National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

The changing face of Tokyo's 'red-light' district

by Mark Schreiber

Special To The Japan Times

“How would I describe Kabukicho? Frankly, I’m not sure,” popular author Hirokatsu Azuma was quoted as saying in the now-defunct monthly Gendai magazine back in January 1999. “If you say it’s a scary place, you could be right; and if you say it’s a place where you can have fun, well, that’s right too.”

The writer of that Gendai piece, Tsukasa Yoshida, had investigated “Asia’s largest adult entertainment district,” and pondered the reasons why so many Japanese novelists were cranking out lurid tales of the supposedly crime-infested 360,000 sq.-meter area, which, some writers suggested, was on the verge of being usurped by foreign crime syndicates.

“I think the stuff people are writing about it is grossly exaggerated,” countered the then-No. 2 cop at Shinjuku’s main police station, Moriyoshi Oguchi. “This is a place where young girls can walk the streets alone, even late at night. It’s neither a ‘sinister city’ nor a high-crime zone.”

In recent years, nevertheless, tabloid magazines have regularly featured two-page spreads of candid street photos from Kabukicho showing people passed out drunk, engaging in fist fights and being led away bleeding, sometimes in handcuffs, by uniformed police officers.

So when mainstream magazine Nikkei Business (May 11) ran a “special report” titled “Kabukicho: So long, dangerous streets,” I rushed to procure a copy.

Kabukicho, formerly a residential area known as Tsunohazu Kita 1-chome, was leveled by a B-29 raid in May 1945. After the war, developers saw potential in transforming it into a nexus of popular culture. Although they failed to persuade the Kabuki-za theater in Ginza to build a branch in Shinjuku, they eventually attracted cinemas like the Milano-za and the Koma Theater, popular for its live matinee performances by enka singers.

But with the profusion of home videos, theater attendance declined, as did the popularity of enka. The slack was picked up by game arcades and discos, whose late-night operation was banned by city ordinances.

Nikkei Business’ writer suggests it was from this time that sexual services began to boom, and the area gained a reputation for being dangerous.

Now it seems Kabukicho is teetering on the verge of respectability. Foreign tourists, bedazzled by the neon signs and sleaze, flock there every evening for walking tours and in response, more restaurants have put up English and Chinese signage.

One factor spurring the change was the plan, in 2005, to redevelop an area of some 5,500 sq. meters on the site of the old Koma Stadium building. This was delayed due to the 2008 economic crisis, but in 2011 funding finally came through on a more modest project valued at a total of ¥23.2 billion.

In April, the 970-room Hotel Gracery Shinjuku, which occupies the building’s eighth through 30th floors, opened for business. When the nearby Apa Hotel Kabukicho Tower opens this coming September, the district’s tourist-class hotel occupancy will have risen by 1,500 rooms this year alone.

“I’m often asked, ‘Aren’t there restaurants that stay open late at night?'” says Toshimi Hirano, a concierge at Hotel Gracery. “I knew of such places, but it was difficult to recommend them to guests.”

Hirano was particularly concerned that her non-Japanese clientele might suffer from the disreputable practice known as bottakuri, in which unwary customers are presented with padded bills, sometimes to outrageous excess. (Shukan Jitsuwa [May 28] features a two-page article on police efforts to eliminate the practice.)

Such customer queries led to the formation of a “Kabukicho Concierge Association,” by which the members swap information with the local merchants’ association, putting their seals of approval on establishments — now also said to include cabaret clubs and okama bā (bars in which the “hostesses” are men in drag) — that they judge to be safe for overseas visitors to patronize.

Speaking of hostesses, Asahi Geino (May 28) tracked down a legendary 74-year-old gentleman named Takeshi Aida, who in 1971 opened “Club Ai,” Japan’s first of what were to become many “host clubs,” in Kabukicho.

In these well-known establishments, young male hunks provide conversation and companionship for female clients.

At the height of Aida’s business empire, his company, Aida Kanko, reported revenues of ¥2.7 billion a year. But Aida suffered a stroke in 2011. Now virtually penniless, he resides in a public rest home, a shared facility where he pays ¥90,000 a month.

The reporter traveled to the rest home, located about an hour by train and bus from central Tokyo, to interview the wheelchair-bound Aida.

“Is it true you’ve lost everything?” he asked Aida.

Un,” came the affirmative reply.

“Was Club Ai sold off?”

Aida’s befuddled expression made the reporter wonder if he was also suffering from senility.

“Well, how do you like it here?” he said, changing the subject.

“It’s fine. Uh, everybody’s nice to me.”

“So what would you like to do?”

“I’d like to have a beer. Not a chilled one. I prefer warm beer. A Sapporo would be good.”

When the reporter showed Aida a photo taken at his club during better times, he took on a lively expression.

“I want to go back there, back to Shinjuku,” he said with real conviction.

But the halcyon days of the erstwhile “King of Hosts,” and perhaps of Kabukicho as well, appear to be numbered.

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