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Kabukicho comes clean

Hosts in Kabukicho
Hosts in Kabukicho

TOKYO (TR) – It is a recent weekday evening and the activity beneath Kabukicho’s flashy Ichiban-gai gate is its typically bustling self. Outside the entry of the kyabakura (cabaret club) Sky Heart, where ladies dress as flight attendants and provide services in a mock aircraft cabin, a young gentleman tout enthuses that cover charges are as low as 7,000 yen and “breast-licking and touching” are fair game.

Elsewhere, dozens of rail-thin hosts, sporting shiny suits and flowing manes of dyed-brown hair, are hustling any young lady happening past for, at a minimum, a drink at a nearby club, while in the direction of the centrally located Koma Theater, more touts, each sharply dressed and occupying both sides of the street, stand calmly under flickering lights as they solicit potential customers for their parlors. So far, and Kabukicho’s so predictable.

Outward appearances, however, can be deceiving in Japan’s center of debauchery and gangster activity, which is situated adjacent to Shinjuku Station, wedged between the tracks of Japan Rail’s Yamanote train line to the west and Meiji-dori to the east.

Beyond the theater and across the east-west running Hanamichi-dori, which splits the red-light district in half, finds Takeshi Aida casually greeting familiar faces in front of Casanova, a host club within his long-running Ai chain.

Takeshi Aida
Takeshi Aida in Kabukicho

Recent police raids on host establishments for everything from maintaining hours past 1 a.m. to ladies being gouged with extraordinarily high bills, often in the hundreds of thousands of yen, have made the industry downright jumpy, says the always jovial Aida. Though he repeatedly insists that his establishments are clean, times are tough. “This is attacking my business,” says the bespectacled Aida, wearing an impeccable blue-striped suit and multiple rings studded with shimmering gems. “As a shop owner, I find the enforcement of the 1 a.m. law hard to believe.”

Has recent police pressure, then, reduced Japan’s most successful host baron to trolling the streets for customers? That much is not clear. But what is obvious is that Kabukicho’s unique blend of sly characters will not yield its turf easily amid the ongoing shakedown, which is focusing on all sections of vice and resulting in a slow reshaping of the business environment.

Best Western to open

Non-sleaze ventures are already taking hold. A franchise within the Best Western hotel brand will open in Kabukicho near the Shinjuku Ward office next March; the following month will see talent agency Yoshimoto Kogyo move its main Tokyo branch to Kabukicho’s eastern edge; a small but eclectic film festival is in its second year; and fashion and talent shows have graced the plaza outside the Koma Theater over the last few years.

More subtle changes have put the squeeze on foreign and Japanese streetwalkers, who used to notoriously huddle in packs in a darkened strip between the base of the Tokyo Metropolitan Health Plaza and a row of grungy love hotels. The area is now fenced off and lined with yellow “Do Not Cross” tape.

For aesthetics, a section of Hanamichi-dori has this year had a construction project add new asphalt, brick sidewalks, street lamps and seating areas.

Renovated area near Furin Kaikan

The renovated area starts outside the Furin Kaikan building, whose first-floor coffee shop has been the scene of mob shootouts. The most notorious in recent memory was in 2002, when Chinese gangsters and Japanese yakuza shot up the joint, leaving one dead and three arrested.

These violent criminal gangs, or boryokudan (an official term used to refer to yakuza) have historically extorted money throughout Kabukicho by forcing “security” services upon shop owners in exchange for ridiculously over-priced rudimentary items like towels, plants or calendars.

Ads for hosts in Kabukicho

Though the hammer has fallen on criminal activity on and off for years, Lee Xiao Mu, a Kabukicho guide from China, restaurateur and author of “The Chinese Girls of Kabukicho,” believes that the installation of 50 security cameras following a fire at a mahjongg parlor that killed 44 people in 2001 was the beginning of a recent decrease in gangster activity.

“It is rare to see yakuza wandering around Kabukicho now,” says Lee as his lithe frame, clad entirely in black, reclines in a chair inside his fourth-floor Chinese eatery Konansaikin.

“The boryokudan have escaped from Kabukicho”

Inside the main branch of Ai, whose shiny decor of female nude statuettes is complemented by numerous photos of celebrities, such as shapely media personalities the Kano sisters, Aida agrees: “The boryokudan have escaped from Kabukicho.”

Late last year Aida participated in promotional events in support of the Shinjuku Business District Criminal Organization Removal Convention, whose members are restaurant, bar and shop owners. In a show of solidarity, the group has plastered posters on the outsides of establishments throughout Kabukicho.

Bizarrely, the text encourages shopkeepers not to succumb to the boryokudan, who are often involved in prostitution and pornography, yet the central image is an up-close photo of an attractive “campaign girl” with the top button of her shirt undone.

Many feel such moves are a good start. “I think it is important that we are clarifying the good elements from the bad elements,” says Masaru Jo, director of the Kabukicho Shopping Center Promotion Association, of the recent activities. “It is unfair that those connected to the boryokudan are able to make money while others lose out.”

A Kabukicho denizen takes a break
A Kabukicho denizen takes a break

The association reports that, as of 2006, 250,000 people were passing through Kabukicho daily, with the number of illicit operations totaling 3,500 outlets, including sex clubs, gambling dens, video stores, and numerous others. Because of the mercurial and underground nature of the business, estimates for the worth of the adult industry in Japan vary widely.

But those who doubt its impact need simply behold the amazing detail and length of the Law Regulating Adult Entertainment Businesses, enacted in 1948 but since revised. The Japan-wide law extends as far as to provide different regulations for sex services administered in a shop and on an on-call basis. (Prostitution is technically illegal in Japan, but noncoital services are permissible.)

As Aida has indicated, the law dictates that adult operations shut their doors by 1 a.m. The wording, however, is not exactly cut and dry. Drinking establishments are allowed to stay open after this time, but they must ensure that the customer “is being entertained” on his own.

Crackdown commenced in 2004

Common interpretation of the latter, it seems, does not deem women serving women to be entertaining. Still open after 1 a.m. is Marilyn 2, one of two bars owned by Aida that is staffed by onabe (women dressed as men). Inside, barmaids in black vests and snappy white shirts — and some even with facial hair — serve a predominantly female clientele from behind a gently curving white counter in the center of a dark room covered with gaudy mirrors, blue LED lights, and sparkling wall decorations.

Bartender pours a drink in Marilyn 2
Bartender pours a drink in Marilyn 2

Major busts began taking place in April 2004, a year after Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara appointed Yutaka Takehana as vice governor. That year Takehana ordered the shutting of adult-goods stores, underground casinos and massage parlors.

In 2006, a revision to the 1948 law made aggressive “catching” by hosts of women in the street illegal. It also required sex establishments to disclose detailed information on their lease agreements. The National Police Agency reported that these measures dropped the number of sex shops nationwide from over 40,000 in 2005 to fewer than 20,000 last year.

A bartender serving at a watering hole in the basement of a building fronting Hanamichi-dori explains that the times when Kabukicho was a place to get drunk in the early evening and then visit a sex establishment after midnight are fading. He describes the plight of one of his regulars, the manager of a fuzoku (sex service) shop:

“He tells me that since his customers are coming in during the daytime they are all sober and therefore unwilling to pay high prices,” the bartender explains. “Further, they are fanatics who will complain if the girl’s face is not exactly what they want. They will also have done extensive research beforehand, often arriving with discount coupons. So now he doesn’t even open before 3 p.m.”

The Shinjuku Kabukicho Host Club Anti-Organized Crime Gang Association

Last year’s crackdowns on dozens of host clubs sent shock waves through the industry. Just prior to the busts, the Metropolitan Police Agency reported the number of Kabukicho host clubs to be 200. Now, Aida estimates, there are approximately 80.

At around the time of the host club raids, Aida founded the Shinjuku Kabukicho Host Club Anti-Organized Crime Gang Association. The organization aims to improve the trade’s image by separating itself from gangsters, aggressive street solicitations and bottakuri (literally meaning “rip-off”), the practice whereby ladies are strongly encouraged to purchase expensive liquor, such as Dom Perignon Rose, which costs 130,000 yen a bottle at Aida’s main host club. In furthering this new public face, it is not uncommon to see hosts, broom in hand, literally sweeping Kabukicho’s streets clean.

In spite of these anecdotes, there is little fear that Kabukicho is set to become as sterile as, say, straight-laced Otemachi any time soon. More signs that the area still rocks to its familiar beat are the numerous Japanese touts thrusting laminated cards of near-naked ladies in front of male passersby, the Chinese girls peddling massage services on many corners, and strip club Kabukicho DX offering “sexy panty” souvenirs to customers on select weekends.

Hanazono Jinja

Even much of the crackdown’s impact could in part be an exaggeration.

Stallholders at Hanazono Jinja

During a recent festival at Hanazono Jinja, a shrine at the edge of Kabukicho where those engaged in commerce come to pray for profitable business ventures, dozens of characters sporting slick black suits, shortly cropped hair, and colorful tattoos visible beneath the edges of their shirt collars and sleeves could be seen gathered in groups smoking cigarettes and downing cans of beer.

Jo believes that the yakuza, in spite of what Lee and Aida are observing, have not fled Kabukicho entirely. He notes that stricter enforcement is in fact creating a business opportunity. “If a shop wants to breach the law and stay open after 1 a.m.,” the director says, “management cannot call the police if there is a problem, right? So, the yakuza go to those shops and demand money in exchange for the ‘protection’ that the police might have otherwise provided.”

Further, a quick stroll through Kabukicho’s sticky back streets in the wee hours will reveal that there is indeed still plenty of action. Touts working the intersections appear as sanguine as ever, but optimism of course is the fuel of their trade. “It doesn’t stop traffic,” says one foreigner, wearing a Philadelphia Phillies baseball cap, of the increased scrutiny.

A four-year veteran of the Kabukicho hostess biz notes that in April the police presence increased substantially. Her kyabakura started killing its exterior lights at 1 a.m. while still maintaining usual business operations inside. “We’ll have one of our staff standing just to the side of the sign, waiting,” she says. “With a microphone near his collar and an earpiece, he communicates with our staff inside about any potential customers wandering past and any suspected cops in plain clothes.”

Bid for the Olympics

Theories as to why the clampdown began have included the need to prepare for Tokyo’s bid for the 2016 Olympics. Yet certainly a massive void will result should there eventually be a substantial shutdown of Kabukicho, whose beginnings as the entertainment area it is today go back to just after the end of World War II, a time when the area was scheduled to accommodate a kabuki theater — hence the area’s name — that was never built.

Odaiba option

Whispers in some circles suggest that the government is contemplating the establishment of “vice” quarter on Odaiba, a peninsula that extends into Tokyo Bay, with one target being the foreign tourist.

In an article appearing earlier this year in the Japanese version of Newsweek, Lee suggested that Tokyo adopt a one-city, two-systems policy similar to China’s relationship with Hong Kong.

“Odaiba is surrounded by water,” Lee says of the idea for the area, which today accommodates shopping centers, bay-side hotels, office towers, and apartment buildings. “Kabukicho is accessible by multiple streets which make it difficult for the police to patrol. On Odaiba, setting up an entry gate would be possible.”

A peak inside Club Ai
A peak inside Club Ai

Gov. Ishihara has made no secret of his wishes to establish a casino on the man-made strip, and the concept of assembling a special district for vice services is not without precedent — Yoshiwara, an area of sex parlors near present-day Minowa Station in Taito Ward, was created in the 17th century following a directive by Tokugawa Hidetada, second shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate, as a means of concentrating the rampant prostitution of the time in one location.

But Shinjuku and Odaiba are completely different entities, says Takashi Aida, the son of Takeshi and the proprietor of Casanova. He emphasizes that the waterfront area might be fine for sight-seeing but Kabukicho is far too convenient to be bypassed. Furthering his arguments are a new underground expressway, which will run past Kabukicho to the west, and a Tokyo Metro subway line extending between Ikebukuro and Shibuya that will open next year and include a station to the east.

Aida junior believes that the only certainty about the future is that things will never be the same. “All the shop owners want the usual 24-hour Kabukicho,” he says. “But that will only happen now if the town is cleaned up. It is a true paradox.”

Note: This story originally appeared in the November 22nd issue of The Japan Times.