they may do something bad, like stealing bread, but if they are in a good situation, they may be the one giving the bread.”
In the year 2000, Gen had a scare that turned his life around. He misinterpreted a blood test result and thought he had contracted HIV. In actuality, he had contracted a far less dangerous virus called HTLV-1. He handled the virus well and now beams with energy and a glow that disguises his 52 years. Still, the scare caused Gen to become very aware of his own mortality. He moved to Kabukicho and opened the center in 2002.
At the time, the center was open round the clock, seven days a week, and people were able to stay there for a few days while they got help or got over a traumatic experience.
The popularity of the center grew — the first six months saw 2,500 people visit it — and the funding failed to cover costs. This forced Gen to cut office hours to 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and only offer consulting and referrals, no housing facilities.
With ambitions to extend his hours once again to 24 hours, and to make the center into a safe-house where people can stay, Gen is frustrated to find there is a limit to the amount of funds his books and lectures can generate.
Even though he discloses all his accounting on his Web site, Japan, he says, is particularly distrustful toward NPOs. There are also no tax breaks, which means running a center like his is made all the more difficult.
“If you want to make a new shelter, you may get lent the initial money, but after you make that shelter you need money to keep it running.
“People really don’t trust NPOs and it becomes a case of me having to ask for money, something I find strange.”
“In Japan they will ask questions like ‘What kind of qualifications do you have?’ or ‘If you are not a lawyer or have a license as a counselor, how do you think you can help people?’
“They ask, ‘What kind of officials do you have here?’ People who work here are just lay persons so it’s hard to get a subsidy.”
Still, Gen says it’s not all about the funding, but about making allies and friends. “Helping people is my goal. Even helping one person is meaningful.
“Even if things are difficult, I really understand when people feel like the underdog and I understand people’s weaknesses.”
With a chuckle, Gen adds, “I am like a baku,” referring to the Japanese mythological tapir-like creature that devours nightmares. “But, instead of consuming nightmares, I eat violence, and it makes me powerful!”