Recently I had the exciting chance to go on a tour of Roppongi and Kabukicho with Jake Adelstein, a well-noted journalist on the Yakuza and organized crime in Japan. He took us around Roppongi, a district of Tokyo known for bars and clubs, as well as for drink spiking unsuspecting tourists and students who wake up on the street with their wallet stolen. If you’re not careful, it can be a scary place! But, I get the feeling that most people just think of it as a party place. Jake showed us another side of this district. We were all very surprised when he showed us one of the Yakuza headquarters, right on a main street, visible to everyone. Although it has a few more surveillance cameras than usual, it is like pretty much any other building. He gave us a brief history of Yakuza in Japan. If you don’t know, the Yakuza are like the mafia of Japan, but from what I’ve learned so far, it seems like they have a lot more visible influence here than the mafia currently does in other places. But honestly I don’t know that much about any organized crime. In Roppongi, he also took us by a bookstore where you could by Yakuza fan-zines, which I found particularly interesting. It had names of all the Yakuza, symbols of different groups, trivia, etc. I was so surprised at how much information was available, and how open it seemed to be.
After Roppongi, we got on the train and headed to Kabukicho, which is a section of Shinjuku known as the red light district of Tokyo. There are many bars and clubs here as well, but the area is also noted for its host and hostess clubs, as well as its many themed love hotels. The name Kabukicho comes from the original plan for the area, which was to build a really nice Kabuki theatre and have the town be a cultural and fine arts center of Tokyo. The theater was never built, but they kept the name. Host and hostess bars, if you don’t know, are places where people go to drink and have conversation with beautiful men and women that will treat them very cordially. On the surface, host and hostess bars are very separate from prostitution. People pay for having the intimacy of a nice conversation with a drink, and that is all. Hosts and hostesses also sometimes accompany their customers to dinner or on longer day trips to scenic areas, for a price of course. I find it interesting that people pay just for this type of companionship, and it is a huge market in Tokyo. Love Hotels are another important component of Tokyo life. Oftentimes, it is hard to find any privacy in the city, maybe because you live with your family, or you live in a small apartment with your neighbors just on the other side of a paper thin wall. Love Hotels are a solution to this lack of privacy. People can rent rooms by the hour or for the night, and many hotels have funny themes.
There were a lot of interesting things to learn about Tokyo that are under the surface but still very prominent. Tokyo is a beautiful city that is clean and technologically advanced, and it is easy to see its brilliance at a glance. But, I think it is most interesting to learn about the subcultures in Japan, such as the Yakuza or the hostesses, to learn about deeper social structures within the country. It really is quite interesting how people operate under the shiny glean of this fantastic city.