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)© Japan Today