Down and Out in East Tokyo

If you start walking from the former execution ground behind Minami Senju station in the east of Tokyo, along the “Street of Bones,” then across Namidabashi (“Bridge of Tears”), and down through Nihonzutsumi toward Asakusa, ending up in Imado, you will pick up some of the more pungent smells of Japanese social history.

Nihonzutsumi is better known as San’ya, Tokyo’s skid row, the place where you might end up if you drop out of (or get dropped by) corporate Japan. You can’t drop much lower than San’ya, unless you live in a cardboard box somewhere in the Tokyo subway system. Apart from providing flophouse accommodations, San’ya is a so-called yoseba, a place where men down on their luck gather in the very early mornings to get day jobs on construction sites, handed out by gang-affiliated brokers. The ones who are too old, or weak, or ill, or drunk to get work slink off, to cheap little bars, scrubby public parks, or into the side streets, where you find men snoring in the gutters, surrounded by menageries of broken glass and “One Cup” sake bottles.

You know you’re in San’ya by the mixed odor of alcohol, barbecued pig’s offal, and urine. When you walk farther toward Asakusa for about ten minutes, you pick up a different cocktail of smells: cheap perfume and strong detergent. Now you know you are in the “soapland” district of Yoshiwara: a grid of narrow streets lined with gaudy massage parlors, which are effectively brothels, and used to be called Toruko buro (Turkish baths), but were renamed “soaplands” after a protest from the Turkish embassy in 1985. They cater to a variety of tastes. A chrome façade shaped like the nose of a Boeing 747 denotes girls dressed up as air hostesses; a mock European château means a touch of class; the plasterboard outline of a Japanese castle promises kimonos and girls kneeling on the floor; and so on. This is the same Yoshiwara in whose brothels and teahouses many classical Kabuki plays are set.

Finally, you realize you are entering the district of Imado, near the Sumida River, by the smell of leather. Imado consists of drab streets filled with small manufacturers of leather goods: shoes, handbags, belts, etc. Leather is associated with butchery. Death, in the Shintoist tradition, brings pollution. Occupations involving death, such as butchery, tanning, grave digging, executing criminals, or making anything out of leather, are ritually unclean, and thus have been left for more than a thousand years to people who can be called “outcastes,” and who usually live in congested places along river banks. The traditional outcaste areas, known as buraku, literally hamlets, are well-known, and people born in them, the burakumin, still have a hard time getting jobs in mainstream companies or marrying outside their caste.

From the old execution ground to the brothels and the leather shops is but a short walk. It is not by chance that drop-outs, outcastes …

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