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Capturing the heart of Kabukicho

Kabukicho no Kokoro (Choul Kwon)
Kabukicho no Kokoro (Choul Kwon)
TOKYO (TR) – Korean photo journalist Choul Kwon has spent much of his 15 years in Tokyo documenting the shadier aspects within its largest nightlife area of Kabukicho — the grungy, neon-lit quarter frequented by underworld types and the location of numerous salons of prostitution, hostess bars, and strip clubs.

Yet certainly one of the most eye-catching targets to cross his viewfinder was also one of the smallest: a four-year-old girl, named Kokoro, living homeless in front of the now-closed Koma Stadium theater.

“Since she wasn’t so dirty, I didn’t think she was homeless,” remembers the 41-year-old during an interview at a second-floor coffee shop within the district of his first encounter with the girl in September 2007. “She wasn’t there everyday. I was later told that Kokoro and her father were hopping around from place to place, sometimes staying at hotels. From that time, I started thinking about how I could help.”

In addition to attempting to find her father a job and housing, he began snapping photos of Kokoro — a compilation of which appear in “Kabukicho no Kokoro-chan” (Kodansha), a book published in late 2008 that not only provides a glimpse into the life of young girl in an unfortunate situation but also a peek at a darker aspect of Japan that often goes unseen.

The images, which were all shot within Kabukicho, just east of JR Shinjuku Station, are captivating. On the cover, she is seen sucking on the bottom of an ice cream cone, her grimy feet next to pair of far-too-large sandals. In an arcade, outfitted in a pink top, she kneels on a chair with her shoes clearly on the wrong feet while slipping coins into the Magical Poppins game. Many frames feature her father, idly looking on and smoking as his daughter cavorts with birds and other homeless throughout the plaza fronting the theater.

The text of the book features a narrative that summarizes Kwon’s six-month relationship with the girl. He describes her love of hamburgers and the extended absences of her father and mother, who is apparently engaged in some kind of employment.

From the age of three, home for Kokoro had been the street. The family moved from Saitama Prefecture, where she was born, to Shibuya, Ikebukuro, and eventually Kabukicho. This past spring she entered school after being relocated to a shelter by her mother. Her parents are separated and, as far as Kwon knows, still living a homeless existence.

Perhaps most odd is that the photos show Kokoro as being very comfortable, her ubiquitous smile revealing highly decayed teeth.

“Kokoro thinks that Kabukicho is her kitchen or a playground inside her house,” says Kwon, sporting a dark fleece jacket and black pants over his thin frame as he sucks on a cigarette. “Because she is a child and doesn’t know anything, she believes that living on the street is normal. She was four years old then. She didn’t know what Japan was, what the U.S. was, or what anything was.”

With his digital Canon camera always in his grasp, Kwon has over the years provided coverage on Hansen’s disease patients and issues affecting minorities. He has been highly influenced by the work of photojournalist Takashi Morizumi, who starting in the late 1990s took numerous photos in Iraq showing the horrific effects of depleted uranium on children following the Gulf War.

But Kabukicho is the part of Japan that is most exciting, so “full of ‘pink’ elements and human desire,” says Kwon, who since 2000 has contributed photos to such publications as the Mainichi Shimbun and Friday magazine. “There is nothing that you cannot find in Kabukicho. Everything is here, and you can see everything.” The book “Once Upon a Time in Kabukicho: 1996-2006” (Wanimagazine) features many shots by Kwon showing gang punch-ups and cops chasing felons.

For “Kabukicho no Kokoro-chan,” Kwon says that Kokoro’s father gave him permission to do the project — an agreement that was a necessity. “I decided to make the book to let the public know the condition she was living in,” he says. “I am known in the area for taking photos. One day, Kokoro said to me, ‘You are a photographer. So take my photo!’ That’s how it started.”

The book also includes photos of other homeless sleeping under makeshift shelters and huddling or eating outside of shops closed for the night. As of January, the number of homeless in Japan was 15,759 — roughly the same as the year before with Tokyo’s 23 wards accounting for roughly 70 percent of that figure — according to a report from the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. The survey, which began in 2003, when the figure was 25,296, has year by year shown a steady decline in the homeless population. Yet the recent economic downturn has many experts predicting that Japan’s streets will experience a reverse of that trend.

Kwon says that in spite being a wealthy country, Japan has a population that is a mix of rich and poor, much like the U.S. and Korea — a fact that is often overlooked.

“Japan tends to hide the negative things within society and show only the positive aspects,” Kwon believes. “I know that there are street children in Japan. But the government does not want to acknowledge it. To me, that is shameful.”

Note: This article originally appeared in the July issue of iNTOUCH, the magazine of the Tokyo American Club.