The Darker Side of Tokyo

(note: for the equivalent region of Osaka, see here)

Like many foreign tourists on a budget, whenever we are in Tokyo we tend to stay in one of the many no-frills backpacker hotels scattered throughout a district situated to the immediate north of the Asakusa’s Senso-ji Temple.

(all photos: Google Street View)

Most foreigners who stay there probably don’t bother to question why small, but clean and decent hotels, not too far from the city centre and usually with good transport connections both to Narita Airport and to the main tourist spots of Akihabara and beyond, are so cheap, and why there seems to be so many of them in this one particular spot. But it doesn’t take a lot of digging to realize the truth. This district was once known as San’ya – the name is now missing from most maps, in an attempt to erase its glum past – is the closest Tokyo ever had to a slum.

It’s not really obvious at first sight, especially if all you do is hurry down the main streets between the hotel and the nearest subway station. There is nothing that you would usually associate with the word slum, certainly not an Asian one. Like any other district, San’ya is immaculately clean and perfectly safe at all times of day and night (Japan is never a crime-free place, but it’s almost always free from petty crime, which helps to maintain the illusion); the buildings are all the same sort of rough and ugly concrete blocks as is standard in a post-war Japanese suburb; the konbinis sell the same uniform selection of food and drink as everywhere else, and the vending machines are just as ubiquitous. But once you start looking, small cracks start to appear in this façade, through which you will start noticing the real face of San’ya.

shanty
Shanties marked for demolition

Here and there, among the concrete-and-tile apartment towers, stands a row of shanties of corrugated iron. Most are marked for demolition, but some, remarkably, seem to be still inhabited. Somewhere else, another concrete cube is visibly uglier and in a poorer shape than others, looking both haunted and condemned, with small, dark tinted windows, and a wall covered in splotches of mold and smudges of dust; it seems impossible that anyone would be willing to live here, and yet there will be new cars coming out of the garage, and bikes standing in front in a neat row.

A dusty shopping arcade here, a roof-covered commercial street there, both as far from the glamour of its better known Osaka or Kyoto kindred as possible, filled with little else than cheap booze joints, pork bowl stands, 100 Yen shops and discount supermarkets. On some walls you’ll spot – horror of horrors – graffiti. The day labourers queue up in front of labour exchanges, ever hopeful. Those who are without hope, queue up in front of sake shops, looking for a kind bargain.

mosque
San’ya Mosque

There is, of course, a place for religion – the last refuge of the poor. And not just the usual kind; the Inari shrines, standing here since this place was just rice fields and marshland, and a few Buddhist temples, dressed in gold leaf and promise, are all well and good, but sometimes the old Gods can’t provide comfort enough to the needy. So you will spot a stained-window Christian mission on a corner; a Catholic Church peeking its neon cross from between the high-towers; and, strangest of all in Japan, a mosque, unashamedly displaying its prayer hours in both Japanese and Arabic. That last building points to another sure sign of a poor district: the immigrants. Like tourists, they too seek cheap rent and living, not caring for the reason why; and so here, on the streets of San’ya, they all end up, a mixture of languages and cultures resulting in what, in the Estate Agent speak, is known as a “vibrant neighbourhood”.

And if after noticing all this you are still unconvinced as to what kind of place San’ya is, take an evening stroll along the local park on the shores of Sumida River, and watch it fill up with nightly tenants: the homeless salarymen, all impeccably dressed and mannered, preparing their cardboard capsule hotels.

Esperanza Shoe Design Academy
Esperanza Shoe Design Academy

There is another sight that is characteristic only to places like San’ya; one that helps explain how this neighbourhood got to where it is, and why. A sight at first completely innocent and inconspicuous: the shoe-makers shops.

For you see, San’ya was not an organic, improvised,  slum that grows around rich cities on in its own, uncontrollable manner. San’ya was set up and organized as such, a long, long time ago.

The wikipedia entry is kindly euphemistic: it describes the area as set up in the Edo period as residence of the “lower caste workers, butchers, tanners and leatherworkers”. In Japan, this can mean only one thing: San’ya is an Eta District (Leatherworkers, incidentally, are the reason for the above-mentioned prevalence of shoe-makers in the neighbourhood. The best shoes in Japan used to come from here in the days before shoe manufacture moved to China). I will not be here recounting what it meant – and still means – to be an eta, or burakumin: the Japanese pariah. I have linked before to a good study of the subject, so there’s no need to repeat the information. What is striking, however, is how visible the presence and heritage of the lowest class still is in places such as San’ya. The difference between its gloomy tower blocks and the glimmering towers of downtown Tokyo could not be greater.

The winding road once leading into Yoshiwara
The winding road once leading into Yoshiwara

And if that wasn’t enough, there is still more to look out for in the neighbourhood; right across the street from San’ya lay the famous Yoshiwara: the red light district of Edo, not the glamorous abode of the flowery geisha, but the sleazy den of prostitutes, then, as it is now, dedicated to simple exchange of money for sex rather than any more refined entertainment. Immediately to the north, now hidden among the railway tracks, is Kozukappara – Shogun’s grand execution grounds, where so many of Tokugawa’s enemies lost their lives to the executioner’s sword, including Yoshida Shoin, that the main road leading to it is still known today as the Bone Street. In Edo period, you would not have found a more wretched hive of scum and villainy than this swampy suburb sprawling north of Asakusa.

Tatake! Tatake! Tatake! - Ashita no Joe's statue
Tatakae! Tatakae! Tatakae! – Ashita no Joe’s statue

But there is still hope in San’ya – personified best by the character of Ashita no Joe, the hero of one of the most popular, and tragically heroic, manga and anime series of all time. In Joe’s days, in the 1960s, San’ya was a real slum: the corrugated iron shanties being the norm rather than exception. Today, Joe’s statue stands defiantly in front of the shopping arcade, and thanks to low rents and good links, the area is becoming a favourite among young and trendy foreigners, who don’t care for its past. And the Sky Tree Tower rises brightly over the Bone Street, a literal beacon of hope shining over the poor and the rich alike.

You can read more about the “vanishing” people of Japan’s slums in Lena Mauger’s new book, “The Vanished“.

Sky Tree Tower
Sky Tree Tower over San’ya
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5 thoughts on “The Darker Side of Tokyo

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  2. San’ya was not a slum during the 1960s. Actually during that period, Japan was in the high-economic growth moment and the area was crowded with day labourers, lodging facilities and commercial establishments. Another correction: San’ya was not the area with the best leather shoes of Japan. Towards south there is a district named Imado – that is a famous leather (and former outcaste) area. All Asakusa is also famous for leather products until nowadays. San’ya, of course, also had outcaste communities and leather workshops, but it was not the largest one.

    1. I admit I did conflate several nearby neighbourhoods into one in this post, for the sake of clarity; wandering around as a tourist it’s hard to tell the smaller districts apart.

      I suppose calling San’ya a slum or not depends on your definition of the word. An area crowded with day labourers coming in from the rural areas, living in cheap, often temporary lodging, and suffering from social unrest and deprivation is what I would call close to a slum, although of course not of the same sort as a favela in Rio or Dharavi in Mumbai. More like the immigrant suburbs in Europe’s cities. (also, slum-like suburbs are a characteristic of fast developing, previously impoverished countries, and post-war Japan fits the description)

      It might be interesting to notice similarities between San’ya in 1960s and big cities in China like Shanghai now, with cheap labour coming in from the countryside, settling into what once were shanty towns and are now districts of government-built cheap apartment blocks – but that’s just a casual observance I don’t really have the apparatus to explore.

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