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.

Community Safety in Shinjuku

As well as trying to interview officials at national and city level here, I am also looking at a few different areas of the city, including Shinjuku, where I have done some work before. Shinjuku is a central ward of Tokyo that includes the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG) buildings, part of a growing high-rise district, possibly the busiest railway station in the world, one of the most extensive entertainment districts in the city (not just Kabukicho, the conventional ‘red light’ district, but also a lot of gay clubs and bars), and substantial Korean and Chinese communities.

We had an interesting interview this week with the two officials seconded from the Metropolitan Police Department (keishicho), to run the efforts in Shinjuku (as usual there is a lot more than I can summarise here). We met in the Emergency Control Room, a cramped space full of monitors old and new, walkie-talkies and lots and lots of yellow telephones. We had a brief chat about emergency planning, but as we there to talk security and surveillance, we moved on.

Anzen anshin (or bohan) machizukuri (community safety (or security) development) in Tokyo derives from a TMG ordinance (jourei) of 2003 which encourages all ku (city wards) to implement it. The main reason was that recorded crimes had reached a record high in the city in 2002 (I’ll consider crime figures in Japan and their reliability in another post). There were a patchwork of existing community safety organisations but these appear to have been separate from the chounaikai (local community associations). What the 2003 ordinance did was to make community safety the responsibility of the chounaikai with co-ordination, information and encouragement from the ku administration.

The Shinjuku authorities are very keen on this, much more so than some others, for example, Arakawa-ku where we are living and which I am also examining, which tends to rely on much more conventional policing. This may be a matter of money (Arakawa is nowhere near as wealthy as Shinjuku), but it may also be down to the attitudes of the public and local state officials. This kind of community safety work is time-intensive, and requires a substantial commitment in order to carry out things like citizen patrols (which seem to be one of the core elements).

We also talked about CCTV, which Tokyo started to implement in 2003 as well for the same ostensible reasons. Of course Kabukicho is one of the city-centre pilot areas (along with Ikebukuro, Shibuya, Ropongi and the later addition of Ueno), with over 50 cameras operated by the city police. Given their position it is hardly surprising that they had little time for talk of a ‘surveillance society’ (or indeed even the idea of ‘surveillance’ – the word kanshi provokes quite a strong reaction here – no, no – they are definitely not doing surveillance). They also talked about the co-ordination of shoutenkai (shopkeepers’ association) CCTV systems. It seems that despite their large numbers, these systems are generally not monitored, i.e. there is not control room and no-one is watching. The officials were also certain that the shoutenkai operators themselves were not even allowed to view footage without permission from local police. This is something I will have to investigate more as I have read in the past of shoutenkai representatives claiming the opposite – that they had to give permission for the police to view footage. It seems that both shoutenkai and chounaikai are being encouraged to install CCTV systems, and there are grant systems in place – basically one third comes from the city, one third from the ku, and one third has to be found by the organisation itself from its members.

This means that coverage is very uneven and tends to be restricted to wealthy and / or particularly committed –kai. Shinjuku has many, many shoutenkai systems. Nippori, in Arakawa, in contrast has three cameras – not three systems, but three cameras…

(Thank-you very much to Mr Takahashi and Mr Yabe for their time and patience with my questions).