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In Session: Managing Migration in Japan: Short-term Labour, Tourists, and International Students
4: Kabukicho Renaissance: Multiculturalism, Marginality, and Urban Renewal in Tokyo
Monday, March 22, 2021
12:30pm – 2:00pm EDT
Nathaniel M. Smith
University of Arizona, United States
As Tokyo readied itself to host the 2020 Summer Olympic Games, its most infamous postwar red-light district, Kabukicho, was surprisingly proactive in welcoming a growing number of international visitors. Boasting new large-scale hotels, capsule hotels created for salarymen now reinvented as low-cost options for tourists, and multi-language menus ubiquitous at local restaurants, enthusiastic efforts by officials, local entrepreneurs, and others saw a rebranded Kabukicho approach new heights. COVID-19 however, brought down a blunt economic hammer that led to the disappearance of tourists, stigmatization of nightlife-driven outbreak clusters, and the delay of the Olympics. Though the virus imperiled both life and livelihood, a diverse, dynamic, and dangerous Kabukicho is not a recent development. The nightlife-oriented area has long been the home of multiple communities marginalized in postwar Japan, including former colonial subjects cum ethnic minorities, new migrants, the political and artistic fringe, organized crime groups, and precarious workers in the sexual services industry. How might the interplay of multiple marginalities found in a neighborhood like Kabukicho demonstrate potentials and limitations for life in an increasingly diverse but struggling Japan? To analyze what this node of Tokyo’s megacity portends for social change in Japan, this paper will extend work in the anthropology, politics, and history of urban Japan to examine how ‘native and newcomer’ coexist in ‘neighborhood’ Kabukicho of the present moment, assess creative responses to the tumult of 2020, and consider how the neighborhood has navigated a host of local and global calamities in sometimes surprising ways.