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Is Kabukicho dangerous? Mizoguchi's new book tells all

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In Lonely Planet's guide to Tokyo, Kabukicho and the neighboring Golden Gai are accorded one paragraph each. Those wanting to know more about what is claimed to be Asia's largest adult entertainment area -- which on a busy night attracts an estimated 400,000 visitors -- are obliged to rely upon vernacular sources for their information.

Atsushi Mizoguchi, a veteran non-fiction writer well known for his reporting on the yakuza, may have produced perhaps the most readable work yet, a 250-page paperback titled "Kabukicho -- Yabasa no Shinso" (Kabukicho -- The Truth of Its Dangerousness) from Bunshun Shinsho.

Kabukicho, an enclave of bars, shops, restaurants, theaters and love hotels occupying roughly 36,000 square meters located adjacent to Shinjuku, Tokyo's busiest commuter railway station, has been unfairly compared to the notorious "Walled City" of Kowloon, a jurisdictional nightmare and haven for crime and drugs that the Hong Kong government finally demolished in 1993.

Mizoguchi examines the district's evolution from its beginnings in 1698, as Naito-Shinjuku, a rowdy post station on the road to Kofu in Yamanashi Prefecture. Prostitution thrived in the inns lining the road just outside the city gate; a desolate common grave to some 2,200 nameless women, known as "meshimori onna," can still be seen on the grounds of the Jokakuji Temple in Shinjuku 2-chome.

Shinjuku's brothels were relocated several times as the city grew, but Kabukicho, then known as Tsunohazu 1-chome, was a quiet residential area at the time U.S. air raids flattened Shinjuku in 1945. Its subsequent metamorphosis involved a series of key developments. Within two or three days of Japan's decision to surrender, the Kanto Ozu-gumi, a syndicate of "tekiya" (peddlers) headed by a 48-year-old roughneck named Yoshinosuke Ozu, set up an open-air market outside the east exit of Shinjuku Station, thus giving the gangs an economic foothold.

A second development was the growing concentration of former colonials from Korea and Taiwan, the so-called "Sangokujin," in the district from around 1950. The third was the area's hosting of a three-month-long exhibition from April 1950 in an attempt to attract commercial investors. The latter was less than a rousing success, but it did spawn the name Kabukicho.

The Seibu railway company's decision to extend its terminus from Takadanobaba to Shinjuku in 1952 made the area accessible to more commuters.

While none of the above were directly responsible for Kabukicho's taking on the status of an "akusho" (literally, a bad area), Mizoguchi at least attempts to define the qualities that make it such. He cites a study by scholar Kazuteru Okiura, who defines "akusho" as fulfilling six conditions: 1) no ties to cooperative organizations, according it high anonymity; 2) the ability to emit and collect data on new cultural information that had not previously existed; 3) a place accessible to anyone, including those outside the law, irrespective of social status; 4) an area contained within defined boundaries, within which chaotic conditions can propagate without limits; 5) an area in which the moral order has collapsed, making it an ideal target for prostitutes; and 6) an area that gives vent to the zeitgeist, facilitating people to act out their fantasies.

"Accessible to anyone" would certainly apply to Kabukicho's receptivity to foreigners, the most numerous of which are the Chinese. In July 1985, the Taiwan government enacted legislation to crack down on "liumang" (triads). The timing was fortuitous: Japan's "bubble economy" made Shinjuku a lucrative place for them to go into exile. Following the Tiananmen Incident in June 1989, growing numbers of mainland Chinese found their way to Japan, either as students or via human traffickers. By the 1990s, the area became notorious for its periodic Chinese turf wars, inspiring violent movies like "Fuyajo" (Nightless City).

Anxieties over Kabukicho's status as a lawless enclave, however, may be passé. As the area approaches its 60th anniversary, its buildings and facilities are clearly showing their age. The growing abandonment by the younger generation of Japanese, moreover, does not bode well for its economic future. Redevelopment plans are once again being dusted off. It will be interesting to see how much longer Shinjuku's raunchy adult playground will remain captive to its fascinating past. (Mark Schreiber)

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38 Comments
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In my personal experience Kabukicho is not dangerous than other adult playgrounds. Compared with the new drugging problems in Roppongi, it might actually be safer than Roppongi.

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"Dangerousness"?

Is that even a word?

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I have seen people getting the hell beat out of them by yaks more than once there. And I don't really ever go there. However dangerous, I would certainly much rather wander through Kabukicho at night than Roppongi.

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Kabukicho isn't really that dangerous anymore. It seems to be quite safe. Especially with all the street cameras and police patrols. Those areas seem to follow the rules when times are tough because they can't risk being shutdown. I'm afraid of the regular neighborhoods and tourist locations. That is where the nutjobs are killing children and stabbing random people.

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@Pawatan,

Why does every Japan problem be compared to the US to be credible? Can you prove Kabukicho is safer than every US downtown city?

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2choume in much more dangerous. many territorial disputes and passion fights

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surelly it's less dangerous at night than Roppongi and it's packs of mostly people of African origin trying to sell drugs and flesh....

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In fourteen years of being in Japan I have never felt at danger in Kabukicho. Annoyed and irritated by the touts? Sure, but never threatened by them.

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"Dangerousness"? Is that even a word?

Did you google it? It's in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Actually the word in the Japanese title, "yabasa," looks strange to me. But "yabai" is in the Kojien (meaning dangerous). Adding the "sa" suffix gives it the nominative form. Using alternative Japanese words like "kiken-sa" or "abuna-sa" would not work much better. I guess the title as is gets the job done. I am way behind on my reading, but might grab a copy anyway.

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I haven't lived in Tokyo for years,but I certainly saw more aggro in Roppongi and mainly drunken marine types whaling on each other.

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I agree that Roppongi is probably more dangerous, for Westerners at least. I've occassionally wandered around by myself late at night in Kabukicho, Nanba and other traditional red-light districts and I was mostly ignored more than anything.

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"Dangerousness"?

Is that even a word?

Yes

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My friend was kidnapped in Kabukicho last year. He was approached by a tout asking him to go to some club, he refused and tried to walk away when another tout came from behind and grabbed him and they both pulled him into some place. They took out his wallet and threw his bank card, credit card on the table and asked for the pin numbers. They even brought him to a cash machine trying to withdraw large sums of money. They finally let him go and he reported it to the police who took a report and told him this had happened to others before and they were building a case file against these people. So how many more people need to be kidnapped before they feel the need to do anything about it.

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This whole "Article" is a JOKE; Right ? I WORKED all AROUND Shinjuku (Kabukicho too), and it never even OCCURRED to me that it was "Dangerous"....what a JOKE...Who WRITES this crap?; and why is it even PUBLISHED for that matter ?

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THe last post sounds like an urban myth. how can this happen in this day and age in Japan? Why would cops need "to build a case file" if this had happened before?

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Mittsu, J-cops build case files because it doesn't involve them getting off their lazy arses and doing the real work of arresting anyone for what is clearly a crime. As for Kabukicho I have to agree with most other opinions that it isn't as dangerous as some other places in Tokyo.

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What do the girls say about Kabukicho?

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Kabukicho, like any other city, is only dangerous if you put yourself in the wrong position. Go snooping around the shady shops and start asking questions, taking pictures...etc. and you can bet you'll be approached. Mind your own business and have some common sense and you'll be fine.

Roppongi's foreign drunk/drug crowd, on the other hand, is more dangerous in my opinion.

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Kabukicho is a joke compared to the western bowels of Susukino - where the REAL DIRT happens.

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although I felt safe in Susukino too! the size of the place is quite daunting though.The dangers in both places are usually if you are Japanese,walk into the wrong 'salon' or hostess bar and end up being charged 3000 dollars for a bottle of plonk or are drugged.These things do happen all the time.

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Brother-in-law is a Japanese cop, one of those people that I (and many of you) love to malign. That being said, however, he joined the police force after representing his home prefecture at the national sports championships, his chosen sport being judo, heavyweight division. Many years ago just before graduating from the NPA academy, the postings officer apparently told my brother-in-law that his first posting would be down to the koban in Kabuki-cho, his job being providing some much need muscle. That was 20 years ago. To cut a long story short, over the years he had seen numerous gang fights (a number of which he broke up with the subtly of a bull in a china shop), people who were shaken-down by certain mob-run bars (there is nothing like seeing gangsters cry when you have them in a camel clutch), a couple of serious shootings, knife fights galore (including 3 stints in hospital, one with the tip of a survival knife in his back), and the big fire down there 3 or 4 years ago, etc. Anyway, after his first tour of duty down there finished, after a stint back at the academy teaching judo, he volunteered to go back to kabuki-cho for another stint before going to where he currently works, the organized crime division. We all think he is crazy.   

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"the ability to emit and collect data on new cultural information that had not previously existed"

Is this a parody of Sociology? LMAO.

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I also found Kabuki-cho rather tame, even after warnings from Japanese friends (including a couple that took me to eat some of the best okonomiyaki I've had, down there!). It seems from some of your stories that if you're clearly non-Japanese in appearance, you are left alone. Initially I'd thought it was because I'm Asian, that helped me to "blend in"...but maybe it's a detriment instead!

Interesting to hear your brother-in-law's stories, timorborder; thanks for sharing them.

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Don't forget story from Brian Hedge who told the story about 74-year-old tourist who get arrested only because possessing a knife that exceeded 1 cm more than permitted by the new law. All that 74-year-old want is only to get to Kinokuniya safely then he asked to the J-cop about Kinokuniya location. The next thing happened he had to spend nine days' in lockup

So if you went to Shinjuku area you should consider who you would ask if you get lost.

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First went to Kabukicho back in September, 1967. When I was a student. I didn't think it was dangerous then, nor does it seem particularly so all these years later.

I was, however, overcharged "borareta" when I made the mistake of wandering into a "cabaret" with a couple of friends. At first I was protesting and refusing to pay, then a couple of unsavory-looing hoods came up to us to itimidate. I was holding back and saving "let's call the police", etc. but my Japanese friend, wiser, convinced me to pay up and get out of there.

Expensive lesson, yes, but a good true story that has served me well over 4 years.

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What is all the "Roppongi is dangerous" crap? Sure, some drunk guys got rolled for some big tabs, but that's not "dangerous". Dangerous is concern over your physical well-being, and I can't remember a gaijin being killed in Roppongi since I've lived here -- in Roppongi -- for over 5 years. Does Roppongi have ruthless and some unsavory elements to it? Sure. But the yaks would never let it become dangerous, as they would lose all their business.

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Kabukicho, I've walked through that place countless times without problems at all times of the day (had a friend who lived out near ShinOkubo, and I'm cheap to pay train fare all the way there, so I get off at Shinjuku and walk).

Don't know whats up with the guidebooks saying its all dangerous. They really tried to clean it up (Tokyo-Government), yeah there's seedy places there, but I wouldn't say its "dangerous" not at least for the "regular" traveler there.

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i've had some of the best times in that town... ooooohh

there's a place with 100 Yen beers which is awesome...

I do see that with the Koma theater demolition, there will be significant opportunity for renovation in the area.

If you are the kind of person that likes to push the envelope, neither Kabuki-cho or Roppongi are places to travel in groups smaller than a 3-4 close friends.

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Personally I have noticed that the Shinjuku area fron Don Quihote down to the Kabuki-cho area ARE getting more violent. Yes , more dangerous. BUT...I, being over 100 kilos with a 400lb bench press, hardly ever get effed with. I don't feel scared or anything. I think that Shinjuku area is more "dangerous" than Roppongi which gets all the attention. Shinjuku doesn't get that spotlight, at least the areas adjacent to kabuki-cho which are full of unsavory characters and people in the shadows. Yes I know of bad happenings to people. I think being a small Asian man or small western walking around alone makes you more of a target. Those bads guys there are always looking for an easy mark. I still had fun there recently but like I said..even the larger guys there don't talk shyt to me...and I do have a quick temper that I have to control. I may kick a lil' but, and I could end up jumped by a group so I keep cool. But they do look for easy and solitary marks. Happens EVERY day.

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Virgo, if any sleazy touts or yakuza in Kabukicho try to hassle you, you can just grab a nearby parked car and fling it at them. They should get the message.

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I agree with most on this post that Kabukicho could be dangerous if you do something that's obviously stupid (and you would definitely be able to tell what NOT to do) but as a whole, it's no big deal. I believe the Japanese have a different standard concerning what "dangerous" is. Japan is an extremely safe place as a whole, so places like Kabukicho, Roppongi, and some areas of Okinawa are going to be called dangerous. Anyway, as far as my experienec with Kabukicho, I had more of a problem with people bothering me than feeling at risk. Girls will come up to you and ask if you need anything or if you want a massage...stuff like that. There are also a bunch of Nigerians that hang out in that area. They will approach you from time to time as well if you're obviously a foreignor. It's basically just annoying because they will start to tell you their life story and how they ended up working there in Japan ^_^ Other than that, for the regular person I would say it seems pretty safe because it is in general. Besides it also feels safe because the streets there are packed almost 24 hours a day. I'm not saying something can't happen to you in plain sight, but any area seems safer with tons of people around.

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Beelzebub, too funny haha. "HULK SMASH"

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About 5-6 years ago it was incredibly sleazy with lots of women propositioning you on the street. That's died off over the last couple of years, though there are still some areas, such as near Seibu-shinjuku station, that have this. The scale seems a lot smaller than what it was though - I think then that there were a peak of prostitutes in Japan at that time as even my local station was surrounded by Chinese masseurs. Kabukicho seems to be mostly for Japanese people. As with others, I'm mostly ignored when I go there.

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Kabukicho is very dangerous. In fact, it's almost as dangerous as Los Angeles, London, Paris, or Moscow. It's worth noting that Kabukicho is the most dangerous place in all of Japan.

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Very interesting. The comments concerning on the dangers of Kabukicho, Roppongi, Shinjuku, and some areas of Okinawa are enormously helpful to the newcomers, first timers, and inexperienced tourists. That should convince foreigners that not 100% of Japan is paradise.

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I'm not sure who would think 100% of Japan is a paradise, except maybe some 15-25 year old who learned everything about Japan from watching Anime or AV. For that demographic - Downtown Tokyo and Osaka are not as safe as your bedroom/basement. But the rest of Japan probably is.

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White Rabbit Press has produced an audio guided tour of Kabukicho if you're interested in learning more about the area. Additional details and an audio preview available here: www.tokyorealtime.com

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I as an American (Watashi wa Amerikajin desu) One time got missed the last train and was stuck in Kubukicho for the night. That was the most entertaining night I had in my life and I will never forget it. Although I saw some Yakuza in that area, when looking back on it, it did not really seem harmless. I do not know if it is because I look like a young guy or if I was a non Japanese that non of the people bothered me but at the end I had nice conversations with people and had several girls (not prostitutes) want to dance with me as well. To end the day a 7.0 earthquake took place to permanently burn this memory in my mind.

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