Posts Tagged ‘Yakuza’

In Defense of Shin-Imamiya, Shin-Sekai, and Nishinari

June 4, 2010 8 comments

Shin-Imamiya, Shin-Sekai, and Nishinari–these three places are known by people throughout Kansai as dangerous places. Guidebooks parrot the same mindless hearsay, advising people not even to set foot in these neighborhoods. I, for one, believe their reputation for being “dangerous” is undeserved, or at least highly exaggerated.

Let’s start with Shin-Sekai, the home of Tsutenkaku, Spa World, and delicious fugu and kushikatsu. This place has a reputation for being “dangerous,” but in all seriousness, there is almost nothing dangerous here. People talk about Yakuza presence, but it has been gone for decades. Of course, it is not the kind of place a woman would want to walk through alone at night, but for the most part it just smells bad because of all the homeless people living in the covered shopping arcades.

Then there’s Shin-Imamiya, that awful-looking, awful-smelling area at the bottom of the loop line, near the Airin labor center. There are many homeless people and generally creepy people, but there is minimal danger near in this station-front area. It is actually a popular place among backpackers and budget travelers from abroad, as many of the doya* that day laborers used to live in have been converted to extremely cheap youth hostels (2,000 yen or so a night), and the location is convenient for sightseeing in and around Osaka, as well as for nights out in Minami. The day laborers themselves are, for the most part, not bad people–many of them were workers who fell victim to economic downturn, were members of outcast groups, or else were “salarymen” and the like who couldn’t cut it in corporate culture and had no family to help them. Of course there are also alcoholics, criminals, and the like mixed in, but I don’t think that’s the norm. An interesting bit of Shin-Imamiya culture: on the south side of the JR station and west of the Nankai tracks, at around 5:00 am or so every morning, homeless, poor, and regular residents of the area put on a flea market, selling all sorts of interesting things they pick up from around town. While there’s nothing there really worth buying, it’s fun to browse through.

Lastly, there’s Nishinari. This ward became famous in 1991 when the Nishinari Riots occurred, stemming from dissatisfaction on the part of day laborers and homeless in the area and also in response to their unfair (and sometimes brutal) treatment by police. This sort of violence rarely occurs on such a large scale in Japan, a country that is considered extremely safe, and as a result Nishinari came into the spotlight as a “dangerous place.” Now, I’ll admit that Nishinari is not a very nice part of town by any means, and it really isn’t a very good place to live, but for the most part it’s safe as long as you know where to go and where not to go. (Tip: stay out of the southeast area, where Yakuza actually are still active.)

I spent about two years living in these areas (one year in Ebisucho just a short walk from Shin-Imamiya and right next to Shin-Sekai, and one year in Nishinari itself on the other side of Shin-Imamiya), so I have seen a lot of the good and the bad. These are poorer parts of town, but I truly think their reputation for being extremely dangerous is exaggerated, although their reputation for being filthy and dirty is spot-on. Although these areas are probably less safe than other parts of town, a little common sense is all you need to avoid trouble. Perhaps my attitude is related to my different perception of what is “dangerous,” having grown having grown up visiting American cities where real danger is easily encountered.

Furthermore, there is a really sense of community in these areas, whether it be in the Shin-Sekai neighborhood (an old neighborhood with pride in their history), among the homeless and day laborers, or among the many non-Japanese and other people who don’t quite fit in to society as a “normal” Japanese person might.

Before speaking so badly of a place, I think it should be visited and evaluated in person.

*Doya (ドヤ) is a slang term used by day laborers for facilities where small rooms can be rented out for short- or long-term stays. These facilities are used by many day laborers who stay when they have enough money (or when the weather is too cold), and sleep outside at other times. The term comes from the common word yado, which means home or lodging, but with the two Japanese letters ya and do put in reverse order (宿→ヤド→ドヤ). In order to stay in business among changes in day laborer demographics, owners of many doya have converted their facilities into youth hostels targeting backpackers from abroad and other budget travelers.


Super Tamade! Super Tamade!

February 23, 2010 8 comments

If you have ever lived in Osaka City, then the mere mention of Super Tamade is sure to bring forth either a smile or a grimace. At any rate, it will invoke some kind of feeling. Perhaps that feeling when you ate their “super” meat and spent a super-swell evening bent over the toilet. Perhaps it is a memory–a memory of the time you first saw Super Tamade and said, “Wait, that’s a supermarket?” Yes, it’s garish exterior, brighter than Disneyland, a pachinko parlor, and the sun combined, will shock you.

This is the store that lives up to its claim of having gekiyasu (ultra-low) prices, with one-yen sales and the lowest prices you will find on any food item in the city, even beating out the penguin-emblazoned Don Quijote stores (well, in prices, not in weirdness).

But be warned: even if you speak Japanese, you can expect most employees to speak nothing but Chinese in response to you. Along with Super Tamade’s suspiciously low-priced octopus and suspiciously colored meat, you will find a suspiciously high number of non-Japanese working suspiciously long hours for (possibly) suspiciously low wages. But I suppose that’s how they achieve gekiyasu prices.

It’s not surprising that Super Tamade was founded in 1992, coinciding with the final decline of the Yakuza, in the south part of town where the Yakuza held considerable influence. Perhaps they just moved from prostitution, smuggling and gambling into the supermarket business instead.

Whatever the case may be, Super Tamade is worth at least one visit. Oh, and don’t even thinking of eating their ready-made meals. Not if you value your health.

Photos by Wikicommons

Tsutenkaku and the New World

January 20, 2010 5 comments

I must have been a stronger person when I came to live in Osaka for the first time. Newly divorced, friendless, jobless, and without orientation in my new environment, I would spend two months watching the numbers in my bank book grow progressively smaller as job interviews came and went uneventfully. I gradually compromised my standards until I was desperate enough to apply for any job that looked remotely bearable. The tiny apartment was barren, with only a floor mattress to sleep on, a folding “floor chair” whose protruding metal bars made the hardwood floor feel merciful, and a cart for the television set scuffed-up Playstation 2. To retain my sanity and sustain myself, I bought cheap sake, Meiji chocolate and instant yakisoba from Super Tamade, the obnoxiously bright supermarket with blaring theme music, cashiers who only spoke Chinese, and suspiciously low prices.

The studio apartment was a seven-minute walk from Shin-Imamiya Station, located in what seems to be the largest agglomeration of homeless people in Osaka. Also nearby was the covered arcades of Shin-Sekai and Den Den Town, where smelly old men wandered the streets or simply slept on them, day or night. The neighborhood I lived in was Ebisucho, and my apartment building Rapanjiiru Ebisu III—Rapanjiiru is “Rapunzel” in Japanese. When I was first introduced to the apartment, it was through an agency that catered specifically in to foreign customers, because even today many apartments will reject non-Japanese.

After looking at a series of rancid, decrepit rooms, living in a cardboard box in Osaka Castle Park was starting to look attractive—until we reached that seventh-storey room in Rapunzel Ebisu III. It was clean, conveniently located near the subway station, and close to the city center. I made up my mind when I first stepped out on the balcony and saw a somewhat dingy, yet oddly familiar, metal tower.

“Um, this isn’t…”

Tsutenkaku? Yeah,” said the agent, laughing derisively at the aging urban landmark.

Then it came back to me: my university professor, who specialized in Osakan history, had mentioned this tower. “So that over there is Shin-Sekai?”

The agent looked surprised. “Yeah! How did you know that?”

But could this really be the Shin-Sekai I had learned about? Was this the fashionable entertainment district of Taisho-period Osaka? Impossible. But there it was, in plain sight: Shin-Sekai, with the landmark Tsutenkaku tower right smack in the center.

In the early modern period, as Japan rapidly “modernized” to try to gain equal footing, politically and otherwise, with Europe and the United States, planners developed Shin-Sekai (which means “new world”). The area was half modeled after New York City, and half after Paris, with the Eiffel-Tower-inspired Tsutenkaku (the name means “tower reaching the heavens”) as the centerpiece. There was an immensely popular amusement park, Luna Park, located there from 1912 until its closing in 1923. Tsutenkaku was connected to Luna Park by aerial cable car, another modern marvel at the time, and ching-ching of streetcars could be heard from the nearby boulevards. The neon nights, clattering of wooden-shoed feet and giggling of youthful kimono-clad women in Shin-Sekai continued day and night. The brilliant glow of Tsutenkaku could be seen from anywhere in a metropolis that was not yet dominated by high-rise buildings. Shin-Sekai was, to Osakans of the time, truly a marvelous new world.

After the war, however, when most of Osaka had been burnt clean to the ground and the original Tsutenkaku heartlessly dismantled for parts in desperate support of the war effort, Shin-Sekai had seen its final days as Osaka’s glamorous entertainment district. Almost no effort was put into redeveloping the area in the postwar period, and it diminished into a run-down residential neighborhood. Yakuza gangsters operated in the area until the 1990s, giving Shin-Sekai a reputation as being dangerous that still lingers to this day, and after the Yakuza left, the homeless moved in to occupy the space, which did nothing to improve its image. A faint smell of piss mixed with rotting garbage had come to permeate the air of this former playground for the young.

But all was not lost. Surviving citizens of the neighborhood had not forgotten the glamour of the former Shin-Sekai, and even though the district was physically not what it used to be, the pride and culture of the area remained unscathed. Thanks largely to the efforts of neighborhood donations and volunteers, Tsutenkaku was rebuilt in 1956 in a slightly altered form from the original tower, and began to draw attention as a tourist attraction. Hitachi began sponsoring the tower in 1957—and still does today—dressing it with neon lights that the company renews periodically. This resulted in Tsutenkaku becoming a beautiful thing to see at night, in contrast to the dull, metallic spectacle it provided during the day. The tower was not only a piece of local history; it had become a beacon of hope for wartime recovery. It was also an encouraging companion for this lost American who, alone on his floor mat in Rapunzel Ebisu III, looked out at the shining monolith in the dark and felt a faint stirring in his heart.

I imagine the way I felt looking out at the tower every night from my window was the same way many local residents must have felt when the tower’s reconstruction was finished and it once again soared in the sky. Through all the good times and all the tribulations, this simple, elegant tower waited for my return home every evening. Even during that first lonely Christmas full of regret and uncertainty, lying next to the cheap plastic tree from the hundred-yen shop, the warm rays of Tsutenkaku softly stealing through the windowpanes provided some semblance of comfort. Shin-Sekai may be a thing of the past, but its spirit, and the spirit of the Osakans who loved it, live on in this tower to the heavens.

(Tsutenkaku, Shin-Sekai, and Den Den Town can be reached from Ebisucho Station on the Sakaisuji Subway Line.)