This is my neighborhood in Tokyo.

I live in Tokyo, in Taitō Ward, in a neighborhood near Minowa Station that used to be called Sanya.

Dylan Levi King
Aug 22, 2017 · 53 min read
Men making their way purposefully past shuttered shops in Irohakai shōtengai in Nihonzutsumi.

I’ve tried writing about Tokyo and about my shitamachi neighborhood. I’ve led myself to many dead ends and I’m still not sure where I’m going. In the process, I’ve made my way through a lot of academic writing on the neighborhood, tried to make sense of population numbers and old maps, and read Higuchi Ichiyō. I have decided to limit myself. I am going to write what I think will end up as a sort of scrapbook: bits and pieces, things cobbled together from my notes, fiction and nonfiction, anything I can find.

I’ve lived in this neighborhood a little under a year. I moved from an apartment a few stops away on the Toden Arakawa Line (Arakawayuenchimae, near Oku Station on the Tōhoku Main Line). I want you to know: I know very little about the neighborhood and I am an outsider. This is an attempt to record my experience here and what I have seen. That’s it.

A few notes

  • I note that voices of people that live in the neighborhood are absent from this piece, except in asides like, “I hear that…” or whatever. I understand why that is problematic. I speak with people in the neighborhood every day; much of what I have written was informed by conversations with people in the neighborhood. It is what it is. To be honest, I don’t have any close friends that live on this side of Tokyo. The kissaten along Senzoku-dōri or Tamahime Park are not the best places to meet people with similar interests. The neighborhood is mostly devoid of places for people under retirement age to meet. They — like I often do — get a drink with friends at a major center in Shibuya or Minato, or even Ueno and Asakusa. Apart from the elderly, most people in the neighborhood are somewhat transient or treat it as a base to commute to jobs in one of the central wards.
  • Similarly, I’ve drawn from some Japanese-language sources on the neighborhood but haven’t quoted from them or referenced them below. I can muddle through Japanese texts but I don’t want to risk misinterpretation or giving my own poor translations.
  • I like the way diacritical marks look but you will notice that I have not been careful with applying them. Also, I’ve cited sources or references works in the body of the text but there’s no elegant way to add notes, so I’ve provided a list at the end of works that I found useful. And finally, I promise I’ve made errors. I will correct the mistakes I notice. Please forgive the rest or send me a note. Thank you.
  • Working with editors has been eye-opening to me. I don’t write clean copy. This is barely proofread.

Drawing lines.

I have used the name Sanya, which refers or once referred to a specific section of the city. The name has been removed from maps but usually refers to an area in Taitō Ward that is now called Nihonzutsumi and Kiyokawa. When used by people in the neighborhood, it’s mostly used for the area that Irohakai shōtengai runs through and the areas of Kiyokawa that are still home to cheap lodging houses and the informal labor market.

The area that was Sanya now stretches over two wards, Arakawa and Taitō, and is broken up by new boundaries. As Tom Gill describes it like this: “The part east of Sanya Dori is now mostly in Kiyokawa (meaning Pure River, though there is no river, and the district is far from pure), while the western part is in Nihonzutsumi and the part north of Namidabashi is part of Minami-Senju.”

A map of Sanya from “Sanya Street Life under the Heisei Recession” by Tom Gill, Japan Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 3, July-September 1994, pp.270–286. Reproduced without permission. Sorry.

The map above is from from Gill’s “Sanya Street Life under the Heisei Recession” shows the neighborhood’s old borders. I tend to think of it as covering parts of Hashiba and Asakusa, too.

From the film, Yama — Attack to Attack /『山谷─やられたらやりかえせ』 (Yama — Yararetara Yarikaese) (1985): “…spanning Kiyokawa, Nihon-Zutsumi, Higashi-Asakusa, Hashiba (up Taito Ward) and Minami-Senju (in Arakawa Ward). The western edge of the district borders Yoshiwara: a red-light quarter from the Edo Era. To the south is Imado, a leather industry quarter.” (“Yama — Attack to Attack” in Sequence / “Yama” Production and Exhibition Committee).

My own imaginary borders are about the same, maybe a bit tighter and stretching further south toward Asakusa. I usually think of its core as a handful of quarters: Ryusen, Senzoku, and Nihonzutsumi. The expanded borders, though… in the north, Meiji-dōri and in the south, Kototoi-dōri; and the western border is Shōwa-dōri and the eastern border is Metropolitan Route 464. But I often wander further west into Arakawa Ward and Nippori Station. And a brief walk east would take me to Higashi-Asakusa or Kiyokawa, and it wouldn’t be unusual to find myself taking a walk across the Shirahige Bridge to Sumida Ward. I often go over the northern border, under the Jōban Line to Arakawa Ward and Minami-Senju. I often go further south than Kototoi-dōri, when I visit Asakusa.

I will say again: I use Sanya as the name of the neighborhood hesitantly because it doesn’t exist on maps and in common parlance it probably refers to a smaller area that doesn’t include some of the places I refer to below. But there’s not really a better name for the area.

This is intended to be a brief, necessarily cursory and incomplete history.

On the edge of Yoshiwara and the rougher areas beyond, closer to the city — let’s say you were standing on what is now Kokusai-dōri, south of Minowa Station, a hundred years ago: there would have been fields and rice paddies and creeks and ponds all around, shrines and temples, Yoshiwara beyond that with canals leading there from the river. Right there, you’re standing in Higuchi Ichiyō’s fictional Daionjimae district, which covers the area around the modern Senzoku and Ryusen. To the west, Shitaya and Negishi are slowly being welcomed into urban Tokyo but to the east, Sanya is very different. From its earliest days Sanya was known for being home to outcasts, drifters that made their temporary homes on the edges of the city, religious nuts and poets, prostitutes and people that did the work nobody wanted to think about.

During the Edo Era, Sanya was a reservation for the lowest-class people and their burial grounds. Where Sanya is today used to be called eta buraku, a community of ‘marked people’, who were only allowed to engage in the leather industry. They were also mobilized to guard prisoners when they were paraded through the streets for a penal purpose, as well as for their execution, disposal of executed bodies and other works people despised. (Yama — Attack to Attack).

Burakumin can be understood as a catch-all for various outcast groups. Sanya and the surrounding areas, such as Imado, were once home to various outcast groups, people thought of as unclean, who were relegated to the filthiest municipal chores, such as hauling night soil and tanning leather. Well into the modern era, there was discrimination against outcast groups.

Sanya was a mostly rural area that was home to burakumin, Yoshiwara’s women and girls, and the nearby execution grounds at Kozukappara.

In later years, the area was known mostly as home to Tokyo’s yoseba (寄せ場), or informal labor market. After Tokyo was torched during the Second World War, the rebuilding effort required a massive workforce. The Dodge Line policy that reined in the public sector led to a growth in the power of conglomerates and ruined the ability of smaller firms to compete. Labor unions were crushed. More and more men came from the countryside and found work in the new urban building boom and on big projects like the 1964 Olympics. Workers arrived at Ueno Station to the south and made the trip to the slums of Sanya, where they waited to be scooped up by labor contractors and sent to work around the city and beyond. The men and the women that followed them lived in cheap lodging. This is where the idea of Sanya as a doya-gai (ドヤ街) comes from, doya referring to the flophouses and short-term inns in the area.

The brokers that came into the labor market to pick up workers tended to be working for or allied with organized crime and nationalist groups. The mafia ran construction or did the dirty work for big firms, just like everywhere else. The labor market in the post-World War II period was good business. Labor activists and organizers heard the call and the history of the labor market in Sanya is the history of brave activists. But organized crime was linked to local government and the police, too, so things were fucked up.

Until the Bubble burst, there were regular battles between day laborers and their leftist organizers and a coalition of right wing and organized crime groups. The Mammoth kōban at Irohakai’s east entrance was equipped for union busting and beating up left-wing activists. The struggles between laborers, their organizers and the nationalist and organized crime groups resulted in riots, abductions and murder. The New Left in Japan, which had coalesced around protest against American imperialism in Asia, including the continued presence of American troops in Japan, threw their weight behind labor activism in Sanya. (Part of the interest in Sanya from American and European academics must come from that New Left interest in Sanya. A Black Panther delegation visited Sanya in the 1960s and met with the Sanya Liberation League, even).

Riots and violence continued for decades. New arrivals continued to flood into Sanya, looking for work and lodging, including foreign workers from Central and East Asia, Eastern Bloc states and the Philippines.

This era ended abruptly in the 1990s, when the bubble burst and the Japanese economy went into a two decade downturn.

“Construction, in particular, had developed a bloated workforce during the bubble years, employing about 8 percent of the entire Japanese workforce by the end of the 1980s — compared with 2 or 3 percent in most industrialized nations,” says Tom Gill, a British anthropologist and professor at Meiji Gakuin University…. “That had been sustained by ever-spiraling prices of land and buildings. But the last 25 years have seen generally declining real estate prices and, of course, day laborers have no security of tenure and are the first workers to be cut when a downturn occurs.” (The future looks bleak for Yokohama’s day laborers / Japan Times).

The labor downturn and neoliberal economic policies that had gutted the social welfare system turned Sanya into an area infamous as a destination for the homeless. Homelessness became the more common condition for the laborers of Sanya, who had lived job-to-job and paycheck-to-paycheck, even through the fat years. The yoseba had attracted men with few prospects in their hometowns, including many from economically depressed regions in the north.

When homelessness reached a crisis point in the late-1990s, welfare reforms ended up pushing some homeless from other areas in the city to Sanya. The so-called “Sanya Rule” (山谷ルール) (a reproduction of a Mainichi Shimbun article on the subject is here and attests to the use of the term by 2006) is mentioned in connection with legal changes in 1996 and 2002 (Special Law on Temporary Measures to Support the Self-Reliance of Homeless People) — those without legal residency in other Tokyo wards were unofficially shunted toward Sanya.

Sanya had already disappeared from city maps by 1966, around the same time as other districts in the city were renamed under the “place-name change program” — Yoshiwara, which is now in Taitō’s Senzoku 4 Chōme (東京都台東区千束4), Susaki, which is now part of Koto Ward’s Toyo 1 Chōme (東京都江東区東陽1), and Tamanoi, subsumed by Sumida’s Higashi-Mukōjima (東京都墨田区東向島). The renaming of those districts followed the Anti-Prostitution Law in 1958, which gutted former akasen (赤線), the areas in which prostitution was legal and tolerated and the aosen (青線), where prostitution was unsanctioned but tolerated. Sanya is geographically nearby and related to those districts but was of a different character. Sanya was renamed but it was also broken up across several areas, making it more difficult to define where Sanya is.

An empty lot off Irohakai.

After the collapse of the Japanese economy in the 1990s, the situation for a neighborhood like Sanya looked bleak. Saskia Sassen in The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991) looks at work of geographer Nakabayashi Itsuki (in particular “Socio-economic and living conditions of Tokyo’s inner-city” written immediately before the Bubble burst, in Geographical Reports of Tokyo Metropolitan University), who measures Tokyo’s neighborhoods according to “social decline, local economic decline, physical and housing decline; and presence of disadvantaged minorities, including immigrants.” As early as 1987, Nakabayashi questioned whether neighborhoods in Sumida and Taitō Wards would continue to function as “social units.”

In fact, Taitō Ward, like most of Tokyo’s central wards, has seen population growth as the rest of Japan withers and young people flee to the city, but the population of Sanya has declined or stayed about the same. Older estimates of the population of Sanya go from 35,000 to 50,000 but depending on how you draw the lines the population now is around 20,000.

In some streets in the neighborhood the population seems to be split between: German tourists and the grizzled old men that gather to sip their Ozeki One Cups.

The east entrance of Irohakai. An apartment block was rebuilt when Nodaya, a liquor store and stand-up bar, was torn down. Edward Fowler notes that Nodaya was famous for its “dark, massive beams hewn in the prewar style.” The apartment block looks and feels out of place and private security has displaced the men that used to sit in the alley beside it. I think my finger is in the shot, too.

Last year, New Year’s Day, I stood below the banner on the Sanya Workers’ Hall, which reads something like: “Sanya opposes the redevelopment of the day laborers’ town.” A dozen or so old laborers came from the building at the east entrance of Irohakai, the covered shōtengai that cuts through the neighborhood. They marched toward the kōban and a line of police formed to keep them from marching any further. There was nobody to witness their march, except for a few bewildered Australian tourists.

The arrival of foreign tourists and the pushing out of the homeless has been a development welcomed by hack journalists since at least the early 2000s.

A particularly heartless article in The Japan Times (“Sanya turning from laborer to tourist district” by Hiroshi Matsubara, Oct. 22, 2000) predicts the future of the neighborhood:

Taito Ward’s Sanya district, where homeless people sleep on street corners, is filled with economy inns, many renovated during the economic bubble in response to the increasing incomes of the workers that once filled their rooms.

Now threatened by declining occupancy rates due to the protracted economic slump, these inns are undergoing a metamorphosis to survive. Their traditional clients, many over age 65 and unable to find work, are fast disappearing, and tourists are proving a good bet.

A hotel-owner in the neighborhood is quoted as saying he decided to target budget travelers instead of the neighborhood’s working men after his occupancy rate fell below 80%.

Chris Younker, a 20-year-old Canadian, said seeing homeless people sleeping on the streets outside his hotel both surprised and fascinated him.

“I’d mind seeing people sleeping on streets if I was in my own country, but not many things here are familiar to me anyway,” he said.

The hotel owners benefited from changes to welfare rules in the 2000s, which gave workers a daily housing allowance. But the number of workers in the neighborhood receiving the payment has decreased and many are leaving the area:

Some, meanwhile, just die. “On average, one person at my hotel dies every month due to causes related to old age,” the owner of one 450-bed inn said.

Moriya of the welfare department believes the day-laborer population is likely to disappear from the area within 10 years.

“The influx of workers to Sanya has already stopped due to job scarcity, while all the current inhabitants will be eligible for public nursing homes within a decade,” he said. “Sanya, one of the symbols of postwar economic growth, is now destined to disappear with the end of that growth.”

The Sanya Innkeepers’ Union has long been a powerful political force in the neighborhood:

As the first employment agency was being set up in Sanya, for example, landlord Kiyama Kinjiro allied himself with the demands of industry and the tehaishi by devising the “bunk-bed system” for converting the welfare barracks in the area (set up under SCAP for homeless wanderers right after the war) into lodging houses for day-laborers. The first campaign of the Sanya Innkeepers’ Union, founded soon after, was to drive prostitutes out of Sanya into neighboring Asakusa, a major step in the area’s conversion to a full-fledged yoseba. In the decade of the sixties, the Innkeepers’ Union has been a driving force behind the gradual expansion of police control in the area. After the First Sanya Incident in 1959, when workers attacked the small local police box, the Inkeepers’ Union backed construction of a new and greatly enlarged station in its stead, contributing chairs and funds for the building. Innkeepers and merchants, jealous guardians of the law and order which guarantee their incomes, have been firm supporters of the “candy and whip policy” (welfare measures accompanied by police repression) which the government has evolved in recent years to cope with increasing outbreaks of violence in Sanya.

There are still cheap accommodations in the neighborhood and some of the rebranding is mostly superficial (a good rundown of cheap hotel rooms is here: http://gigazine.net/news/20141111-sanya-economy-hotel/). But it’s a fact that the number of cheap short term hotel rooms has decreased from 199 in 1990 to 165 in 2013 and only 75 in 2017. The hotel operators are being fucked over themselves now by minpaku (民泊) operators using sites like AirBnB to rent out space in cheap, new apartment developments.

The foreign tourists in the neighborhood have increased as the prices at unofficial lodgings are cheap and central tourist district, Asakusa is a ten minute walk away.

Visiting a friend at a public housing block in Hashiba, up near the Sumida River, I noticed a sign in Japanese, Chinese, Korean and English announcing that it is illegal to rent out danchi apartments.

The remaining lodging houses are clustered east of Nihonzutsumi, near Tamahime Park, which has become a place for homeless men to stay or to hang out during daytime hours. I’ve been told that the remaining lodging houses mostly serve men that receive a social assistance housing stipend and the rate for a night’s stay is about the same everywhere because it’s pegged to that stipend.

Sanya still has homeless men living in its parks and along the Sumida River but their numbers are nowhere near what they were in the 1990s. Most homeless have relocated to Toshima or Shinjuku or other parts of Taitō Ward, for various reasons [Note: I don’t really know the reasons. Maybe better support from activist and charitable organizations?]. Even by the mid-1990s, most of the day laborers that were hanging on were mostly over 50, just waiting out the social welfare system. (From a 1996 New York Times piece: “The Tokyo Metropolitan Government says 50 percent of Sanya residents were older than 40 in 1980, and 17.2 percent were over 60. Last year 41.4 percent of Sanya’s residents had been here more than 10 years.”)

I often take the walk east, through Yoshiwara to Senzoku-dōri, which runs from Nihonzutsumi to Asakusa. The stretch of shōtengai north of Asakusa and even the first stretch of shōtengai just across the Kototoi are mostly devoid of foreign tourists. Senzoku-dōri is home to stores that mostly serve local needs (kissaten, junk stores, butcher shops, a grocery store, small artisan’s shops, clothing stores) and it feels completely different than the shōtengai directly to the south, which seem mostly given over to tourism.

The neighborhood in 2017 looks much the same as it did in 2000 or 1990 or 1980 but — I’m going by reports from those in the neighborhood and academic writing on the area and population numbers — considerably quieter. There has been rapid development of the areas around transit hubs at Minowa and Minami-Senju Station and the tourist trade has made over Asakusa, but development in Sanya is slow. As older homes are sold, newer homes are built on the lots. The newer homes tend to be the same size as the former homes — maybe a bit taller and with parking for a European luxury sedan but nothing offensive.

Those that have come to live in the few new apartment blocks and tidy concrete houses disappear during daytime hours, do their socializing near their workplaces and then return home late in the evening. The Joyful Minowa shōtengai now sits in the shadow of large apartment towers but the number of shuttered stores has increased. Lots around the shōtengai are slowly being picked up and developed, turning the shopping arcade into more of a covered sidewalk than a shopping quarter. At the same time, development beyond the shōtengai has increased but has mostly brought chain restaurants (the big chain coffee shop across from the station is full but the kissaten in the shōtengai tend to be patronized by a few elderly coffee-sippers) and fad fitness studios.

The area around Yoshiwara’s strips of soaplands has remained fairly lively. The white van taxis that the Yoshiwara soaplands use to chauffeur customers from Minowa Station to Senzoku are a frequent sight in the neighborhood — as are pretty women in short skirts toting Michael Kors bags on their way to work. But even there, the glory days are clearly long gone. A poor economy has driven down the demand and changes to anti-organized crime laws and pressure to enforce fūzoku (風俗) rules ahead of the 2020 Olympics have cut the number of businesses.

Brief notes on a few places in the neighborhood.

The following are mostly brief essays and sometimes shorter descriptions of places in the neighborhood. These are places that I feel are worthy of description or hold some sentimental or personal interest.

The pleasures of kissaten, being a regular, and third spaces: Kissa Miyoshi

It’s important to have a local, a place that you are a regular and you recognize the regulars. I have a short list of places that I have become a genuine regular at — it’s not as easy as just going every day or every other day….

Back in Canada, I found it’s become more difficult to become a regular anywhere because nobody works anywhere for very long and the number of genuinely local places is declining every year, at least in big cities. There are very few places in my home country that could be said to have a personality, which is hard to define, but it’s necessary to become a regular at a place. Like, you need a regular face behind the counter to recognize you, when you come in. When I was going to the University of British Columbia, I lived on Number Three Road in Richmond and I’d go almost every day to eat the same lunch at the same stall in the Richmond Public Market. I had very few conversations with the man behind the counter but there was always a nod, when I arrived, and maybe a quick note about something available off the menu. When I went back to Vancouver about a year or so ago and I took the train from the city, out to the suburbs with Asumi to the Richmond Public Market, and — I hadn’t been there in years — the master still recognized me. I asked him, to be sure, if he recognized me. “How could I forget you?” It was moving, really. That feeling is incredible, to know you’re part of a community, and that somebody remembers you.

As an outsider in Tokyo and in Japan, it feels even more important to maintain my membership, however unimportant, at my local. I go to my local kissaten, even when I could venture further afield to spots with better coffee or a more careful cook in the kitchen, simply because I want to keep my regular status.

Miyoshi (喫茶みよし / 東京都台東区千束3–27–11) is my regular. It sits at just about the center of Yoshiwara. Natural light comes in from the big windows and you can watch the intersection and the men and women that make their way through the infamous red light district. Many of the customers are girls killing time before work or between shifts. They order without looking at the menu and then tap on their phones with long nails, pulling on slim cigarettes with pretty names like Virginia Slim Rosé, Pianissimo Aromatic Fram, Kool Escape New York WBeat, and they rise and pay their bill at the front and hail a taxi on the corner. The other guests are the older people of the neighborhood, who catch up with friends and the owners and flip through the newspaper, smoke a cigarette, drink a cup of coffee. They leave the kissaten and the short walk to the park and then on to the shops at Minowa or Irohakai or the grocery stores on the other side of Kokusai-dōri.

Miyoshi is a minimalist kissaten that wouldn’t appeal to those nostalgic for a sumptuous Shōwa-era cafe. There is no jazz playing faintly in the background on a vintage sound system. There’s no wood and there’s no smoked glass. The TV plays over the counter, tuned to channel 5.

Kissa Miyoshi.

For a short visit, I order iced coffee and toast. The toast is thick, white bread, too much butter on it to melt all the way through. A shaker of salt on the side. Thick coffee poured from a jug onto four big cubes of ice. Syrup and milk in plastic containers. If I am going to spend a few hours, I order curry rice and an iced coffee. After I have eaten, I smoke cigarettes and I might write in my notebook but only to look occupied. If I have a book to read, I might open it and skim a few pages. The couple that runs the shop will not interrupt — might not even clear the plates, just change the ashtray — but they are at the counter, talking to the regulars, a few steps away.

That’s the true appeal of the kissaten: you can stay there as long as you want — I mean, if you’re not being rude and there are no customers waiting for tables, which I have only seen happen at kissaten that I would never relax over a book and a cup of coffee and a pack of cigarettes in — for the price of a cup of coffee or plate of curry rice. It’s one benefit of the Japanese style of service, which is never overbearing or intrusive. You will be left alone. Nobody moves quickly. Stay for an hour or two. They are made to spend time alone in, too. I spend a lot of time alone. I like it that way.

The kissaten in the neighborhoods of Taitō and Arakawa Wards (and every other ward of the city, really) have that sense of community and of a personality, an individual irreplaceable feeling. The Napolitan at your favorite kissaten will be made differently than the Napolitan at the kissaten across the street. I might go to a Doutor for a croque monsieur and an iced coffee, if I’m on the other side of town in an unfamiliar neighborhood, but it feels too important to hold onto whatever sense of community you can find, right? If it’s still there.

Tokyo’s older neighborhoods are becoming increasingly generic but these kissaten maintain the community’s living room, the third space, where anyone can afford to get a cup of coffee and share a roof with their neighbor.

Irohakai shōtengai (and Edward Fowler).

I have Edward Fowler’s book, San’ya Blues: Laboring Life in Contemporary Tokyo beside my bed for quick reference as I write this.

Somewhere around the west entrance of the arcade.

I picked it up after moving into the neighborhood and starting to take an interest in the recent history. Fowler’s reportage begins around ’89 and is mostly about the men that work in the neighborhood and their unique culture, but it also gives descriptions of places as they were in the late-’80s and early-’90s.

Fowler sometimes seems to be describing a different place — the neighborhood took a hit as the recession deepened and the day laborers left and older people died off or moved away.

I was particularly struck by the descriptions of Irohakai shōtengai (いろは会商店街 / 東京都台東区日本堤1–18–7) as it looked in the late Shōwa, when Fowler was around:

The Iroha (“A-B-C”) is a roofed arcade running nearly a quarter mile from the western edge of Nihonzutsumi northeast into the heart of San’ya just shy of Old Streetcar Boulevard. It competes with two other commercial areas, the Asahi Shōtengai, a shop-lined street (with metal awnings on the shop fronts but no roof) located a five minute walk to the southeast; and Minowa Joyful (near Minowabashi Station), a venerable but well-kept arcade located a fifteen-minute walk to the northwest. Unlike Asahi Street, the Iroha Arcade is not open to automobile traffic, and unlike the Minowa Arcade … it is not fed by any commuter train…. It is patronized by day laborer and permanent resident alike, as well as by shoppers from farther afield.

The Iroha is well populated by Yama men but can hardly be said to be overrun by them, with the exception of the eastern-most stretch, which spills out into the street leading to Old Streetcar Boulevard–a small open area lined with liquor store, tavern, and several used-clothing shops that do business only in the morning. … For all the grime, the variety of shops is impressive. In addition to a modest supermarket, there are meat, fish and vegetable markets, along with bakeries, tea shops, and shops specializing in prepared foods; stores selling furniture, appliances … dry goods, hardware … haberdashery, shoes; … and, of course, the usual complement of dry cleaners, stationery stores, bookstores, toy stores, tobacconists, beauty salons, photo studios, pharmacies, and flower shops.

The shopping street is far less grimy than I imagine it was in the early-1990s — maybe that’s because it’s mostly empty now, mostly storefronts shuttered indefinitely. The “crowd of shoppers” that Fowler describes no longer exist. Some of the shops have been demolished and small apartment blocks have taken over the lots. The few remaining stores are — there are so few that I can list them off the top of my head, I think, but roughly: a few shops selling prepared food and vegetables and a few storefront offices and second-hand shops and not much else.

On the first day of the new year, men and women gather at the east entrance of Irohakai and prepare to march on the kōban, a protest witnessed by handful of Australian tourists staying at the hostel nearby.

The shōtengai still has some charms: it’s rare to see a covered shopping arcade frozen in amber like Irohakai, I guess — most covered shopping arcades are in areas fed by commuter trains or have been converted to attract tourists, attracting new business and a steady flow of shoppers. And the alleys off of the main strip have attracted some interesting street art. And the attempts to revitalize the area with an Ashita no Joe theme are interesting, I guess.

The demolition of Nodaya, the liquor store and stand-up bar at the east entrance of the shōtengai is a good example of the changes to the arcade and the neighborhood in general. Fowler talks about Nodaya, one of the many stand-up bars in the neighborhood, “where the cases of beer sometimes stacked nearly to the ceiling lead the eye to the tavern’s pride: dark, massive beams hewn in the prewar style.” Seemingly overnight, a new apartment block was put up in its place. Police and private security chased off the men that frequented the alley at the east entrance.

Across from Nodaya, there was once an oversized kōban that was equipped with a special team for putting down labor protests. There’s a small kōban at the corner still, and men still march on it. But the days that Fowler describes are long gone.

ESOW mural on a shutter in Irohakai.

The arcade would feel strange, even if I had never read Fowler’s descriptions. One can tell it’s not meant to look the way it does, that it was built for crowds of shoppers, the community’s core — it’s empty now. That’s it. It’s empty. There’s still music piped in. There are still a few men that take shelter there during the day. And a few shops holding on. It’s one of the saddest places in a city that’s full of sad places.

A few days ago, I was caught in the rain, while walking to a cafe nearby. I took shelter under the roof of the arcade and paced back and forth a few times, waiting for the sky to clear. The arcade was busier than I’d ever seen it, with men coming in from the streets around to get out of the rain. There was nowhere to buy an umbrella and there wasn’t a shop that looked like it welcomed strangers taking shelter from the rain, so I found myself waiting at the east entrance, smoking a cigarette and watching the rain. The few shops in the shōtengai began closing up. The rain stopped and I walked back to the other end and the arcade was deserted again, the shops closed and the men headed back to whatever business they might have had.

It’s interesting to consider how interesting Sanya was to academics and journalists from roughly the mid-1960s to the late-1990s. There’s lots of writing in Japanese but lots of American and European academics and journalists came to visit, too. I love the New York Times headline: IN TIDY TOKYO, A BLEAK BOWERY BECKONS LOST MEN. There exists a very detailed record of what the neighborhood looked like during that period and lots of academic explanation of why it became what it did, lots of solid historical work, too. I don’t know who is writing about it, now. I feel like, when I reach about a decade back, I’m lost — what the hell is happening now? I tend to afraid of making real statements about gentrification and demographic change in the neighborhood, so this description of Irohakai and other places is an attempt to push the reader in the direction of my assumption. That’s all this is.

Kubikiri Jizō at Kozukappara (and the Jōban Line rumbles overhead).

小塚原刑場の首切れ地蔵 (南千住回向院) / 東京都荒川区南千住5-33-13 — Moving west or north through Arakawa Ward, the feeling is different from Taitō, even if they are neighbors. The neighborhood that I live in was defined by drifters and untouchables and pilgrims, but Arakawa was slightly more respectable, mostly villages and farmland that grew as the city developed and there was an increased demand for agricultural products.

Kubikiri Jizō.

I used to live near in Arakawa, near Oku Station (the station is in Kita Ward, actually, but I lived in Arakawa), which felt distinctly different from my new neighborhood just down the streetcar line. Sanya historically covers the postal district of Minami-Senju, which also feel distinct in some ways from the rest of Arakawa Ward. The area was a stopover for travelers entering or exiting the city on the new highways running north and northeast or on the Arakawa River, and then it was an industrial area, taken over by a gas plant, slaughterhouses, a rail yard and factories. Temple crematoriums and slaughterhouses attracted the untouchable castes and later, the factories attracted people burned out of the slums. The area is better known, perhaps, as the site of Kozukappara:

In Minami-Senju, near Tokyo Stadium, one still finds a shrine dedicated to Susanoo-no-Mikoto (the younger brother of Amaterasu-Omikami, the Sun Goddess). As is true for a number of Shinto shrines, it hid a luminous stone, called zuiko (propitious light), of kei-seki (fluorite). … The mound in which the stone was found was originally called ko-zuka (old mound) and the character for ko was then changed into another, meaning “small.” The field around the mound came to be called Kozuka-hara (the field with a small mound), and became known during Tokugawa times as the site of executions. (“Arakawa Ward: Urban Growth and Modernization,” Hiroshi Wagatsuma and George A. DeVos, Rice University Studies 66, №1, 1980)

JR East and other developers have begun aggressively developing the area around Minami-Senju as a commuter hub, but it’s still got a weird, desolate vibe and I don’t usually talk about places having weird, desolate vibes. A short walk from the Burger King below the station is the Kubikiri Jizō:

Close to the Minami Senju Station on the national railway are both a small temple and an outdoor wayside jizo. This big temple is a branch of a large temple in Asakusa, named Eko-in (Temple of the Requiem for the Dead). This branch, also called Eko-in, was built in 1662 on the burial grounds for dead travelers, as well as for those who died in prison or were executed. It is known for its many tombs of anti-Tokugawa patriots. … Wayside Jizo, or Bodhisattva, are more commonly known as guardian deities of children; but the Jizo near the Eko-in Temple is called Kubi-Kiri-Jizo (Jizo for the beheaded) and was made in 1741 by several local inhabitants who wanted to memorialize and console the souls of “criminals” killed at the Kozukahara execution site. (Ibid.)

The jizō is stuck in a dark corner of the neighborhood, beside the freight rails leading into the yard JR built over shallow mass graves, and the Jōban Line rumbles overhead. Even though I’m not superstitious, I make a donation in the temple near the jizō and bring a few sticks of incense to burn.

Sharing the neighborhood over a bowl of shoyu ramen: Toybox Ramen

I’ve lived in big cities before but Tokyo feels different. It’s true what they say, that it’s not simply a single mega city but a collection of urban centers. There are neighborhoods in Tokyo that I will never see. I do my best to see what I can but I’ve barely scratched the surface. A practice has developed among my friends, neighborhood tours: instead of meeting at a convenient hub, you make the trip deep into your friend’s neighborhood and visit local spots.

Chicken abura soba from Toybox.

I had eaten at Toybox (ラーメン屋トイ・ボックス / 東京都荒川区東日暮里1–1–13) before but it’s not my local ramen shop. I think, as a rule, your local ramen shop can’t have a lineup to get in. For me, I tend to go to one of the local shops that are off the radar of ramen enthusiasts and nowhere near a train station. But it’s important for a neighborhood to have a flagship ramen operation. I usually only head to the flagship when I’m leading friends through the neighborhood.

If I’m with friends, I recommend the shoyu ramen because it’s nearly perfect, an opinion backed up by ramen experts, who care about things like the lineage of the shop (opened by an alum of 69'N’ROLL ONE, apparently, this shop). But on the rare occasions I go alone, I’m there for chicken abura soba.

A bowl of abura soba reminds me of… spaghetti aglio e olio or Shaanxi’s youpo mian, same idea: noodles and oil. In the case of Toybox, it’s done with rendered chicken fat and ramen noodles. Poached chicken breast is sliced and placed on top, under scallions and fermented bamboo shoots. The delicate version of abura soba at Toybox is close to perfection.

Minami-Senju Naka-dōri shōtengai

南千住仲通り商店街 / 東京都荒川区南千住—I think of Naka-dōri shōtengai as connecting Minowa Station to Minami-Senju Station, even if it’s far from the most direct route between the two stations — it’s the way I walk between the stations, usually. Unlike Joyful Minowa and Irohakai, the two other major shopping arcades in the neighborhood, Naka-dōri is uncovered and has mostly given up as a functioning shōtengai.

There used to be a sentō here. The bath house was torn down and apartments are going up in its place.

The development of the area around Minami-Senju has been a fairly recent phenomenon. Descriptions of the neighborhood from even as early as ten years ago describe it in grim terms. But the population of Tokyo continues to grow, slow and steady, as the rest of the country empties. Minami-Senju is a perfect commuter hub: lots of room to develop, rock bottom prices, and good transit links with a Metro Line and a JR East line intersecting. The area north of Sanya’s core also has fewer unsavory associations. The area around the station — you feel like you’re in a Kanagawa or Saitama commuter city — is nothing like rest of Sanya, on the other side of the tracks.

I might have even made this exact observation elsewhere in this long, confused piece: gentrification in the neighborhood is mostly unlike the gentrification I’ve witness close-up in other cities I’ve lived in, like Vancouver and Shanghai. In the case of Naka-dōri shōtengai, the original residents of the neighborhood had mostly been dispatched long before the developers arrived. Census records show the residents filtering out as manufacturing jobs disappeared and the population aged. Having walked down the shōtengai many times, I get the impression that most of the shuttered shops have not been operating for years or decades. The historical character of the neighborhood does not seem to hold any appeal for new arrivals, either. Even in other areas of Tokyo, like Asakusa and Yanasen or some neighborhoods across the Sumida, new apartment blocks came with hip cafes or reborn kissaten or at least a chain bookstore or something. Naka-dōri shōtengai’s shops have been abandoned and knocked down to build tidy homes on their empty lots.

The west end of the shōtengai has mostly escaped development.

I have thought about questions to ask in the few remaining shops on shōtengai: What do you think about the neighborhood disappearing? Who are these people, who live on this street now? Why did all the stores close? I think I can guess the answers. Maybe I’d be surprised. I don’t know. I haven’t asked. I’m putting this here, so there’s not a blank and you don’t ask me, Well, what do people think? I don’t really know. It seems like a nice place to live, though, a short walk from the station, down an old shōtengai — but there’s nothing there! The character of the neighborhood is what drew me to live here. This is a neighborhood that is different from the central wards and hasn’t been taken over by developers and chain retail. Do the people that live on Naka-dōri (or off Irohakai or near Tamahime Park or anywhere else with a bit of a rough edge) ignore the history of the place? Nostalgia for the Shōwa is still going strong and Naka-dōri is almost a living museum to the way people lived in that era — what’s the point if you let everything wither and replace it with the same apartment blocks around every other station? But it’s tough to come up with an alternative because the neighborhood kinda ceased to function decades ago. So, why not put up apartment blocks? And there’s a Burger King. I don’t know. And I should be clear, some of those that live in the new apartment blocks are moving into them from rougher homes in the same area, which is positive, and the social activities put on by the merchants association maybe still helps draw the neighborhood together.

The walk is interesting. It shows you what could have been or what will be, on this side of the tracks, I think. Everything is going to be ripped down, eventually. I’m an outsider, myself, so what do I have to complain about?

Hotel La Cachette

Right, it’s in Asakusa, and maybe it’s too far out of the neighborhood to be a landmark. I often take a picture of this particular love hotel. I noticed that it appeared in a series of Franck Bohbot photographs called Tokyo Murmurings, which is pictures of empty Tokyo streets at night or at dusk.

Hotel La Cachette.

La Cachette (ホテル ラ・カシエット / 東京都台東区浅草2–24–12) is a short walk from my apartment and across the alley from a bar that I sometimes drink at. It’s in a stretch of Asakusa that still feels very different from the tourist quarters around Sensō-ji to the south and isn’t quite a part of the pink neon district of Yoshiwara to the north. You can hear the rattle of the rides at Hanayashiki Amusement Park. The hotel looks out of place, stuck in the wrong spot, rising above the low city, with the plastic shell over its concrete core shifting from soft green-turquoise-blue to a sharper neon red-jade-emerald and back to the softest purple-pink-yellow.

If I am in the right part of the neighborhood, when it’s dark enough to enjoy the illumination, I’m usually going to the bar across the alley. I take the ten minute walk down here every now and then. There are bars closer to my tower and on the walk to Asakusa, I pass the narrow bar streets that run along the southern edge of Yoshiwara. The bars nearest to my tower have never pulled me past the front door or kept me for longer than a single drink. The small bars near Yoshiwara feel unwelcoming. This place is welcoming. There are ten stools. The boss drinks milky shōchū on ice and smokes Peace. The sign on the door says “& VARIOUS BLACK MUSIC.” The last time I went, the playlist was: Bobby Womack, the Delfonics, Howlin’ Wolf, Kenny Rogers and Sheena Easton, James Brown, and Willie Hutch. The Willie Hutch was from a dusty copy of The Mark of the Beast (1975) brought in by a man that was not a regular but lived in the neighborhood and brought in the record thinking the boss would appreciate it. He accepted a highball, while the first side of the LP was played. There was one other patron in the bar, an older woman, who came in late, drank highballs and requested the Kenny Rogers-Sheena Easton duet. I drank three oolong highs.

I was introduced to the back streets of Asakusa by a friend of a friend, who is in some ways a typical aging Tokyo hipster: lives in Asagaya, wears 19th century workwear or at least a bleu de travail worker’s jacket but doesn’t have a job except for occasional baito work and a freelance gig writing jazz reviews, collects records, and I guess he imagines his life is a hedonistic Nagai Kafū fantasy while he drinks mostly sensibly in the handful of appropriate Shōwa nostalgia drinking spots that have been spared redevelopment or renovation.

The hotel looks out of place, stuck in the wrong spot, and — stumbling out from Asakusa’s shopping arcades and alleys — in the wrong time, a monument to the baburu jidai and the speculative mania, which mostly skipped or didn’t leave much of a permanent mark on places like this.

Tokyo Skytree

When I lived in Panyu in Guangzhou, I often stood below the Canton Tower — the Skytree (東京スカイツリー / 東京都墨田区押上1–1–13) replaced it in 2012 as the tallest — or spotted it through a gap in Tianhe office towers, and the tower seemed to belong to the sci-fi architecture of Zhujiang New Town and Haizhu, a plume of steel lit up near future digital green. There was a message in the tower, or at least there seemed to be: something arrogant but hackneyed, a gold-plated Spirit of Ecstasy glued to the hood of a shanzhai Jeep Liberty parked outside a KTV in Jiangmen. The Skytree doesn’t feel that way to me.

View of Skytree from Irohakai.

The tower might not technically be in the neighborhood and the area below the tower, from Solamachi to Asakusa, feels very different from the surrounding area. But it’s visible from most of Taitō Ward. And it seems to mean something else — I mean, seeing it from tourist-choked Asakusa or from the mall below it — when viewed from a shopping arcade in Nihonzutsumi or a danchi in Kiyokawa. The tower feels like it represents the neighborhood, despite having nothing to do with the neighborhood, really — I mean, historically or architecturally or by whatever other way of thinking about the place. It’s not connected to its surroundings like Tokyo Tower seems to be, and it’s harder to love a tower like the Skytree or Canton Tower, but I still feel something for it. When I struggle to come up with some explanation for the tower, which tries to associate itself with the neighborhood’s working class roots, traditional crafts… I don’t know — maybe it’s like a grave stele for the neighborhoods it casts it’s shadow on. I don’t want to go that far.

As I try to come up with some thought to conclude this, I realize I am looking at the Skytree’s lights through the clouds.

Good enough.

An unnamed Korean restaurant near Minami-Senju

There are references throughout texts about Sanya to foreign communities, particularly Chinese and Korean men that worked in the labor market. Fowler notes the “disproportionate number of Koreans, Chinese, other Asians” living there, “uprooted by colonialization.” I struggle to understand the way that Koreans are connected to burakumin and their association with yakuza groups. I’ve read conflicting information. But anyways, right now, if you walk west of Sanya, tracking a bit south of the Jōban Line, you will find the closest Tokyo gets to an ethnic enclave: Korean restaurants, churches, and one of the Chongryon’s “North Korean schools” (chōsen gakkō, 朝鮮学校) for Zainichi Koreans, Tokyo Korean 1st Elementary and Junior High School, founded in 1945. Sanya’s Korean community seems to have disappeared without much trace.

The girls behind the counter at the Korean restaurant near Minami-Senju have never heard the name Sanya. They’ve never been to the DPRK or the ROK, either — both are from Changchun in China’s Northeast but their shenfenzheng identify them as Chaoxianzu, one of the 56 ethnic minorities recognized by the PRC.

In the restaurant, we speak in Chinese, the unofficial second language of Sanya — I hear it on a daily basis; there are hundreds of Chinese living in the neighborhood: students that go to language schools in Toshima or Minato but like the cheap rent here, workers that have moved into the new apartment blocks or that came a decade before and live in shit holes, entrepreneurs that have taken over shops that were destined to be shuttered, and women that work in the sex industry at Uguisudani or Yushima near Ueno.

The shop is owned by a couple that came from Changchun in the mid-2000s and recruited the girls separately, one on an online job board and the other through family connections, and helped arrange their visa situation [I am not naming the restaurant or going into more detail because… well, better safe than sorry] and let them crash in a room above the restaurant. One of the girls has found another job several days a week at a Chinese travel agency in Ueno and hopes to stay in the country, and the other girl wants to get the fuck out as soon as possible.

The Sanya neighborhood is surprisingly international, compared to other rundown neighborhoods beyond the central wards. At the municipal childcare drop-in center, where parents stop by with their kids to enjoy air conditioning and picture books and chat with other parents, I’ve found that most of the conversation takes place in Japanese as a Second Language and on any given day most of the parents will be from away. The demographics are different from expat hotspots in Minato. Here, China is well represented and then Nepal and the Philippines but also Turkey and Vietnam and obscure post-Soviet states.

At a time when many countries — and especially Japan — are calling for locking the gates, I feel like I have to point out that the foreign residents of Sanya make the place feel more vibrant than it could be, if we locked the gates. Just on the shōtengai, some of the shops on the mostly-deserted Irohakai shopping arcade have been rescued by entrepreneurs from China, and there are Nepalese and Chinese and Korean-owned shops on Joyful Minowa. Many of the foreign residents work in the neighborhood, so their presence during daylight hours, when many new arrivals in the neighborhood are at jobs in central wards, adds to the liveliness of the sidewalks.

Tamahime Park and Tamahime Inari Shrine

Tom Gill’s Men of Uncertainty: The Social Organization of Day Laborers in Contemporary Japan (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001) explains the difference that you can still feel, when crossing from Iroha’s east entrance to the Kiyokawa side of the neighborhood:

There is a distinct change in atmosphere as one crosses San’ya-dori from Kiyokawa (the east side) to Nihonzutsumi (the west side). Most of the narrow alleys and pretty doya are in Kiyokawa. The roads are wider and dirtier on the Nihonzutsumi side, and it is here that the homeless men of San’ya tend to gather. / … On the Kiyokawa side we find the Palace Hotel bedhouse; Tamahime Park; Tamahime Inari shrine; Horai Middle School; and, importantly, the headquarters of the Kanamachi-ikka (Kanamachi Family) yakuza gang. / The fact is that San’ya-dori, an ordinary, busy main road, also serves at the site of San’ya’s street labor market, and as a line dividing San’ya into mutually hostile spheres of influence. Broadly speaking, the Nihonzutsumi side is the territory of the left-wing activists supporting the day laborers while the Kiyokawa side is yakuza territory.

It’s hard to tell how much of that division still exists — the days of riots and men flooding into the neighborhood to find work are gone but the left-wing activists are still there, and you can visit the offices of Kanamachi-ikka, a short walk away, if you’d like — but there is still a certain feel to the Kiyokawa side of the neighborhood. With the labor market mostly dead and the lodging houses and cheap hotels disappearing from the Nihonzutsumi side, Kiyokawa looks and feels closer to the Sanya that was described in the short stories of Ikeda Michiko, Oytama Shiro’s A Man with No Talents: Memoirs of a Tokyo Day Laborer (Ithaca, NY : Cornell University Press, 2005) or in Tom Gill and Edward Fowler’s reports from Sanya.

It’s tough to take pictures in Tamahime Park, while still trying to be respectful. It serves as a home for some men in the neighborhood. This will give you an idea of what it looks like.

Tamahime Park (玉姫公園 / 東京都台東区清川2–13–18) is at the center of Kiyokawa’s cheap lodging houses— and also new apartment blocks, now. The lodging houses are slowly disappearing as the men of the neighborhood move away or die and few still come to the neighborhood to look for work. The park has been something of a battleground between the men of Sanya and local residents, which is one reason for the cage over half of the park. But again, the declining population of the neighborhood has solved the problem, for the most part. The park was once known for its flea market, described by Ikeda Michiko in “An Unclaimed Body” (translated by Edward Rogers in Tokyo Stories: A Literary Stroll [University of California Press, 2002]):

They were selling griddle cakes at the side of the road. In the park the so-called morning market, a flea market, was underway as usual. I went into the park from the Horai Middle School side. I was astounded at how the look of things had changed. When I had been staying at the Tokuya, the morning market had been the usual seedy flea market that had nothing you would want to buy … And how was it now? Vendors still spread their straw mats out on the ground to display their merchandise, but now everything for sale was new. There were all the clothes a laborer needed: work pants, rubber-soled tabi, undershirts, boxer shorts, belts. Every seller had at least an assortment of overnight bags large and small, surely a necessity when leaving San’ya for job sites in the countryside.

Men still gather to sell things in the park but it’s mostly a place to meet in the morning or spend long afternoons bullshitting and watching pigeons while drinking a beer. Activist and charitable groups distribute their meals of curry rice in the park, too. And some men live or store their things there under the blue tarps that are used by homeless in every part of the city.

Tamahime Inari Shrine (珠姫稲荷神社 / 東京都台東区清川2–13–2) on one side of the park is associated with the cobblers and leatherworkers that lived around Kiyokawa and Imado. There’s an annual shoe bazaar and shoe blessing ritual that draws visitors from outside the neighborhood but the shrine is otherwise quiet.

Tamahime Inari Shrine and a cat.

The park and the surrounding area is a particularly peaceful part of a sleepy neighborhood. Quite often I’ll hear Tokyo natives remark that a place has the feel of the Shōwa, which means some cute, retro vibe — the area around the park and the shrine are not really cute or retro but it does feel like it’s from an earlier time: men gathered in the park to watch pigeons and drink on the street, the rundown shrine, the municipal housing project blocks in the distance, and narrow alleys of traditional homes and lodging houses leading away from the park.

But again, a slightly ambiguous feeling because I think what Kiyokawa was and still is hanging onto being is valuable, a traditional neighborhood where people live differently than they do in the central wards, about to slowly be swept away. The apartment blocks are going up around the area. The place has changed greatly since the accounts I’ve read by Fowler and Ikeda were written, and I notice even in my own pictures of the area, buildings that were there are gone the next time I walk through.

Part of the reason for writing this lengthy, rambling account of the neighborhood is that these are the first places I am visiting with my own son, who was born in a clinic in nearby Machiya. The old men that nod to us or come over to stroke his cheek will be gone. The used clothing store beside the shrine won’t last another five years. The danchi along the river will be emptier than they are now. Everything will be gone. My son will never be able to walk through the first neighborhood he lived in and point out familiar spots. I’d like to hold onto some of it, even if not all changes in the neighborhood are bad changes.

Yoshiwara Benzaiten

Across and a little down the way from the beautiful Yoshiwara Shrine and Taitō Hospital, Yoshiwara Benzaiten (吉原弁財天 / 東京都台東区千束3–20–2) looks completely unlike the other shrines of the neighborhood: colorful, knocked-together, infested with mosquitos that feed the carp in the back pond. In the same yard as the shrine is a statue of the Bodhisattva Kannon, which was erected as a monument to those that died in the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923. There was a pond here, that slowly shrank and then was drained to build the Yoshiwara NTT Building sometime in the 1950s. After the earthquake hit, Yoshiwara began to burn and hundreds died, many of them at this very spot. There is a picture near the entrance to the shrine of a mound of bodies in the pond and beside it. The bodies are burned black, naked and bloated. Once, while walking through the shrine, I met a man that told me: “My grandfather was here that day. He ran the other way.”

Monument to those that died in the Great Kantō Earthquake.

Most of the sad history of the neighborhood has been rebuilt but Yoshiwara’s function has stayed the same, spiritually the same, even if the area’s pastel fortress soaplands are a far cry from the buildings that lined the gated compound of Yoshiwara in the past, when it was the most notorious yukaku in the country. In Sanya, the nagaya and the flophouses are disappearing. They exist as photographs preserved in museums out of urban nostalgia and maybe some kind of guilt about the sacrifices of their grandmothers and grandfathers. But the sad thing about Yoshiwara’s shrines and nostalgia for the quarter is that women are still working at the same occupation in Senzoku, even if it’s not called Yoshiwara anymore. People in the neighborhood have kept the shrine tidy and swept but women are walking down the same street everyday, headed to sell their bodies in the Senzoku soaplands.

Buying vegetables at Joyful Minowa

This is about buying vegetables. There are five or six supermarkets within easy walking distance. I tend to patronize Y’s Mart, which is open 24 hours, and Niku no Hanamasa, also open 24 hours. There are also several shōtengai within easy walking distance. I already mentioned Irohakai and Naka-dōri but there are a number of uncovered shōtengai like Asahikai and others I’m forgetting the names of right now. But the king of local shōtengai is Joyful Minowa, which straddles the border of Taitō and Arakawa.

The main entrance of Joyful Minowa.

The arcade runs along the Toden Arakawa Line (a streetcar line recently rebranded as Tokyo Sakura Tram, for some reason, which runs from Minowabashi Station to Waseda and connects to majors lines at Machiya-ekimae, Ōji-ekimae and Ōtsuka-ekimae, and makes stops at many other interesting neighborhoods along the way). The area around Minowa Station is being developed but not as aggressively as the area around Minami-Senju Station and the area sees a steady stream of tourists coming to ride the streetcar and walk the shōtengai, which has allowed the area to maintain its vibrancy. The arcade is about as healthy as can be hoped, especially when compared to other shōtengai in this and neighboring wards — and considering that it’s nearly a century old. The majority of businesses are independent and there’s been no influx of chain stores or massive residential development. There are a number of shuttered shops in the arcade but there are also recently opened restaurants, coffee shops, and even a youth hostel. It’s hard not to notice that part of the renewal of the arcade is driven by immigrants, who have opened up several of the new shops. The arcade still functions as it was meant to, serving as a one-stop destination for anything you could possibly need. You can stop for an iced coffee at a kissaten, a lunch of butter chicken or soba, wash your clothes and take a bath at the sentō, pick up pickled vegetables and organic vegetables from a farm in Kanagawa, chat with the butcher and fishmonger….

A hair salon on an alley attached to the arcade.

There’s a vegetable shop at the side of the shōtengai closest to the Minowa Station. The proprietor sells organic vegetables that come mostly from local farms (within Tokyo or from Saitama and Chiba and Kanagawa, and sometimes Gunma or Shizuoka). Above the vegetables, there are handwritten notes as to their provenance. My escape from a day job has given me more time to carefully consider the purchase of vegetables. I sometimes stop by just to have a look, match the vegetables to my calendar of monthly seasonal vegetables, pick up a bag of greens and weigh it in my hands. The vegetables have dirt on them. I bought a daikon there today. I washed it in the sink at home and it left a fine layer of sand in the basin. I bought a bag of mustard greens that concealed somewhere inside of the bundle two tiny white worms with black heads.

I go to the market once a day, sometimes twice, usually in the afternoon. I do most of my writing in the dead of the night and leave the day aside to take care of the smaller jobs like emails and editing. After lunch, I take my son in his carrier, walking to the supermarket or up to Joyful Minowa. I am usually the only man in the market or in the shōtengai under 55. I’m definitely the only one carrying a baby. But carrying a baby has smoothed things over, I think, in these types of situations. I’ve answered more times than I can count the same questions about him, which lead to more interesting conversations.

Joyful Minowa has changed the way I eat and the way I spend my day. I go there because it has what I want but also because it’s easier to walk through the shopping arcade than it is the narrow aisles of a supermarket, and my son appreciates the old women that stop to talk with him and the colorful rows of shops to look at as he’s carried by. We can go there together when it’s too hot to walk in the neighborhood or when it’s raining. The market connects us to the neighborhood, people begin to recognize us and we recognize them, even if we don’t know their names and they don’t know our names.

This is what the neighborhood is going to look like in ten years.

Ten years from now, so post-Olympics 2020. Maybe tourism to Tokyo has peaked. But anyways, what’s it going to look like? The answer is probably in the development of Minami-Senju and Minowa Station areas, where demographic change is disappearing older residents while new arrivals from the rest of the country are looking for cheap housing. New buildings will go up, further away from the stations and the independent retailers will be driven out of business by high rents or whoever takes over the property will sell it. Chain coffee stores will replace the kissaten. A developer will scoop up enough property around the station to put up a major department store and residential complex.

Many writers on the sex industry in Japan suggest that places like Yoshiwara will no longer be tolerated in a decade. Business in Yoshiwara has already been hit by the longterm economic slump and people jerking off in internet cafes instead of visiting soapland girls. There’s also been more vigorous enforcement of laws regulating the sex industry and organized crime. Soaplands in Yoshiwara have relaxed their policy on foreign patrons and it’s not unusual to see single non-Japanese men strolling in the area now. Tokyo tends to like to tidy up those places that make contact with foreign visitors. Yoshiwara sits on real estate that isn’t incredibly desirable now but is right between the tourist mecca of Asakusa and two major transit hubs. New buildings are going up in the neighborhood already. There will come a time that developers put the pressure on the government to assist them in scrubbing the soaplands from the map.

Areas like Nihonzutsumi and Kiyokawa are being slowly remade. Things move slower in Tokyo than they do in Shanghai or Vancouver and developers sometimes find their hands tied by regulations on land ownership. But again, it’s already taking place and it’s only a matter of time. There’s the opportunity to build nice, big towers with views of the river, over there in Kiyokawa and Hashiba and even Nihonzutsumi. The men and women of the neighborhood are getting too old to give a fuck about gentrification. The old neighborhood will disappear.

Asakusa has always been a tourist destination but it seems unable to contain the recent onslaught of visitors. There was no accounting for the numbers of people that would arrive someday when the shopping arcades and temple grounds we’re built. Japan saw 6.2 million tourists in 2011 and that number was 24 million in 2016. The number will keep creeping up. Asakusa is feeling it. It’s a mess down there, 7 days a week. Searches on Airbnb and other sites for places to stay near Asakusa turn up a lot, a lot, a lot of results for apartment blocks in my neighborhood, which is a ten or fifteen minute walk from the main tourist sites. Tourism could help the neighborhood stay in business, maybe, probably not, doubt it. Either way, ten years out, the numbers might not be there, might not be something to bank on.

I can imagine that development for tourists and the AirBnBing of affordable apartments in one of the last affordable quarters — there are other affordable areas but they’re often in the middle of nowhere and/or incredibly depressing — of Tokyo.

It looks bad.

I guess. This is more: this is what is happening now and will continue because there’s no reason it can’t.

I’m an outsider. I’ve lived here a short time. I moved here partly for the cheap rent and partly for the character of the neighborhood. I do my best to patronize independent shops and get to know the people that live here. I hope new arrivals do the same and some of the character of the neighborhood can be salvaged.

Maybe some kids will open coffee shops and record stores in Irohakai — I don’t even know if that’s desirable but it’s something ’cause there’s not much else going on. I do kind of wish for a less ugly gentrification. If you take the view that things were fucked before developers arrived and the neighborhood was left to rot, it would be nice if we could get some kids opening up a burger shop instead of having a Burger King. The color of the neighborhood faded and there hasn’t been much interesting to replace it.

There is also hope, I think, in new arrivals from other countries. The street life of the neighborhood won’t be saved by suburbanites looking for good deals on cheap apartments in the city. They won’t open businesses. The Chinese will, though, and so will the Nepalese and the Brazilians and the Filipinos. Also, they are having kids in an aging neighborhood in a country that’s on some Children of Men-level crisis. That’s a good thing.

I’m not optimistic, though. I’m troubled by the disappearance of the neighborhood.

When I lived in Dalian, I stayed in a neighborhood called Pao’ai, in a district of the city called Ganjingzi. The area was formerly rural, like most outer neighborhoods in most Chinese cities. The neighborhood had a long history as a village but a fairly short history as part of Dalian. My apartment in Pao’ai Number Eight Residential District was built on a landfill that had been created following the construction of factories down the hill. The factories were shut down. Factories in other parts of the city were shut down. The city’s core was redeveloped. Demobilized workers and rural refugees were housed in apartments built on the landfill. The factories were demolished or fences were put around them. Directly across from the six apartment block towers, where I lived, there was a new development: a glass and black steel tower that had an indoor swimming pool and space for luxury retail. Walking south from my apartment building, there were still a few red brick blocks that had been worker dormitories. The slogans stenciled on them during previous political campaigns were still faintly visible. Walking north from my apartment, the paved road ended and there was a gravel quarry and a cement factory and in the valleys and ditches beside the roads, people grew vegetables on small plots and kept ducks and lived in huts made of tarps and cinderblocks. The month that I left Dalian, the people living in the ditches and valleys were evicted and their homes were knocked down.

Most of what I know about Pao’ai Number Eight Residential District, I learned from municipal government documents that related the history of the district in bureaucratic terms–something like an archived story from a municipal newsletter about the creation of Pao’ai Agricultural Products Wholesale Market. Not many of Pao’ai Number Eight Residential District’s residents had lived there for very long and, even if they had, they often saw the area as temporary, not a hometown, whatever. When I went back recently, the neighborhood has been completely remade. I could not recognize it.

I’ve seen other neighborhoods I’ve lived in disappear just as quickly, even if they were not completely erased. I keep noticing buildings disappearing. Right around the corner, a traditional home that was invisible behind a bamboo grove — gone. And then a drab concrete tower that had a senbei shop under it — gone. Just on the one alley behind my house. There’s construction and demolition taking place all over the neighborhood.

My wife gave birth to my son in March of this year. I walk with him in the neighborhood everyday. It occurs to me — and I wrote about it right up there — that my son will never be able to see what he is seeing right now. It’s impossible to have the place trapped in amber but I hope at the very least that the character of the neighborhood can be left untouched, at least in some obscure corners of Sanya. Like, the way that the neighborhood is self-contained, the butcher the baker the candlestick maker all down one street, and the gathering places, everyone in the neighborhood, all walks of life, coming together at a kissaten or a sentō — you can replace them with something else, if you want, but keep that feeling. That’s it. It doesn’t have to stay the same but I wish we could preserve what is so good about living here.

That’s why I’ve tried to record something of the way the neighborhood looked while I lived here.


This is what I read.

It’s impossible to add attractive notes to texts on Medium. Below are the works I referred to while writing this or that I’ve read in the past year. Not everything is here but some highlights.

Aoki Hideo’s Japan’s Underclass: Day Laborers and the Homeless, translated by Teresa Castelvetere (Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press, 2006).

Adam Broinowski’s “Informal Labour, Local Citizens and the Tokyo Electric Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Crisis: Responses to Neoliberal Disaster Management” in New Worlds From Below: Informal Life Politics and Grassroots Action in Twenty-First-Century Northeast Asia (Tessa Morris-Suzuki, Eun Jeong Soh, eds., Australian National University Press, 2017). Much has been written about Japanese economic liberalization in the 1950s and 1960s and you can read more about it here and in lots of the other works here. These are the forces that brought the day laborers to Sanya, really.

Carlo Caldarola’s “The Doya-Gai: A Japanese Version of Skid Row” in Pacific Affairs Vol. 41, №4 (Winter, 1968–1969), pp. 511–525. This is “a report of field research carried out in 1964 on the doya-gai or flophouse districts in six major Japanese cities.” In Tokyo, Caldarola focuses on Minami-Senju.

Susan Chira’s “In tidy Tokyo, a bleak bowery beckons lost men” in The New York Times (February 26, 1985) and available here: http://www.nytimes.com/1985/02/26/world/in-tidy-tokyo-a-bleak-bowery-beckons-lost-men.html. I’ve included it here as an example of English-language reporting on the neighborhood and because the headline is impressive. The numbers on the decline of population of day laborers in the neighborhood as early as the mid-1990s are important.

Roman Cybriwsky’s Tokyo, The Changing Profile of an Urban Giant (New York: Macmillan, G.K. Hall, 1991) is a good general work on Tokyo’s redevelopment after World War II and the gentrification of core neighborhoods. I also cannot recommend enough Roppongi Crossing: The Demise of a Tokyo Nightclub District and the Reshaping of a Global City (Athens; London: University of Georgia Press, 2011), which is a fun piece of reporting as well as being a serious look at how Roppongi has been remade as Tokyo’s new window to the world, changed from a place that Japanese came in contact with “bad foreigners” to a shrine to neoliberalism. It also provides a good background on how developers approach the remaking of a neighborhood and overcome issues with land ownership and resistance from local residents.

Edward Fowler’s San’ya Blues, Laboring Life in Contemporary Tokyo (Ithaca, New York; London: Cornell University Press, 1996). Referenced several times above.

Tom Gill’s work is very important to understanding the neighborhood. He did fieldwork in Tokyo and Yokohama during the 1990s and 2000s, resulting in several works, including “Wage Hunting at the Margins of Urban Japan” in Lilies of the Field: Marginal People Who Live for the Moment (Sophie Day, Evthymios Papataxiarchis, Michael Stewart eds., Boulder, Co. and Oxford: Westview Press, 1999), “Whose Problem? Japan’s homeless people as an issue of local and central governance” in Contested Governance in Japan: Sites and Issues (Glenn D. Hook ed., London: Routledge/Curzon, 2005), “Sanya Streetlife Under the Heisei Recession” in Japan Quarterly Vol. XLI, №3 (July-September, 1994) and Men of Uncertainty: The Social Organization of Japanese Day Laborers in Contemporary Japan (New York: SUNY Press, 2001). Reading Gill helps get to the root of why this neighborhood withered in the 1990s, lots of good background on industrial relations in Japan and how local government deals with social issues like homelessness.

Tony D. Guzewicz’s Tokyo’s Homeless: A City in Denial (Kroshka Books, 2000) is a good resource on social policy in Japan but mostly deals with communities in other parts of Tokyo.

Miki Hasegawa’s “We Are Not Garbage!”: the homeless movement in Tokyo, 1994- 2002 (New York, London: Routledge, 2006) is a discussion of the various homeless organizations that have emerged in Tokyo following the end of the Bubble (and in particular the eviction from homeless people from a camp on the west side of Shinjuku Station) and their limited success and many failures. There are some notes about activists based in Sanya and how left-wing activists entered the battle for day laborer rights and then began to put an emphasize on homeless rights.

Jeffry T. Hester’s Yoseba: Day Laborers’ Communities of Urban Japan (Durham, N.C.: Duke University, 1991).

Michiko Ikeda’s “An Unclaimed Body,” translated by Edward Rogers in Tokyo Stories: A Literary Stroll (University of California Press, 2002).

Matthew D. Marr’s Better Must Come: Exiting Homelessness in Two Global Cities (New York: Cornell University Press, 2015). “Marr argues that homelessness should be understood primarily as a socially generated, traumatic, and stigmatizing predicament, rather than as a stable condition, identity, or culture. He pushes for movement away from the study of ‘homeless people’ and ‘homeless culture’ toward an understanding of homelessness as a condition that can be transcended at individual and societal levels.” Marr goes beyond local politics to look at how economic globalization and neoliberal ideology have created a pattern of boom-bust precarity for workers, while also creating cutthroat competition for the necessities of life, like simple shelter, and hollowing out the welfare state. There’s discussion of social welfare, processes of neoliberal globalization, gentrification, and views of homelessness. The other global city of the title is Los Angeles, which provides an interesting comparison. The Sanya neighborhood is discussed but the book itself is worth reading for anyone with an interest in modern urban life.

Jordan Sand’s Tokyo Vernacular: Common Spaces, Local Histories, Found Objects (University of California Press, 2013) is a good source for gentrification in Tokyo, in particular Higashi-Mukojima and Yanesen’s redevelopment and rebranding.

Saskia Sassen’s The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991) would read as dated if many of the problems Sassen writes about had been addressed, in particular the longterm social and economic decline of neighborhoods like Sanya. I would also recommend “When Places Have Deep Economic Histories” in What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs (Goldsmith, Stephen and Elizabeth, Lynne, eds., Oakland, C.A.: New Village Press, 2010).

Shiro Oyama’s A Man with No Talents: Memoirs of a Tokyo Day Laborer (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2005). When Fowler was asked if he would write a follow up to his book on Sanya, he decided to translate Oyama’s book instead. The book covers a period that is already more than a decade in the past, unfortunately.

Juho Patari’s “The ‘Homeless Etiquette’: Social Interaction and Behavior Among the Homeless in Taito Ward, Tokyo” is a master’s thesis a student at the University of Helsinki’s Institute for Asian and African Studies (May 2007). This is a weird piece of academic writing. A Finnish man hangs out with homeless men around Ueno Station and Tamahime Park in Sanya.

Ruth Reitan “Cuba, the Black Panther Movement, and the U.S. Black Movement in the 1960s: Issues of Security” from Liberation, Imagination and the Black Panther Party: A New Look at the Black Panthers and their Legacy (Kathleen Cleaver, George Katsiaficas, eds., Routledge, 2001). This is my source for the Panthers visiting Sanya. You can read the Panthers’ report on their visit to Sanya here: The workers in Sanya face discrimination and social degradation in many ways as severe as the oppression that the Black people in the United States face.

Masuzawa Tessei’s “Street Labour Markets, Day Labourers and the Structure of Oppression,” in The Japanese Trajectory: Modernization and Beyond (Gavan McCormack, Yoshio Sugimoto, eds., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

Brian Woodall’s Japan Under Construction: Corruption, Politics, and Public Works (University of California Press, 1996).

Dylan Levi King

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I'm a translator and writer, based in Tokyo. I translate Chinese literary fiction and write usually about East Asian politics, literature and cities.

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