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How Tokyo's 'Sleepless Town' is fighting the COVID taint

Kabukicho looks to claw back the crowds the pandemic has turned away

Tokyo's Kabukicho district is as famous as it is notorious, a neighborhood so full of night entertainment that it is often called a "sleepless town." (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

TOKYO -- Tokyo's Kabukicho -- the city's sleepless red-light district full of restaurants, tiny bars, nightclubs and sex parlors -- has been no stranger to notoriety in its 70-year history. But it was COVID-19 that provoked the biggest backlash of all.

Adjacent to Shinjuku train station -- the world's busiest, with over 3.5 million passengers a day -- an early spike in COVID-19 cases saw the district become one of the epicenters of the disease in Japan, sparking withering public criticism.

For the people who live there, the reproval hit hard. Putting a voice to those feelings of anger and betrayal, three Kabukicho residents spoke to Nikkei Asia about their love for the district they call home and why it should be given a second chance.

Local business owner and landlord Kaoru Fujisawa has been committed to lighting up the streets of Kabukicho for nearly 15 years. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

"We have lights this year too!" said excited pedestrians in November, snapping photographs of 90 roadside trees lit up in traditional fashion along Kuyakusho Dori, one of Kabukicho's main streets where the Shinjuku ward office is located. This scene, just like every year, gave Kaoru Fujisawa, now in her 70s, a feeling of relief. The owner of a building on the street and the head of a local association, Fujisawa has spent the last 15 years turning the decorative lights that stay up for the winter into a major attraction.

The lights, which come from around 120,000 light-emitting diodes along a 700-meter stretch, are managed solely by donations from people including the area's club owners and patrons of Fujisawa's own bar. "I wasn't sure if we'd be able to collect enough money for this year," Fujisawa said of the lights, which will be in place until February. "But it is motivating to have the street illuminated when everyone is feeling depressed by the coronavirus."

The pandemic sent shock waves not only along Kuyakusho Dori but through the whole of Kabukicho, when Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike in March asked residents of the world's biggest city to refrain from visiting "night towns," and soon after asked restaurants and bars to close voluntarily to contain the spread of the virus.

With new COVID-19 cases surging in Shinjuku Ward compared with other areas in the capital, especially host clubs where men entertain female customers -- a unique service found in Japan -- over drinks and flirtatiously chat with them, prompting media reports that Kabukicho was the largest epicenter in Japan. Suddenly, many of Kabukicho's iconic colorful neon lights, people, restaurants and entertainment facilities vanished from its tight alleyways.

Now, as the rest of Tokyo is facing the highest number of confirmed cases for the year, the increase in infections inside Shinjuku Ward remains modest. "Each one of us has been thoroughly implementing measures to prevent infections," said Fujisawa. "But that time [earlier in the year] made an image as if 'night towns' were bad. Harmful rumors are frightening." Not only has Fujisawa reinforced the sanitization and cleaning of her eight-story building, but she also halved the rent for several months for her tenants.

Still, visitors are yet to come back to the area. New habits such as working from home are aggravating the damage, Fujisawa added, preventing office workers -- Kabukicho's main clientele -- from coming into the city center and searching for entertainment after work. Many of Kabukicho's facilities remain closed.

Managers also complain that patrons are no longer able to claim expenses from venues in Kabukicho, Fujisawa sighed. "They are also worried whether their female staff will still be willing to come back from their hometowns once they start welcoming guests again."

Illuminated by 120,000 light-emitting diodes along a 700-meter stretch during winter, Kuyakusho Dori street has become a major tourist attraction. "It is motivating to have the street illuminated when everyone is feeling depressed by the coronavirus," said local business owner Kaoru Fujisawa. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

Kabukicho has not always been a nightlife entertainment district. As the name suggests, there was an idea to bring a Kabuki theater to Kabukicho to turn it into a cultural and amusement district after the area was destroyed by the bombing of Tokyo in 1945. That plan failed, but a giant 2,000-seat theater was established there in 1956 -- where the Shinjuku Toho Building cinema complex is located today, crowned with a 12-meter Godzilla's head.

And before the onset of the pandemic, Kabukicho's sketchy Golden Gai corner -- a myriad cluster of tiny bars with room for only a handful of people -- also became popular with barhopping foreign tourists.

But starting in the 1980s, Kabukicho was better known for its carnal pleasures and adult-centered entertainment, as well as its embrace of yakuza gangster groups and illegal foreign residents, becoming a hotbed of crime and even a battlefield between rival groups.

That is why Fujisawa has worked so hard to keep the decorative lights along Kuyakusho Dori -- to help people see that Kabukicho is not the dark and dangerous place of old but a safe, bright and easy place to take a stroll. "Kabukicho is a bit like a toy box that has been turned over. We have diverse entertainments to meet various demands, including the Robot Restaurant and Samurai Museum catering to foreign tourists. But everyone's safety must be guaranteed," said Fujisawa.

Local rapper @polo also works as a tout in the streets of Kabukicho to send visitors to restaurants, as well as cabarets and sex parlors. "Entertainment only works when the world is circulating normally," he said. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

For @polo, 37, a rapper based in Kabukicho, the bars, and nightclubs where he earned a living were all shut down after the coronavirus outbreak hit. "But as long as I have anger toward society, lyrics just come out," he said.

In "S. O. S-Shinjuku of Silent," which he co-wrote in May, @polo raps about the despair and outrage that he and his entourage felt amid the pandemic: "Walking alone to earn a daily living and put life on the line/Where did mice and taxes disappear, crossing your fingers is nonsense/Game Over, diversity is on the edge, Game Over, where are the infection sources today?"

Also working as a tout in the streets of Kabukicho sending visitors to restaurants as well as cabarets and parlors, @polo barely had any pedestrians to talk to this year. Many facilities that should have been welcoming guests have remained closed, while nearly half of his "co-workers" on the streets have also melted away as they returned to their hometowns in search of new jobs.

"I thought Kabukicho was over. Entertainment only works when the world is circulating normally," @polo said. "People want special stimulation when they have money, like enjoying gourmet food or seeing beautiful ladies. But if day life stops, nightlife becomes a waste. Destroying a town is easy but restoring it is really hard."

The pandemic has led @polo to reconsider what Kabukicho means to him. Using his spare time, he and his group members started cleaning up garbage cluttering the district, from empty cans to old furniture left along the streets, at one point calling in an acquaintance who owned a van to help. "Cleaning up the town has been hugely refreshing to me. It helps make the town nice, people thank us, and it makes me feel good, too." From November, @polo even started doing cleanup work during the daytime.

Born in Fukuoka, on Japan's southern main island of Kyushu, @polo came to Tokyo over a decade ago to work in a factory but gradually got into night work, standing in the Kabukicho streets from around 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. the next day. "It's so cold, I absolutely need heat pads all over my body," he said with a laugh. But as long as he is earning a living in Kabukicho, "I also want to give something back," he said. "This is my home now."

In a song titled "S.O.S.," @polo describes today's era as a time when "reason is defeated by instinct, harmony by self-righteousness, intelligence by emotion, fraternity by hatred." (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

In his song S.O.S, @polo describes the current era as a time when "reason is defeated by instinct, harmony by self-righteousness, intelligence by emotion, fraternity by hatred." Patience and other virtues disappear when people are too self-focused, he argues. Even the authorities seem far away in Kabukicho.

"They are hardly visible in this town. As soon as the ward office closes at 5 p.m., government officials go straight home without trying to get to know the town right behind their building. Police officers only chase after stolen bicycles, even ignoring people who collapse in the street. They think those people are just drunkards."

@polo is now seeking to establish a vigilante group for the town's safety and comfort, together with the local government ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, now scheduled to take place in 2021. "I have looked at the town very closely from the streets. I want to commit to something the authorities can't do."

Originally from China and naturalized as Japanese in 2015, Komaki Lee may be one of the longest-term residents among the Kabukicho community. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

Looking ahead to his third attempt to get elected as a Shinjuku Ward assemblyman in 2023, Komaki Lee, 60, has become even more ambitious with the onset of the pandemic. "Issues that were abandoned in this town for years" have suddenly emerged as immediate threats, Lee told Nikkei Asia. "It's too late to criticize Kabukicho after it became an epicenter, as the town was already in a 'gray zone' before the virus spread."

Lee points out that around half of the owners of entertainment facilities have not legally reported their businesses, making it impossible for them to receive government subsidies, forcing them to continue operating with little advice or assistance. It is also difficult to officially track what services many businesses are offering, with so many buildings sublet multiple times. A majority of the area's employees are not part of employment insurance either, said Lee.

"The authorities should not only inspect these facilities as part of a performance but give the right guidance on a regular basis and provide financial support to management," Lee said, referring to the early phase of the pandemic, when police officers and Tokyo government officials conducted on-the-spot inspections of night entertainment businesses.

Originally from China and naturalized as Japanese in 2015, Lee may be one of the longest-term inhabitants of the Kabukicho community. Soon after arriving in Tokyo as a foreign student in the late 1980s, Lee pioneered the idea of the "Kabukicho guide," revealing to foreign visitors the secrets of the district's colorful nightlife.

"There were many more diverse entertainments at the time and it was more fun," Lee recalled. "The number of strip theaters has declined," he noted, somewhat ruefully.

Even for Lee, who has lived through 30 years of history in Kabukicho, the shock brought by COVID-19 was unprecedented. Referring to Ichibangai, the town's largest main street, where a large red neon sign marks one of the entrances to Kabukicho, he said "before, it was impossible to imagine the first floor of any building along the street of Ichibangai being vacant. But now we see tenants on the ground floor are gone. It's very sad."

Sales at his own fourth-floor restaurant serving cuisine from his native Hunan Province are now down to less than 10% of pre-pandemic levels, with the delivery service "Uber Eats now accounting for two-thirds of our sales," Lee said.

"Kabukicho is like a pond in which various fish, animals, and insects live," Komaki Lee said during an interview in Tokyo before appearing on a talk show to discuss a documentary film about his life. "I don't want Kabukicho to be dirty, but if it is too neat, there will be no food for them and it won't be a pond anymore." (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

Witness to an arson attack at a building along Ichibangai in 2001 that killed 44 people, Lee recalled watching an employee of a video mahjong parlor "jumping out of a third-floor window."

The lesson here, Lee said, is that the incident prompted lawmakers to revise Japan's fire code to make building owners take more responsibility. "We realized the danger only after people were dead," said Lee. "Guidelines to prevent infections should be made taking Kabukicho as a model, and taken to entertainment districts nationwide," Lee said.

"Kabukicho is like a pond in which various fish, animals and insects live. I don't want Kabukicho to be dirty, but if it is too neat, there will be no food for them and it won't be a pond anymore," Lee laughs. "[Districts like Kabukicho] are attractive, as humans are curious." Ultimately, Lee added, Kabukicho is a "world-class brand that Tokyo and Shinjuku should be proud of."

Kabukicho's famous Ichibangai street (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

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