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Japan — Descending into the Underworld

Does Tokyo’s Kabukicho district point to where Japan’s underworld might be moving?

August 6, 2001

Does Tokyo's Kabukicho district point to where Japan's underworld might be moving?

In the northwest of Tokyo is the Kabukicho district, one of Asia’s largest “entertainment zones.” It is a cluttered neighborhood of narrow alleys, neon signs, beckoning touts and raucous laughter. It is an area which wakes up at noon and parties until dawn, where gamblers and gangsters run rings around the police and where prostitutes and strippers undress for success.

Kabukicho is packed with massage parlors, strip shows, porn stores, gambling dens, bars, hostess clubs and S and M services. There are even distinctively Japanese parlors called “image clubs,” where customers act out fantasies by spanking prostitutes who pretend to be schoolgirls in uniform or by groping young women who pretend to be subway commuters. All of this happens in private fantasy rooms built to look like school classrooms or subway cars.

Beyond the razzle-dazzle, Kabukicho offers a glimpse of the directions in which Asia is evolving. In the aftermath of World War II, when vast stretches of Tokyo were rubble as far as the eye could see, all this bustle was directed at Americans.

Indeed, the Japanese government ran brothels for the Americans so as to dissipate the sexual energies of the GIs harmlessly on prostitutes. The authorities ran recruitment campaigns asking war widows to sacrifice their own virtue by working in these brothels so as to “save” young Japanese women from the American brutes.

Then, as Japan prospered, the clientele became increasingly Japanese. And eventually, in the 1980s, Western women began to show up in the brothels to cater to Japanese men. Prosperity had reversed the tables.

Yet ultimately, it is the Chinese who have come to dominate Kabukicho. Most of the prostitutes are now Chinese — and many of the gangsters and touts and petty thieves are from Shanghai or Guangdong or Fujian.

“None of us like Japanese men,” said a 25 year-old Chinese woman working as a prostitute in a Kabukicho bar. “They’re so different from Chinese people. They’re cold, and we’re warm. They like distance, and we like to be close. I wouldn’t choose them for pleasure.” She shrugged, and added, “But this is business.”

The woman has prospered because of the same fierce drive that is lifting much of the rest of Asia: She takes classes in Japanese and English during the day, then goes to work in her bar and the nearby “love hotels” from 9:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m.

“It’s tough, but I’m making a lot more money than I was in China,” she said. “With the money, I hope I can go to the United States. I have some relatives in Florida, in a city called Miami. That’s where I’d like to go next.”

The Chinese success in taking over Kabukicho has a good deal to do with the reasons that Asia has prospered more generally: flexibility, drive and social stability.

It may seem unorthodox to discuss a red-light district in terms of social stability. And yet crime is rare, the streets are safe, and when one Chinese prostitute stole some bills from a customer’s wallet at a love hotel, she was banished from the industry forever.

“Our biggest problem is the rise of the Chinese mafia,” one yakuza, that is a member of the Japanese-style mafia, lamented. “The Chinese gangs are taking business from us in every area — in prostitution, in gambling, in selling stolen goods.”

He added, “The difference between us is that Japanese yakuza think of long-term business relationships, but the Chinese mafia thinks just of the short-term. Their only goal is money, money, money.” His comment was strangely reminiscent of what Japanese industrialists often say of Chinese rivals.

The Chinese gangs prospered partly because they have been quicker than Japanese crooks to enter new fields and adopt high technology, like equipment to forge passports or magnetic strip cards that fool pachinko arcades. Chinese mobsters also won business by competing effectively on price: They offer contract killings, for example, for as little as $2,700.

Chinese gangsters are so brazen that they are even robbing the yakuza themselves. “They know that we have money — and that if they rob us, we cannot go to the police,” one yakuza said. “So it’s terrible: A yakuza will be walking down the street, and these Chinese dogs will hold him up at knifepoint or gunpoint and demand his money.”

“There is nothing more humiliating for a yakuza,” he continues, “than to be robbed by another gangster, but if he fights back he will be killed. For Japanese yakuza, the most important thing is staying alive, and making money is second. But for the Chinese gangsters, the first thing is money. The second thing is money. And the third thing is money.”

This might be the reason that the Chinese brothels and massage parlors in Kabukicho edged out their Japanese rivals — they fought harder, charged less and were more “entrepreneurial.”