The Restless City: How Tokyo’s Sleazier Neighborhoods have Successfully Rebranded Themselves

Godzilla visits one of Tokyo's sleazier neighbourhoods.

When the shock waves from the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake struck Tokyo at 2:46 pm on Friday, March 11th, it seemed for a moment as if our metropolis was in for one of its famous “wiping-the-slate-clean” moments. These have often happened in the past, each time the city being largely destroyed but then rebuilt in a remarkably short time.

For example, in 1657, the Great Fire of Meireki destroyed about 70% of Edo, as it was then known, and took an estimated 100,000 lives, but within two years the city had largely been rebuilt and improved. Something similar occurred with the Ansei Edo Earthquake of 1855, the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, and the firebombing of Tokyo in 1945. But each time the city, like some great urban phoenix, arose from the ashes, shrugging off untold death and destruction to enjoy a new lease of life.

In the latest crisis, Tokyo was spared such a cataclysmic cycle, although the threat of radioactive pollution was troubling. The quake and its aftermath greatly disrupted life in the city, but the crisis has also reminded us what an exceptional city Tokyo is. Placed by its history between the twin poles of annihilation and explosive growth, and with past cataclysms encoded in its DNA, Tokyo has an exceptional power to renew itself, area by area, block by block.

1958: Tokyo Tower under construction.
The kind of urban vitality that can rebuild a metropolis from a scorched wasteland in a few years ensures that the city is eternally on the move, with neighborhoods rising and falling, or changing their function, character, and image. Driven by the economic imperatives of soaring real estate prices, formerly low-rent areas like Odaiba and Shinagawa have been turned into nests of skyscrapers. But a more interesting trend in recent years has been the rebranding of well-known areas with bad reputations.

The pattern was set with the redevelopment of Akihabara, once Tokyo’s geek ghetto. As part of “Tokyo Plan 2000,” the Tokyo Metropolitan Government released “Urban Development Guidelines for the Akihabara Area,” which stated its intention “to create a global center for the IT industry.” In effect, this meant attacking the local otaku culture.

Akihabara: the problem.
Police crackdowns on various aspects of that culture soon followed, with the full weight of the law brought to bear on illegally copied CDs and DVDs, underage porn, and unlicensed street cosplay performances, all things which had been more or less tolerated before. A couple of years later a cluster of IT-related glass and steel skyscrapers near the JR station were unveiled, including Akihabara Dai Building and Akihabara DX, plus a new super fast railway connection to Tsukuba Science City. Akihabara had changed from a cozy but weird geek retreat with a distinct subculture into the kind of place mom and kids could accompany dad to buy his new laptop. One well known otaku, A-boy Takuya, expressed the mood of the time:
“It’s not just the police; but if more and more other people start coming here, it will be difficult for us otaku to remain. This has been our gathering spot because we’re not accepted elsewhere.”
The success of the image re-launch stemmed from using elements that were already there–a connection with hi-tech, computers, and electronics–to spin a more acceptable image.

This approach was also used in Okubo a neighborhood to the north of Shinjuku that was once a notorious mixture of love hotels, Iranian drug dealers, and an international bevy of streetwalkers, from such exotic locales as Columbia, Venezuela, and Thailand. Back in the mid 1990s journalist, playwright, and local resident Monty DiPietro counted 50 girls waiting for clients on the 500-meter street that runs from Nishi Okubo Park to the grey concrete wall that supports the JR Chou line.

But unlike Akihabara, which underwent a renaissance by becoming a blander and more upmarket version of its previous incarnation, Okubo has substituted one colorful image for another.

Korean goods on sale in Okubo.
After the Iranian pushers and South American prostitutes had been chased out by aggressive sweeps by police and undercover immigration officials, the area languished in relative obscurity. However, in recent years it has been successfully reinvented by building on its Korean heritage and tying this into the Korean Boom that has seen a massive surge in popularity for all Korean food and culture.

Now, along with the Korean restaurants, you will find shops selling all manner of goods related to popular Korean icons, such as actors in TV serials, members of girl groups, and boyband stars. These are trawled by long lines of obasans or giggling groups of schoolgirls. Another specialty is Korean cosmetics. Although the area continues to have its ups and downs, it has clearly come a long way from its far shadier past.

Perhaps the best example of area rebranding is one that is still ongoing and is much more extensive. This involves the popular gaijin hangout of Roppongi. In contrast to Okubo’s pop culture route, this has been done by taking a more high-brow approach. Once the sort of place that could give Kabukicho’s red light zone a run for its money, Roppongi has been on the rise since the opening of Roppongi Hills in 2003. Since then several additional high profile developments have given it a more diverse economic base and a decidedly upmarket image.

Art has been essential in all this. Roppongi Hills included as its centerpiece a large contemporary art museum, The Mori Art Museum. Following this, 2007 saw the opening of additional major art venues: the stand-alone National Art Center Tokyo, the final masterpiece of architect Kisho Kurokawa, and also the new Suntory Museum of Art and 21_21 Design Site, a venue that specializes in design-related exhibitions. Both the latter were part of the giant Midtown development.

Roppongi girls.
This ‘artification’ was actually interrupted by the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake, when Roppongi Art Night was cancelled. This is an all-night festival of art-related exhibits and performances, held at the end of March to coincide with the blossoming of the cherry trees. Started in 2009 and designed to set the seal on Roppongi’s new image, this year’s event was to feature a giant inflatable sculpture by Yayoi Kusama, the grand old lady of the Japanese avant-garde art, whose work was chosen to signal a positive attitude in a Japan beset with notions of stagnation and decline.

Although the event was cancelled in 2011, the annual Roppongi Art Night is a clear challenge to the idea that after dark Roppongi is just about clubs, bars, and easy lays. Fumio Nanjo, the event's director explained the change:
“Roppongi has become not only a town for the night but also for the day,” Nanjo explained. “Now we have businesses of the daytime, like light cafés, galleries, and museums. Yes, we have drinking places and bars, but we also have different things, so Roppongi has become a 24-hour city. You can enjoy it with family and friends, and it’s not just drunk guys making trouble. Roppongi Art Night symbolizes this change.”
Not only this, but within Tokyo’s well-stocked spectrum of art institutions, Roppongi, led by the Mori Art Museum, of which Nanjo is also director, has positioned itself as an artistic centre that welcomes a younger demographic. As with Akihabara and Okubo, this builds on the area’s existing characteristics, namely its attraction for the young. But, in place of clubbing, drugs, and sexual promiscuity, what is now on offer is avant-garde art with the reassurance that there won’t be too many old people around as there are at other Tokyo art venues–hence the Mori’s late closing time of 10pm every night except Tuesdays.
“If it’s traditional Japanese art, of course there are many old people,” Nanjo says. “If it’s Impressionism, it’s mainly ladies. If we design the contents for young people, young people will come. But I don’t know if it’s only for young people, because if older people want to stay they can stay, but usually they want to sleep.”
Whether the forces involved are the sudden, destructive ones – fire, earthquakes, and war – or the more gradual ones of politics, economics, and the desire to edge away from a disreputable past, Tokyo is a city that never sits still.

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