High brow trumps ‘High Touch’ in Roppongi

The Roppongi intersection

TOKYO (TR) – The date is March 6, 1989. The Yomiuri Giants are gearing up for what will be a championship season, the Nikkei index is holding steady at 32,000, the introduction of the nation’s first consumption tax of three percent is less than one month away, and Roppongi is now officially known as “High Touch Town.”

Among the dignitaries seated in chairs at Roppongi crossing with bouquets of flowers over their laps are the Minato Ward mayor and the Azabu Police Station chief. They are guests for the unveiling ceremony of a pair of red arch-shaped signs that have been affixed onto either side of the Shuto Expressway Route 3 rolling high above. The writing on both placards will eventually come to give the entertainment district its moniker. High. Touch. Town.

But in the two decades since there has been one problem.

“There is no deep meaning in ‘High Touch Town,'” bemoans Hiroyuki Usui, a representative of the Roppongi Shopkeepers Promotion Association, of the now crusty and blackened markers. “People don’t know what it means.”

Whether to imply a touch of high class or suggest a high-five greeting, the sign, which was created following a consultation with a Japanese teacher of English who operated a school above a soba shop near the Roi Building, will be replaced following a design competition that will give the expressway a new look, a part of a campaign to coincide with the changing landscape and image of this notorious nightlife area.

Since the streets and alleys surrounding the crossing are primarily lined with gritty shot bars and teeming with pushy touts promoting their clubs, the association, which represents 250 shops, would like to expand commercial activities by marketing the area as one with a more positive image and atmosphere. “In order for us to make it happen,” Usui says, “we need to make Roppongi more exciting.”

Tokyo Midtown opened in 2007
In January, the association released a new slogan: “Roppongi Art Walk,” which is a direct reference to the openings of the Mori Art Museum, the National Art Center, Tokyo, and the Suntory Museum of Art in recent years. But given that promotional materials for the slogan show drawings of young women toting shopping bags, it is conceivable that a tourist-friendly atmosphere is also desirable. Flags with this slogan now line Roppongi’s sidewalks.

The association will next focus on enhancing the look of the expressway. Five young artists have already submitted their designs for a new sign. The logo is to contain an artistic feeling, one that will greet visitors when they emerge onto the sidewalk from the subway station. The image will also be incorporated into a new series of souvenirs.

The scope of the project will also include refurbishment of the expressway’s grimy exterior between the two crosswalks bridging Roppongi-dori. Scaffolding is now in place for this work and the installation of lighting. Working in association with the Metropolitan Expressway Company and a budget of 59 million yen, the association expects construction to be completed in early 2009.

Over the years, Roppongi has met multiple descriptions but a town where one views fine paintings and sculpture has not been one of them. Flattened during World War II, the area became a G.I. hangout in the immediate postwar days. The decades that followed saw Roppongi rise to become one of Tokyo’s more respectable districts. Usui relates: “Roppongi had a much more fashionable image,” he explains. “There were high-quality boutiques all through the area.”

Just after the collapse of the asset-inflated bubble period in the early ‘90s, however, the town slowly became a haven of seedy bars and sex establishments. Many observers will note that the opening of strip club Seventh Heaven in the mid-1990s was the start of the slip into the gutter.

The recent establishment of lavish, mixed-use office and commercial complexes, boasting of top-name foreign corporate tenants, has signaled a transformation. Mori Building’s Roppongi Hills opened in 2003, and Tokyo Midtown followed last year.

More is in the works. In nearby Azabu Juban, developer Sumitomo is planning to open a 38-floor, 500-unit apartment tower at the end of next year. Mori Building announced in July that in 2012 it will complete a 46-floor office and residential complex on two hectares of land near the Iikura-Katamachi crossing. Dilapidated homes in the area west of Kamiyacho Station have been boarded up. Notices posted in front of each indicate that Mori has taken over the property. On the site of Roppongi’s former disco Velfarre will rise the six-floor Centrum Roppongi Building, a “high-end” office complex set to open in May of next year.

Perhaps the oddest example of Roppongi’s ongoing evolution is the story of the infamous TSK.CCC Terminal building, which sat roughly midway between Roppongi Hills and Tokyo Midtown until its demolition was complete earlier this year. Once in the hands of the gangster Hisayuki Machii, whose period of power spanned the ‘50s and ‘60s, the property has recently been the subject of ownership disputes. Today the site sits empty.

But unlike in Machii’s heyday, the activities of boryokudan (a term often used to describe yakuza) have been getting pushed aside right along with the rise of the new developments, explains Yuzuru Goto, administrative director of the shopkeepers association. “We have a few boryokudan offices,” says the director, who handles communication channels between the association’s office and the Azabu Police Station, “but their activities are minimal.”

Goto adds that illegal behavior, such as the practice of bottakuri – or literally to “rip off” – is not nearly as common as it used to be. “Years ago, guys in the street would ‘catch’ customers and invite them into their bars,” he explains. “They were enticed by an initial fee of 5,000 yen. But then when it came time to pay the bill the price had mysteriously risen to 20,000 yen.” As a means of comparison, he cites Kabukicho, the red-light east of Shinjuku Station. “There are a lot of ‘snacks’ in Roppongi staffed by ladies from Russia, America, Korea and England,” the director says. “They drink with everyone and there is no bottakuri. Kabukicho, however, hasn’t changed. It will go on like it is forever and ever.”

A street tout in front of the Almond coffee shop at Roppongi crossing
Anyone who has cast a skeptical eye at an aggressive Roppongi street tout will likely find the director’s view to be a bit optimistic. It is certainly true, however, that shady businesses all throughout Tokyo have felt the pinch in recent years. Crackdowns on hostess clubs, discos, and sex spots have come as a result of stricter enforcement of the Law Regulating Adult Entertainment Businesses. This national law dictates that all entertainment operations shut their doors by 1 a.m.

Kabukicho has been a prime target. Enforcement of the 1 a.m. law has made business for fuzoku (sex-related) establishments nearly impossible. Cabaret clubs have either had to abide by the law or employ staff to carefully watch the street for patrol officers. In Roppongi, Velfarre attempted to remain open in 2006 by filing paperwork for an exception to the law but it was rejected.

Interpretation of this law, however, is not exactly clear cut. An establishment where the customer is not being entertained by shop staff is considered permissible. A run-of-mill bar falls into this category.

A creative exploitation of this loophole has been the manifestation of the “girl’s bar,” in which dolled-up ladies pour drinks and light cigarettes from behind a counter – not next to the customer, as is usual (and illegal after 1 a.m.) in typical hostess clubs. Seven Seas, a “stylish bar” situated between Roppongi crossing and Tokyo Midtown, claims to operate 24 hours a day. On evenings from around 7 p.m., pairs of girls can regularly be seen on the sidewalk handing out coupons for a complimentary beer.

Rumors suggesting reasons for the stricter enforcement have varied from preparation for Tokyo’s bid for the 2016 Olympics to facilitating urban redevelopment of valuable property.

To be sure, a high brow image and the early stages of a cleanup of undesirable activities are not going to entirely put an end to Roppongi’s wild and wooly ways. For the association, it is more about creating a balance. After all, the association believes, not everyone in Tokyo is hung over on Saturday morning.

“The Roppongi nightlife image is firmly in place now,” Usui says. “But we want to welcome people to Roppongi when the sun is up as well.”

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