It’s an uncomfortably humid night in the bustling Shinjuku ward of Tokyo, Japan. I futilely try to circulate air in my sweat-stained shirt at an intersection surrounded by questionable bars and seedy nightclubs. A comparatively innocent landmark grabs my attention: a batting center. It’s a delightfully familiar sight. But as I imagine its visitors enjoying a fun day swinging for the fences, author Jake Adelstein pops my thought bubble by telling me that the most horrific gang violence he ever witnessed unfolded on the corner we stand on: someone cracking another person’s skull open with a baseball bat.
Kabukichō has a notorious, bloodstained history due to its long-standing role as host to yakuza and other gangs. It’s also the inspiration for Kamurochō, the famous open world from the Yakuza series (now globally rebranded as Like A Dragon). Though the games don’t shy away from that violent reputation, the semi-heroic portrayals of characters Kiryu and Ichiban Kasuga, along with the games’ trademark silliness, make it easy to forget that the yakuza are objectively the bad guys, responsible for a number of horrific deeds. In the real world, that includes, among other things, murder, human trafficking, and various forms of extortion. A good number of those crimes occurred within Kabukichō’s alleys. This city’s bright lights can blind visitors to its dark past.
Kamurochō as it appears in Yakuza 6
During a trip to Tokyo last September, we toured Kabukichō, experiencing its atmosphere and learning its history first-hand. We didn’t trek the streets alone. To get a local perspective of the area’s history and culture, especially its yakuza-heavy past, we enlisted the expert aid of Jake Adelstein, author of the 2009 memoir Tokyo Vice. Adelstein has lived in Japan since the early ’90s as an investigative journalist covering organized crime. As the first foreign-born journalist at his newspaper, he spent years closely covering the activities of various yakuza gangs. His book documents these exploits, which have since been adapted into an HBO TV series. As we took in the sights, Adelstein regaled us with tales of Kabukichō’s criminal history and evolution over the decades.
From Swamp To Adult Entertainment Epicenter
From Swamp To Adult Entertainment Epicenter
Kabukichō is located in Tokyo’s Shinjuku ward and sits on what was once a swamp called Tsunohazu. In the 1920s, urban development began, and Tsunohazu hosted many foreign-owned businesses. The most notable establishment was the “Tsurekomi Yado” or “Tsurekomi Inns,” predecessors to the modern love hotels, private establishments providing discreet venues for sexual encounters charged hourly or nightly, that would later define Kabukichō. Heavy bombing during World War II devastated Tsunohazu, prompting its reconstruction as a theater district centered around a planned Kabuki theater with the new name of Kabuki-chō. Financial setbacks killed this plan, however, but the name stuck.
In the 1950s, Kabukichō morphed into an entertainment venue with recreational hot spots such as movie theaters, skating rinks, and traditional theaters. The district’s first host club, nightclubs where waitstaff provides conversation and drinks to patrons under the guise of dates, Club Ai, opened in 1971. This ushered a wave of adult entertainment that flooded the area in the following decades. By the new millennium, Kabukichō was Asia’s largest adult entertainment area. It now features thousands of bars, nightclubs, host clubs, love hotels, and massage parlors, earning its nickname the “Sleepless Town.” As Jake tells us, “Traditionally, everything in this area was about getting sexual services. And maybe drinking cheaply.”
The Yakuza’s Rise And Decline
The Yakuza’s Rise And Decline
Despite our destination, our journey begins rather innocently at a local Krispy Kreme. After meeting Jake and fueling up on donuts and coffee, we make the short trek down the bustling streets. Although several roads lead to the district, the flashiest and most recognizable entrance is Kabukichō ichiban machi (translated as Kabukichō 1st Avenue), the red neon arch immortalized in multiple Yakuza titles. Seeing it in person is a treat, and passing under it feels like entering a portal into the games themselves.
Kabukichō assaults the senses. Illuminated signs and billboards advertising the hottest hosts, unsettlingly attractive idols, various clubs, and more adult services plaster every wall space. Throughout our tour, young women donned in skimpy costumes, such as maids or schoolgirls, solicit us with flyers promoting their respective hostess clubs. On several occasions, bar employees attempt to coax us into their establishments with (often false) promises of cheap drinking prices. We spy one particular bar blatantly advertising additional, shall we say, adult pleasures, making Adelstein remark, “That is one of the most provocative bar signs Iʼve ever seen. Iʼm surprised the police havenʼt busted this place.”
Adelstein’s comment alludes to the fact that the Kabukichō of today is a shell of its former self. As fans have seen in the games, there was a period when the district was regularly patrolled by yakuza enforcers, often in broad daylight, recognizable by their fancy suits, gaudy shirts, and immaculately coifed hair. Gang members collected protection money from businesses, often targeting foreign-owned establishments as they were targets of racial prejudice the police sometimes ignored. Of course, this also meant plenty of street violence as gangs regularly clashed over territory and other disputes. “Back in 1999, there was a lot of fighting gangs,” says Adelstein. “[The police] were always getting calls in the middle of the night. There’s always something happening.”
During our walk, I imagine the countless brawls that likely unfolded within its sometimes cramped passageways, obscured from public view or on full display. The violence of the Yakuza games tends to be over-the-top, with players comically swinging large, unwieldy objects, from trashcans to bicycles, to smash attackers. Adelstein has only a cursory knowledge of the franchise (he enjoys them for the sight-seeing aspect more than anything), but he claims to have witnessed several confrontations that would fit right at home in its universe. For example, he says he’s seen a gang member use a bicycle as a weapon. We eventually reach the batting center, a staple destination in the games for players looking to unwind with a goofy activity between missions. Adelstein recalls stumbling upon a yakuza member in a confrontation with a rival on the very corner we stand. Jake is unclear about what they were arguing over, but the exchange escalated to the point where the yakuza grabbed a bat and used his target’s head for batting practice. Adelstein vividly describes the sound of this impact as “like someone dropping a watermelon.”
As scary as that sounds, touring Kabukichō today isn’t quite as dicey as it perhaps was 15 years ago. Government clean-up efforts beginning in the early 2000s sought to reduce yakuza presence in the area and shut down morally questionable establishments, such as brothels and illegal clubs. An estimated 1,000 yakuza members occupied Kabukichō in 2004, but increased police patrols and the installment of surveillance cameras played a big part in pushing them into hiding. These cameras aren’t hidden. I spot several of them during our walk through the district. Law enforcement wants you to know you’re being watched, but it doesn’t stop there.
“In 2005, they revised the organized crime control laws again so that technically just walking together as a group could be a violation […] so you wouldnʼt see [yakuza] out in the wild,” Adelstine says.
We don’t go too far into the night without noticing a cop car or officers patrolling. We actively avoid them because even though we were doing nothing suspicious, as Jake quips, “Maybe theyʼll harass us just because theyʼre bored.”
Despite this pressure, the yakuza aren’t entirely gone from Kabukichō. Adelstein assures us some still linger; they’re just less obvious and nowhere near as numerous. In addition to taking us by an unassuming office building that remains an active yakuza headquarters, Jake invites us to have coffee at Parisienne. This cafe and the surrounding block were once well-known epicenters for yakuza chairmen meetings during what Jake calls “the old days.” Adelstein spent many days here eavesdropping on gang leaders or socializing with others who served as inside sources for his investigations. A kind elderly gentleman serves us, who Jake points out has been working at the cafe for decades, meaning his friendly eyes have witnessed all kinds of crooked dealings unfold in our very seats.
We lower the volume of our conversation; Jake informs us that casually uttering “yakuza” makes people nervous or suspicious, so we refer to them as “businessmen” during our visit. He also teaches us a bit of sign language, running his finger down his face to indicate a scar. Facial scars are telltale signs of a yakuza, as itʼs proof they survived a deadly fight (eventually, many members scarred themselves to appear tougher than they perhaps were), so performing this silent gesture lets people know what you’re talking about.
As we dine, Adelstein explains how the Japanese government’s decades-long crackdown on Kabukichō went hand in hand with the yakuza’s steady decline. In addition to the new laws, he believes many of their struggles have been self-inflicted due to greed. As he puts it, society tolerated the yakuza for so long because they once served a purpose. Many people hired their enforcers to settle civil disputes that traditional courts either dismissed, took ages to settle, or were too weak to enforce a ruling. Yakuza served as the people’s champions in some ways by more effectively solving citizens’ problems. While they were never above crimes such as extortion, blackmail, and bid rigging, they didn’t cross certain lines. That was until some factions became over-ambitious and aggressive, pulling taboo stunts like evicting people from their homes. Provocative acts like this earned more and more ire from the public and police until they eventually couldn’t be ignored; the hostile actions of a few groups spoiled it for the bunch. The persistent infighting between families means widespread cooperation on big jobs that could benefit all of them has become much harder to pull off.
Besides that, Adelstein claims that yakuza haven’t adapted to modern times. Japan’s increased surveillance society and modern crime-fighting techniques have crippled their ability to operate as effectively as they once had, and a decline in recruitment of younger members has left factions with an aging guard with outdated ideas of how to maintain influence and relevance.
“The average age of your member is 50 years old,” says Adelstein. “Iʼm 53, right? So that would make me like, you know, a senior. You can’t survive as a bunch of gangsters when your average age is 50, man. It’s not getting younger. Anybody who’s smart sees that there’s no future for these guys.”
After finishing our coffees and pastries, we hit the streets once again. It’s late in the evening, and Kabukichō has quieted, with only a handful of passersby making their way home or perhaps searching for an open hole in the wall for one last round. I get a last chance to soak in the area’s current state.
While criminal activity and illicit entertainment defined the Kabukichō of old, the area now primarily promotes selling affection. I probably saw more host clubs than any other business. While some can be relatively innocent (and I’m being generous), Jake warns that the sleaze remains and that visitors, especially women, and tourists, should be wary.
“Some are basically very fraudulent,” Adelstein explains. “Like, they would lure in girls at low prices, and then they keep jacking up the price. And sometimes they jack the price so high […] it’s like, ‘Well, if you can’t pay the bills that you owe,’ then they introduce the girl to a loan shark, which is connected to the host club, and then the host and the loan shark introduce them to a sex shop where they start working to pay off their debt. So, it’s kind of this sinister operation where they basically create indentured servants from their customers.”
We also spot a few pawn stores nearby, which have a symbiotic relationship with host clubs as patrons visit them to buy cheap gifts for their favorite hosts, who often turn around and pawn them right back. While a segment of Japanese youth once aspired to become yakuza, Jake says this has shifted to where perhaps just as many would rather become hosts and hostesses themselves. But the competition is fierce, and it may not even be worth it right now since the business, as a whole, has suffered due to the pandemic and the current weak economy, since patrons, mainly men, have less disposable income to throw at these establishments.
Marcus Stewart and “Tokyo Vice” author Jake Adelstein
Despite this, Kabukichō has other offerings that don’t involve paying people to pretend they’re attracted to you. Some love hotels have converted into traditional themed inns; we saw some promoting Hawaiian and Indonesian experiences. For those who enjoy drinking, Golden Gai’s tight alleyways, packed with numerous small, intimate bars, can be good for enjoying spirits in a quieter, authentic atmosphere (though some forbid foreigners). I was also surprised when we stumbled upon Hanazono Shrine, a famed 17th-century Shinto Shrine sticking out like a sore thumb amongst modern architecture. Toho Cinema, recognizable by the giant Godzilla statue head looming over it, lets you take in a flick and keep off the streets. Of course, every fan of the Yakuza games must hit the multi-story, 24-hour Don Quixote store.
The ongoing addition of these more innocent attractions and continued crackdown on gangster activity have helped slowly repair Kabukichō’s reputation. But its seedier elements shouldn’t be ignored. Despite clean-up efforts, Kabukichō ranked third on the Tokyo Police Department’s 2019 list of the city’s most dangerous districts based on crime data and had the highest number of violent crimes that year. Strolling the streets as a starry-eyed video game-loving tourist, I was easily swept up in the novelty of stepping into a real version of a world I recognized and enjoyed. A visit isn’t out of the question – Tokyo as a whole is one of the world’s safest cities – as long as you remember where you are and recognize the hidden scars of this former den of debauchery.
This article originally appeared in Issue 354 of Game Informer.