Tokyo’s Kabukicho teeters on the brink

Police crackdowns and the ongoing recession are ravaging Japan's top red-light quarter

Takarajima April
Takarajima April

Once known as Asia’s top entertainment quarter, Shinjuku Ward’s red-light district of Kabukicho has seen a hallowing out at its core. Monthly magazine Takarajima (April) takes a look at the devastation wrought by police crackdowns and the ongoing recession.

At the end of 2008, the multi-use Koma Stadium, notably known as a home to enka theater performances for a half-century and situated at the heart of Kabukicho, shut its doors. Over a year later, a construction plan for the site has not been set in place. Meanwhile, near JR Shinjuku Station, a large 10-screen cinema complex has since opened at the edge of the Kabukicho boundary. This encroachment, which has forced the shuttering of other long-running theaters in the area, combined with the closing of the cinema screens inside the Koma Stadium complex, has left only four screens remaining in all of Kabukicho, which was once regarded as a cinema Mecca.

The article observes that the buildings surrounding the plaza fronting Koma Stadium have closed many of their shops. The plaza has now become a village of cardboard boxes for homeless seeking low-end lodging spaces. Visitors are left to wonder where the passion and wildness that once characterized the area has gone.

The downfall commenced in 2003, when Yutaka Takehana was brought over from the National Police Agency by Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara. Soon after his appointment as vice-governor of public safety, 100 non-licensed businesses, such as ime kura (image clubs), deri heru (delivery health) and pink salons, were closed. By 2004, this fact became readily apparent as the outside of numerous buildings that once housed those establishments were lacking their distinguished signs and had instead been covered with blank placards. Kyabakura (hostess) clubs and shot bars, even those with proper licenses, also came under police scrutiny.

Since then, It has gotten to the point where Kabukicho has lost its sex-service cache: a mere six soaplands, 15 fashion health clubs, and two pink salons are all that remain.

“Shops operating with licenses acquired in the ’80s have a solid reputation for quality services and good-looking women,” explains a fuzoku writer who has knowledge of the area. “They have many regulars. Yet the sexual services they render are conservative and, unlike those shops that arrived in the ’90s, which maintain illegal operations, they do not offer hardcore services. Thus, they are not receiving media attention and do not see first-timers or tourists.”

The same writer further says that walk-in guide shops are using catchy signs to promote deri heru escort services, whereby girls meet clients at love hotels. “The prices are reasonable,” he says, “and this is something available all throughout Tokyo. Love hotels near nearby JR Shin Okubo station are cheaper so there is no real merit for remaining in Kabukicho.”

Also seeing tough times is the anarchy-like area behind the Koma Stadium, known as “Video Village,” where shops sell uncensored DVDs — meaning they lack a scrambling mosaic over the genital areas.

Regarding a police sweep last fall, Takarajima is told by a fuzoku writer that most of the shops in that district were shut down. Further, the profit in peddling illegal DVDs had been small, with 20 copies fetching only 10,000 yen.

“Online it is possible to purchase 30 to 40 DVDs for that same price,” says the writer, “and deflation is also something that they had to contend with. In the past, these shops had a function in that they did not give up your name and accepted cash. Salaried men who came to Tokyo on business trips made visits. Now the village has been destroyed. But if you walk around the neighborhood a guy might approach and ask, ‘DVDs?’ He’ll then take you to a room in an apartment where prices seem to be reasonable.”

The magazine believes that another domino ready to topple is the world of kyabakura, which is characterized by clubs staffed with hostesses who entertain men. It is suffering from the decline in entertainment expenses doled out by companies. However, clubs offering similar options do exist.

Club Gira Gira, which opened last June, is a combination of a girl’s bar and a show pub. Even on weekdays, a line forms outside, the article observes. As the name of the venue implies (giri giri means bright) the interior design is one of shimmering luminescence. During the shows, which are scheduled for three times a day, the bikini-clad ladies dance through the bar — a photo provided shows many to be skillfully suspending themselves from four poles mounted on a mirror-like stage — while music blasts in the background, something akin to club Juliana’s, the famous discothèque often associated with bubble era of the early ’90s.

“I want Kabukicho to regain its strength,” says Mr. Matsumoto, the manager of the club, which offers new customers a one-hour all-you-can-drink package for 4,000 yen. “That’s why we maintain this extravagant style.”

Takarajima then shifts to the K-Pop-styled Wa Bar, an example of another trend hitting the area — that is, bars staffed with lovely Korean female bartenders who are in Japan as students. “In South Korea, bars with female bartenders have been popular for the last ten years,” says Mr. Kin, the manager. “We have now tried that here in Kabukicho. While we cannot provide intimate services like that of a girl’s bar, these girls are fluent in Japanese. So we want customers to engage in friendly conversation.”

The article explains that Wa Bar is indeed a basic watering hole so a budget of 2,000 yen is feasible. In spite of drooling over the prospect of being served copious amounts of alcohol by lovely ladies, the monthly appears largely disappointed that this trend did not manifest itself from within Kabukicho itself.

Had Tokyo won the bid to host the 2016 Olympics, a motivation often cited for the kick-off of the crackdown of 2003, the fate of Kabukicho — including the Koma property — would have been transformed.

What did the clean-up bring? Perhaps this is the time to reassess its consequences, Takarajima supposes, as well as pursue those who should be held liable for the consequences. (K.N.)

Source: “‘Joekasakusen’ to ‘Fukeiki’ de Kabuki-cho wa yake-nohara,” Takarajima (April, pages 134-136)

Note: Brief extracts from Japanese vernacular media in the public domain that appear here were translated and summarized under the principle of “fair use.” Every effort has been made to ensure accuracy of the translations. However, we are not responsible for the veracity of their contents. The activities of individuals described herein should not be construed as “typical” behavior of Japanese people nor reflect the intention to portray the country in a negative manner. Our sole aim is to provide examples of various types of reading matter enjoyed by Japanese.

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