Tohoku red-light town looks to Tokyo’s Kabukicho for revival

Tohoku red-light town looks to Tokyo's Kabukicho for revival
Kokubuncho (courtesy of Shinyai on Flickr)

Sendai’s Kokubuncho entertainment district is modeling an initiative for its rebirth upon the ongoing clean-up of Tokyo’s infamous Kabukicho area, reports the Sankei Shimbun (Sep. 29).

Hard-hit by Japan’s recession, various business and long-term building owners of the area, located in the city’s Aoba Ward, came together last month to form the “Kokubuncho Development Project.” The aim of the organization is to enhance the brand of the city — whose over 3,000 bars, restaurants and sex clubs have shared a style similar to that found in Tokyo’s Shimbashi and Ginza districts.

The first step was to come together as a group. Last month’s meeting consisted of approximately thirty men and women of varied ages, backgrounds, and professions.

“How can we bring more customers to the town?” asks Masamitsu Arakawa, who owns a real estate agency and acts as the main organizer. “Well, to boost revenue we will have to rely on the overall capability of our group.”

Previously, the effort had been broken into six smaller communities delineated by Kokubuncho’s streets. A restaurant owner confesses: “I was only concerned about making a profit on my own before. This was the prevalent thinking in Kokubuncho. From now on it is not at the individual store level, but we have to promote the whole town.”

Indeed, a crisis is at hand. An owner of a shop specializing in the fuzoku (sex) trade says: “For the past five years we have been losing a substantial number of customers. We are now on the verge of either remaining Tohoku’s number one entertainment area or downgrading ourselves to one of those eating-and-drinking towns in the suburbs.”

For direction, Kokubuncho turned to Kabukicho’s “master,” Masaru Jo, director of the Kabukicho Shopping Center Promotion Association. Jo made a name for himself by participating in the redevelopment of Kabukicho, which meant reshaping its image by ensuring safety and cleanliness and promoting proper conduct by the area’s denizens — even encouraging oft-maligned hosts to show a more civic side by picking up trash from the streets.

“Management of a town must be carried out by those who are active within that town,” he says.

Yet at first Kokubuncho organizers were suspicious, wondering if the methods utilized in a much larger area like Kabukicho would be suitable. “However, the approach that Kabukicho used deeply astonished us,” Arakawa explains. “We started to think that the townspeople really do need to have a strong will and create a proper environment for business to thrive.”

From June, evening patrols in Kokubuncho began. Targets included illegally parked bicycles and lines of waiting taxis, with the reason being that a fatal problem in any entertainment district is a lack of secure space for pedestrians. Overall, 100 people, including hostesses, participated in this action.

Upcoming challenges include appealing to tourists. A guide map highlighting eating and drinking places is in the works and a push is underway to have the city of Sendai list the name “Kokubuncho” on bus stops near the area.

Jo sees these initial moves as being a huge step. “Through continued marketing it is crucial to share information based on analysis of just what the customer wants,” he says. “Most important of all, I do not want the town to forget the meaning of hospitality.”

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