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Kabukicho conundrum

Pedestrians at Ichiban-gai in Kabukicho
Pedestrians at Ichiban-gai in Kabukicho (The Tokyo Reporter)

TOKYO (TR) – The framed certificate from the Tokyo public safety commissioner sitting inside the office of Yoshihisa Shimoda acknowledges his successful completion of training in thwarting the activities of boryokudan, or criminal organizations. Such an accreditation should be very practical given his task at hand.

For years, it was well known that the bread and butter of a typical yakuza gangster working the darkened streets of Kabukicho has been the sale of ordinary items like hand towels and ice cubes at heavily marked-up prices to the area’s seedy kyabakura (cabaret clubs) and bars in exchange for any necessary “protection” of business operations.

Shimoda is the office manager of Discovery Kabukicho, an organization whose goals are to rehabilitate the image of Japan’s most vast red-light district, located just east of Shinjuku Station. “At the end of the day, we want Kabukicho to be clean,” says the manager, who along with two other staff members began operations in April. “We want security, safety, and a pleasant environment.”

The establishment of Discovery Kabukicho coincides with a recent police crackdown on sleaze that has shut a large swath of fuzoku (sex-related) businesses. In place of debauchery, Shimoda’s organization is promoting festivals, concerts, nighttime illuminations, and patrols that perform building inspections and counter boryokudan activities.

A rainy night at restaurant Shanghai (The Tokyo Reporter)

“Kabukicho Hills”

Perhaps assisting his cause will be this month’s closing of the Shinjuku Koma Theater, the symbolic center of the district. Should a sparkling office tower rise in its place, as many believe, the clean-up of the area could accelerate, sending many of Kabukicho’s regulars scurrying for new turf.

The 2,000-seat Koma opened in 1956, when it became a home to kabuki and enka performances. The theater welcomed one million visitors annually during its heyday. Over the summer, film giant Toho made the company Koma Stadium, which owns the theater, a wholly owned subsidiary. In the basement of the Koma building is a Toho film theater that will also close in the coming weeks.

Toho intends to redevelop the Koma site together with the rundown building it owns next door. A spokesman for Toho would not comment on its future plans for the property, only mentioning that the company was still in the process of dealing with lease contracts for the various other tenants.

In a column appearing in the August 27 issue of the Japanese version of Newsweek, restaurateur, author, and Kabukicho guide Lee Xiao Mu, proposed that a “Kabukicho Hills” complex be built. But unlike the Mori Building towers that have cropped up in ritzy areas of Tokyo, Lee suggests that the Kabukicho version stay close to the area’s roots and include hostess bars and sex clubs.

A couple strolls through the streets of Kabukicho (The Tokyo Reporter)

Furin Kaikan

Such a development would clash with the recent introduction of conventional businesses and facilities that have begun to galvanize Kabukicho, which was named for a kabuki theater planned to be constructed in the late 1948 but was never built.

Earlier this year, American hotel company Best Western established a franchise near the Shinjuku Ward office, and Japanese chain Hotel Villa Fontaine opened an inn near Shokuan-dori. Also this year, Osaka-based talent agency Yoshimoto Kogyo moved its Tokyo branch to a former school building, one room of which houses the Discovery Kabukicho office.

Brochures from Discovery Kabukicho promote the newly brick-lined sidewalks and sparkling parking barricades on Hanamichi-dori, which splits Kabukicho in half and fronts one side of a cornerstone, the Furin Kaikan building. The building’s first-floor Parisienne coffee shop, a well-known gangster meeting place, converted half of its floor space into a pharmacy following a bloody shoot-out that resulted in one death and three arrests in 2002.

Other moves included the razing of one block of shops peddling adult DVDs earlier this year. The site is now a parking lot. Raids on similar establishments commenced in November and netted 17 arrests for the sale of films that were not properly censored.

A host in front of Club Ai (The Tokyo Reporter)

“One, two, three strikes and you are out”

The host club industry has been a continual target of regulation due to numerous incidents of aggressive street-soliciting and cases of girls being gouged for bills in the hundreds of thousands of yen. To show that they operate within the bounds of the law and are not at the mercy of the mob, host club magnate Takeshi Aida, whose chain of clubs in Kabukicho began in 1972, and numerous clubs in the area banded together to found the Shinjuku Kabukicho Host Club Anti-Organized Crime Gang Association in 2006.

Observers have noted that the clean shift began with the installation of video cameras soon after a fire tore through a mahjong parlor in 2001, killing 44 people. Yet the harshest blow has certainly been strict enforcement of the Law Regulating Adult Entertainment Businesses, which was enacted in 1948 and requires all establishments providing entertainment — of any kind — to begin removing customers at midnight and shut down at 1 a.m. Dance halls, hostess bars and sex clubs all throughout Tokyo have come under increased pressure.

Complicating matters was a 2006 amendment to the law that requires disclosure of more detailed information on lease and registration documents for shops applying to offer sexual services. Further, more than one piece of legislation over the last two years has restricted hosts from “catching” potential female clients in the street.

Closing its cabin a few months ago was kyabakura Sky Heart, in which ladies outfitted in stewardess uniforms are open for molestation by customers. A “new half” cabaret, in which the staff are women who were once men, has received numerous visits from law enforcement. A mama-san, going by the name Akita, says that the club’s floorshows, which are fully nude and showcase mind-bogglingly amazing surgery, have been reduced from roughly four to two per evening due to the crackdown. “Once they catch you going past 1 a.m. they come back again,” says Akita of the police presence. “It’s like baseball. One, two, three strikes and you are out.”

One the move in Kabukicho (The Tokyo Reporter)

Olympic Games

Insiders interviewed for this article almost unanimously believe that the motive behind a wholesome Kabukicho is the doing of Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, who is making a push for the metropolis to host the 2016 Olympic Games.

Location, too, is a key. With the Fukutoshin Line, which opened this year, rolling past to the east and the Yamanote Line bordering the opposite side, Kabukicho is well-situated. “Right now, Osaki and Odaiba have many office buildings,” says Masaru Jo, director of the Kabukicho Shopping Center Promotion Association, whose fifth-floor office is around the corner from the Koma complex. “But they are not convenient. There is a high demand for the Koma space as an office.” The director predicts that, given current building laws, a structure between nine and 15 floors could rise on the site.

A report compiled by Jo’s association indicates that each day 250,000 people move past Kabukicho’s approximately 3,500 pleasure shops, many of which are not prepared to let the falling of the Koma be the domino that quickens the sanitary movement.

Since bars and restaurants for drinking and eating are exempt from the 1 a.m. law, dozens of “girl’s bars” have appeared. Such an operation is a rearranged hostess club in which fashionably dressed ladies tend bar opposite the seated customer, with the crucial difference being that the pair are not elbow-to-elbow — as would be justifiable entertainment, at least in the minds of the police.

The National Police Agency, however, realizes the true nature of the bars. “We consider them to be of the same category,” said a NPA official in an interview in October. “We are not distinguishing them from other adult businesses.” To show that the authorities are indeed monitoring the situation, a 24-year-old female employee at girl’s bar Double was arrested for sitting next a male patron on a sofa just before 2 a.m. on a Saturday morning in October.

At work in Marilyn 2 (The Tokyo Reporter)

Kabukicho is dead

For his part, host mogul Aida established, in 2007, his second onabe bar, where ladies on staff dress as men. Attired in sharp white shirts and dark vests, the girls at Marilyn 2 serve from behind a curving counter bathed in blue LED lights on into the wee hours of the morning.

Sex-trade publisher Hiroharu Kimura believes that Kabukicho in its old form is dead. “Right now I think it is a great time for everyone to reflect on how we view the issue,” explains the chairman of publishing firm Creators Company Connection, settling back in a chair in his office situated just north of Kabukicho. “The law has been in place for such a long time but enforcement has become lax. It’s like traffic laws. If the maximum speed is 40 kilometers per hour, people will drive 50.”

Free entertainment guide Poke Para (Pocket Paradise) is one of his company’s numerous titles catering to various sexual services industries. Yet it is his Deri Heru Manzoku publication, which supplies ads for girls who can be ordered by phone or Internet to meet at a designated location, that Kimura believes represents the future. Brick and mortar shops are not practical in the current enforcement climate, he says. “The shift will be to the Internet,” Kimura announces, “The guide is portable and the information is accessible by a mobile phone.”

Selling wares at Hanazono Jinja (The Tokyo Reporter)

“Scatter around the city”

The chairman has a rather ominous view of the future should fuzoku operations be closed entirely. “If these businesses are restricted,” he says, “they will scatter all around the city, and I find it troubling that the general public will stumble across these places.” He cites Yoshiwara, in Taito Ward, as an example of a brothel area that is functional because it is easy to control in its confined state.

True, too, is that Kabukicho maintains its familiar pulse. Hosts sporting their nearly trademark frilly hairdos and toting copies of Poke Para turned to the page where their club’s ad is located still patrol the streets around Hanamichi-dori. Even on a typical weekday at 10 a.m., a line snakes down the stairs leading to strip club T.S. Music, which features all-day access to ladies disrobing from school-girl and nurse uniforms for 5,000 yen.

Nor have the boryokudan left the area entirely. Discovery’s Shimoda assures that gangster offices are still scattered around Kabukicho, and at any of the festivals at nearby Hanazono Shrine, where many come to pray for prosperous business ventures, visitors with pinkies trimmed at the first joint are not an unusual a sight.

Director Jo believes that regardless of what the future holds — glistening office tower or otherwise — the nightlife area will still retain some of its character; after all that is why people come. “The attraction remains the same,” he says bluntly. “People come to Kabukicho because it is Kabukicho.”