Kabukicho Renaissance?

Kabukicho is a place that is hard to love. A seedy, crime-infested dive full of ‘massage parlours’, ‘aesthetic salons’, ‘image bars’ and other thinly-disguised forms of brothel. Tokyo has had red-light disticts since the Edo period, of course, and the Yoshiwara was only the most famous. Shinjuku was always one of them, and since the failure of the threatre initiative that gave the neighbourhood its name, Kabukicho has been the best known. Kabukicho is interesting though for many reasons. It had a radical political and cultural history in the 60s and 70s. It was the epicentre of changes that occurred in organised crime in the 80s and 90s, with Chinese gangs replacing the Yakuza as the biggest ‘threat’. And it is now the centre of efforts by the Shinjuku authorities to clean up its image, with the Kabukicho Renaissance policy, and the new Town Manager, and by Tokyo police to crack down on illegal immigration.

Controlling the outsiders

One of the most interesting meetings we had in our last week here in Japan was with two representatives from the Japan Civil Liberties Union (JCLU) and the association to defend the rights of foreign migrant workers. One thing that has always been clear to me from being a gaikokujin (or more casually, just gaijin – foreigner) in Japan is how distinct is this status. I’m a white, western European and therefore at the top of the list of acceptability in foreigners in Japan, but even so I’ve had some interesting experiences, including having two police squad cars and 5 officers deal with the matter of my ‘suspicious’ bicycle (an experience that practically all resident foreigners have had at one time or another), and just the other day I was stopped at the train station by two plain-clothes police officers, who started off quite strong, but then backed down and started mumbling apologies about ‘looking for someone’ when they realised my (Japanese) wife was just behind me. It was pretty obvious that they were conducting an immigration sweep – i.e. just stopping anyone who ‘looked foreign’ to check their immigration status.

This gave me just a tiny taste of what life can be like here for those whose immigration status is problematic. And, as the campaigners told us, this is an increasing number of people who have come to Japan because of the wealth and opportunities and because, whisper it, Japan needs immigrants. Like so many advanced industrial nations, Japan is a hyper-ageing society, with an increasingly unbalanced population pyramid. There are not enough working age Japanese people to support the increasing number of retirees, and government schemes to encourage people to have more children simply haven’t worked. The problem is that successive Japanese governments have refused to recognise the implications. The rules now make provision for ‘skilled’ immigrants, but not for those who are ‘unskilled’ and it is actually those in this latter category that Japan needs. In practice this is demonstrated by the increasing numbers of foreign delivery and construction workers in Tokyo as well as those working in the shadier areas of the ‘night economy’ – doormen, bar staff, masseurs, prostitutes etc.. The same politicians who deny the need for immigrants are probably having their personal ‘needs’ serviced by Filipino or Vietnamese women and this hypocrisy colours all the mainstream political debate about the place of foreigners in Japan, especially in Tokyo where Mayor Ishihara has never disguised his nationalist views in this area.

So, whilst the politicians refuse to deal with reality, the police are enforcing the law as it is. We have spent some time, whilst we are here (and I have gathered data on previous visits) in the night city of Kabukicho in Shinjuku. This time I was taken out to bars in the old post-war neighbourhood of Golden Gai by Professor Tonoma, who formerly led both Shinjuku-ku and Tokyo city planning bodies, and we also talked to Shinjuku community safety officers, and to the Kabukicho Town Manager, who runs the day-to-day operations of the body trying to improve Kabukicho’s image, Kabukicho Renaissance.

Kabukicho of course is famous as the first place that the Tokyo police installed CCTV, ostensibly to deal with Chinese gangs, but according to what we learned from these visits and from talking to the campaigners, as crime has declined (as it has nationally – it’s probably nothing to do with the cameras), the cameras and intensive policing (raids etc.) have been used largely to curb illegal migrant workers. And the authorities seem to make no distinction between the gangsters and the mainly South-east Asian women who work in the bars and massage parlours. They are all visa-overstayers. There is no attempt to treat the women as people in need of help and support at all. Of course this all inflates the crime figures and makes it easy to paint what the police always term ‘foreign crime’ (whatever the exact nature or seriousness of the crime) as a growing threat, as it becomes proportionally a larger part of shrinking crime rates (which were already low by global standards to begin with).

Now there is a new threat to this already massively targeted population. The inclusion of foreigners on the jyuminhyo (residents’ registry), combined with the digitisation and networking of this registry through juki-net, means that the authorities will be able to correlate residency and immigration status much more easily – the residency information for foreigners will be linked to the Houmusho (Ministry of Justice), which has entry records, and now fingerprints and facial photos too, following post-9/11 reforms. Of course, resident skilled foreigners wanted to be in the residents’ registry. They argued that not being on it was itself a form of discrimination and meant further difficulties in terms of things like buying property. However the inclusion of foreigners now opens up new forms of discriminatory practice against those who are already the most disadvantaged in Japanese society, the kinds of foreigners who more high-status ‘official’ foreigners do not generally recognise as kin to them at all.

Japan’s surveillance society, like most, is therefore a profoundly uneven one. Every society has its Others, and surveillance is deployed both to distinguish those Others and to control them. In each of the cities I have been studying the Others are different populations. In London, the Others are (at the moment) the resident Muslim community (or more particularly, ‘radicalised’ young Muslims). Here the surveillance combines repression and ‘caring’ programs to bring the disaffected back into the mainstream. In Rio de Janeiro, the Others are the urban poor, the favelados. They are largely simply excluded – walls protect the rich in their homes, and now walls are being built around the poor communities. In Tokyo, the Others are foreigners, but there are gradations of Otherness, and effectively still aping the western ‘scientific racism’ that it acquired during the Meiji period modernisation at the end of the nineteenth century, Japan’s Others are poor Blacks and Asians (for many on the right here, the Japanese are not ‘Asian’ at all, but something unique). Just as the British state is struggling with the legacy of its particular colonial and post-colonial approach to immigration, and the Brazilian state with a history of years of differentiated citizenship, the Japanese state has still not yet really come to terms with the prospect of the mixing of people at all.

Community Safety in Suginami

Following our meeting with the Mayor the other day, we went back to Suginami-ku to talk to the community safety people, who are part of the Disaster Management section. Suginami is interesting because, as far back as 2004, it was the first Local Authority in Japan to introduce a special bohan kamera jourei (security camera ordinance) which is based in part at least on principles of data protection and privacy. And until neighbouring Setegaya-ku introduced their own ordinance last year, they were, so far as I know, the only such authority. The ordinance followed public consultation which showed that although people generally thought CCTV was effective (95%), a significant minority of 34% were concerned about privacy, and 72% thought that regulation was needed. These figures seem to be significantly more in favour of privacy and regulation of CCTV than the nationwide survey done by Hino Kimihiro, however he asked different questions leading to answers that are not directly comparable.

Suginami is one of the areas of Tokyo that has the other kind of CCTV system introduced by the Tokyo Metropolitan Police after 2002, help points where people press a button if they feel in danger and speak to someone from the police. The help points have both CCTV camera and an alarm / red flashing light if the caller says it is an emergency.

However the Suginami community safety officers said that these cameras have not proved very effective and in fact they cause a lot of problems, because children tend to press the button for fun, and run away – meaning that there are many false alarms.

Suginami has some of the same kind of array of ‘blue-light’ volunteer patrols as Arakawa-ku. In Suginami, there is a fleet of mini-patoka (mini patrol cars) and motorbikes, used by 15 retired police officers. These are mainly about visibility leading to deterrence and increased community confidence, as the volunteers ex-officers have no special powers nor do they carry side-arms or handcuffs or any other conventional ‘police’ equipment. Suginami does not have the small community safety stations like Arakawa-ku, although they do also have the same problem of local koban (police boxes) being closed. However where Suginami really stands out is in the sheer number of volunteers they have involved in their community patrols, organised through the local PTAs, shoutenkai (shopkeepers’ associations) and choukai (community associations). There are 140 groups with 9600 people actively involved in one way or another in community safety just in Suginami.

Suginami is a relatively wealthy ward and the kinds of problems that concern Arakawa (mainly minor street crime and snatch-thefts) are not such big issues here.  The main concern in this ward seems to be burglary and furikomi – the practice of gangsters and other criminals calling old people and pretending to be a relative or representative of a relative and persuading them to transfer money to a particular ATM (which you can do in Japan – it would be impossible in the UK). Furikomi is a very interesting phenomenon in that it seems to be a product of family, social and technological changes. Many older people who would have lived with family in traditional Japanese society are now living alone. They are lonely and miss the intimacy of family contact, so they tend to welcome unexpected calls from relatives who may now be living almost anywhere in Japan. These older people are also technologically literate and able to use mobile phones, ATMs and computers. The combination of this technological skill, dispersed families, and psychological vulnerability makes for a ripe target for fraudsters, and Suginami estimate that 40% of all crime in the ward is some form of furikomi.

In many ways, increasing concern for privacy is also a product of this change in lifestyles and family structure, as well as building techniques – western-style walls and better sound insulation mean that you can’t always know what is going on in the next room anymore, let alone in your neighbours’ apartments or houses. This also makes burglary rather easier, as once the thief has got past the initial walls or doors, no-one can hear or see very much. The intense and intimate ‘natural surveillance’ that used to characterise ordinary Japanese communities is disappearing. But the Suginami community safety officers see the possibility of revitalising such natural surveillance, and protecting privacy, without going down the route of impersonal, technologically-mediated surveillance. In many ways, this is quite heartening – if, of course, you are of a communitarian mindset. Such supportive, mutually monitored and very inward-looking communities can be stifling to those who do not fit and exclusionary to those from outside… and, not coincidentally, one of our last interviews was with a leading support group for foreign migrants in Japan, who have a very different perspective on all of these developments. That will be in my next post, which may not be until Saturday as we’re going off to Kansai for a couple of days…

(Thank-you to the Disaster Management section for their time and patience).

CCTV and urban regeneration in Nippori

The link between urban regeneration or redevelopment and the introduction of video surveillance has been well documented by many different authors in Britain, in particularly Roy Coleman in Reclaiming the Streets. It seems that the link is strong in Tokyo too. This new CCTV scheme in the front of Nippori railway station in Arakawa-ku is not only clearly part of the social and spatial restructuring of this area, it is an essential part of the new image, with the new entranceway celebrating the security cameras as much as the area’s name. This is the area we were told by Shinjuku officials had only three cameras, whereas in fact it has the princely total of ten! In retrospect the Shinjuku people seemed to be rather condescending towards Arakawa-ku.

More on CCTV in Japan

The slightly left-leaning Asahi Shimbun newspaper had a pretty balanced if uninspiring editorial this week on the spread of CCTV cameras in Japan. The English translation is available here.

The most important thing in the editorial is the recommendation of national laws for CCTV. This would be better than in the UK for example, where there still isn’t any national regulation of CCTV except for the Data Protection Act. The paper’s suggestions are:

  • transparent operational procedures with ‘rigorous conditions’ for the sharing of images
  • third party oversight for police cameras and a ‘help desk where people can complain about being caught on tape’

This is a start, but only a start, and the second one would probably prove completely unworkable especially if cameras become more widespread. It would be rather better for some kind of permission system to operate, where cameras were seen as an exceptional response to a proven need. The paper is already accepting the normality of CCTV cameras in public spaces regardless of the evidence of their effectiveness- which it acknowledges is equivocal (in fact it’s generally much worse than that in the UK) or indeed the wider social impacts.