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Photographer chronicles yakuza, violence in Tokyo’s Kabukicho

Shukan Post June 14
Shukan Post June 14

Money, sex, violence. Korean photo journalist Choul Kwon has spent much of his 19 years in Tokyo documenting these aspects of the Kabukicho red-light district.

Kwon, whose photo book “Kabukicho” was released in February, tells weekly tabloid Shukan Post (June 14) that while a clean-up campaign began in April of 2004 the red-light district remains as vibrant as ever.

“Since the purification campaign started I’ve heard people saying that the energy here died,” the photographer says. “That is a misunderstanding. The essence of being a human hasn’t changed. So this area hasn’t changed.”

In 2003, Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara appointed Yutaka Takehana as vice governor. By the end of 2005, law enforcement had busted 280 brothels, clubs, and casinos, arrested 400 gangsters, and cited 1,000 foreigners for visa violations.

“The Korean hostess clubs got wiped out,” says Kwon. “But others opened in their place. So a new type of trouble started. The clean-up drive was just an elaborate performance.”

In recent days, the district has been rife with conflicts between street thugs, students, and foreigners.

“There has been a marked rise in the power of the African touts from disreputable bars and shops,” he says. “In one night they’ll scam hundreds of thousands of yen from people they lure into their establishments.”

Shukan Post June 14
Shukan Post June 14

The rise of the foreign touts has caused the stature of the yakuza to decline, says the photographer. “Without the watchful eyes of the yakuza, things are getting out of control,” he says.

Starting in February, a full-blown turf battle started, and Kwon has dedicated himself to chronicling the conflicts.

“This is a real battleground,” he says. “There are actual murders. Blood flying in front of my lens is an everyday occurrence.”

The photographer’s gritty images feature street fights, drunken revelry, police officers chasing suspects, homeless, buildings on fire, and suicide attempts. To shoot in others places in Tokyo, such as Shibuya and Roppongi, is a totally different experience, says Kwon.

Kabukicho embodies human desire,” he says. “To me, it is the ‘perfect’ business district.”

Source: “Renzoku tokushu Tokyo 6 dai hankagai no kenkyu daini kai Shinjuku,” Shukan Post (June 14, pages 13-17)