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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.1

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, and prostitutes live and work in such close proximity. There is considerable overlap: many outcastes become prostitutes or gangsters, as do members of other discriminated-against groups, such as Koreans, who also live nearby. These eastern districts of Tokyo are the poorest, and the farthest removed from the hilly suburbs in the more affluent west.

Every society has its bums, social scapegoats (though not necessarily outcastes), and prostitutes. One of their functions is to take the pressure off the mainstream by existing in an underworld where normal conventions don’t apply and taboos are routinely broken. They do what we will not or are not permitted to do: the dirty work, in every sense. Japanese officialdom always recognized this, but sought to isolate that underworld as much as possible. Creating enclaves of social undesirables (including in earlier days actors and entertainers, the borderlines between stage and brothel being fuzzy), managed by gangsters, was the official way of keeping society in order. Most people in Tokyo would never go near San’ya, and regard it as a dangerous place. As far as the outcastes are concerned, many deny that they even exist. Yoshiwara, on the other hand, continues to attract customers from all classes, even though business is slow in these days of economic crisis, and the soaplands are tawdry remains of an erotic culture that once had considerable refinement.

The margins reveal a great deal about the mainstream, about its politics, economics, and social conventions. In some ways margins and mainstream mirror each other; in others they are opposites. Like Victorian Britons, Japanese have long regarded their underworld with a mixture of horror and endless fascination. This is especially true of the sexual underworld, idealized and romanticized by generations of novelists, playwrights, and filmmakers. It is less true of the outcastes, whose existence most Japanese prefer to ignore. But the yoseba, such as Kamagasaki in Osaka, Kotobuki-cho in Yokohama, and Tokyo’s San’ya, have taken on an almost symbolic significance for many Japanese as an alternative world of hardship and failure, but also of a peculiar kind of freedom.

Unlike skid rows in most American cities, San’ya today does not look derelict, or even particularly poor. There are coffee shops, a shopping arcade, restaurants, and pinball parlors. There are no banks, however; cash is earned and spent on a daily basis. What is unusual about the place, apart from the sight of people lying about in the streets, is the almost total absence of women. San’ya is not a place for families, even dysfunctional or broken families. The family is left behind; that is part of dropping out. San’ya dwellers are solitary men who live in an isolated pocket of squalor and loneliness, relieved only by the transitory camaraderie of the shared bonfire or drinking place. But even drinking is often a lonely pursuit. Solace is mostly found in the “One Cup” sake bottles dispensed by vending machines. The absence of family or corporate duties has produced an oddity (for Japan, that is): a community of extreme individualists.

Like the rest of Tokyo, San’ya is in fact quite safe, for a visitor at least, and it has always attracted a certain amount of voyeurism—though nothing like as much as Yoshiwara used to do. You can walk around, peer into the abyss, and go home to your warm bed, feeling you have been in touch with “life.” San’ya has been a fertile ground for student radicals, novelists, “concerned” photographers, and various nostalgics de la boue. I have never been anything but a tourist there myself. But Edward Fowler, the author of San’ya Blues, went further than that: he lived there for several months, doing what the other men did, trying to get work for the day, drinking at night, and sleeping in the flophouses, one of which is rather incongruously called the House Palace. Of course, he knew he was going home eventually, so he too was a tourist of a kind, but his fascinating book is not the work of a voyeur. His approach, as he himself observes—at rather too much length perhaps—is “novelistic.” Fowler has brought San’ya to life by describing the men he met not as titillating images of despair, but as individual human beings, each with a personal story to tell.2

What is not immediately apparent to the casual tourist, who sees nothing but grubby men dressed in Japanese workman’s clothes (woolen waistband, wide-hipped pants, split-toed, rubber-soled boots), becomes clear from Fowler’s account: the sheer diversity of character and background. One man has a university degree and traveled the world for his company, until he was fired for hitting his boss. Another is a former truck driver who writes songs as a hobby. Yet another dropped out of corporate life, because he refused to be transferred to the provinces. Others never joined companies in the first place. Some are barely educated. Some dropped out of a university. Almost all left wives and children behind somewhere; a few dream of rejoining them, once they get back on their feet. What unites these men is some quirk of character or fate which placed them beyond the pale of conventional society.

Japan, perhaps more than any other country, is designed for conformists. If you are not a Korean or a burakumin, and if you obey the rules, flatter your superiors, don’t stick your neck out, and generally do as you are told, you will find a relatively safe track through life. Promotion, in most firms, follows seniority, not merit. Indeed, an abundance of talent can be a drawback: it upsets people, and thus the social order. Problems become serious if you get derailed from your designated track—by hitting your boss, dropping out of school, or refusing to be told where to live and work. Once you screw up in one place, people are reluctant to hire you elsewhere: you become a marked man, whose loyalty, application, and obedience are suspect. “I’m just not a very good organization man” is how one person put it to Fowler. In Japan that is a severe handicap.

It is, however, a romantic fallacy to think that nonconformism necessarily makes San’ya men better people. Fowler comes close to this just once, without quite falling for it: he pointedly compares the dignity of a New Year’s party in San’ya to the disgusting—but by no means rare—sight of two men “in business suits pissing the beer they probably drank at their Year-Forgetting Party” on the platform of the local railway station. But, on the whole, the San’ya he describes is a hard place, ruled by a cruel kind of Darwinism. Only young, able-bodied men get jobs, especially in bad times. Older men, who make up the majority in San’ya, are bullied, robbed, and, when too drunk to defend themselves, tormented with burning cigarettes, sticks, or bits of glass.

One of Fowler’s most important points is that the men in business suits owe their (increasingly shaky) security to the existence of places like San’ya. “For mainstream society,” he writes, “San’ya and the other yoseba…provide a dual safety valve, relieving both economic and social pressures on the majority population…. The yoseba, along with the extensive, multitiered system of subcontractors in manufacturing and construction (of which the yoseba can be viewed as the lowest tier), provide an otherwise rigid social economy with much-needed elasticity; without them, lifetime employment and other corporate benefits of the good life at the top of which we hear so much in the West would be far less secure.”

The payoff of corporate conformism, in other words, is a sense of security many Americans might envy. But the price of being footloose in San’ya is extreme insecurity. Efforts to provide the day laborers with adequate union protection have often run into the kind of trouble faced by Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront. The mobsters who dole out the jobs are well organized. Their headquarters is the largest building in San’ya, and when union activists come to sticky ends after annoying the crime bosses, the police, stationed in a police box named Mammoth because of its unusual size (though much smaller than the gangster HQ), are not zealous about investigating what happened.

  1. 1

    Since a more detailed discussion of the Japanese outcastes, or burakumin, is beyond the scope of this article, I refer interested readers to the standard work in English: Japan’s Invisible Race, by George deVos and Hiroshi Wagatsuma (University of California Press, revised edition 1972).

  2. 2

    A writer who did something similar, though from a less privileged perspective, is Rey Ventura, a Filipino who described the Kotobuki-cho district of Yokohama in his book Underground in Japan (London: Jonathan Cape, 1992).

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