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Farewell, Mama Tokyo

Is the Japanese capital losing its edge?

 

In Asakusa, on a nameless side street, next to a Buddhist temple, behind loose plastic flaps and a light wooden door, you will find the Taishōkan, a restaurant that is more of a gateway than an attraction in its own right. “You’re here for the show?” asks one of the waitresses. She is short and slender, with slightly discolored dyed hair, wearing a mask that only partially conceals a network of wrinkles; she must be at least 80. “I’ll bring you something to eat right away. Mama should arrive shortly.” Sitting in the stale air, which smells of dogs and smoke, we wait for Mama, the Queen Mother of Tokyo’s strip clubs. Our final destination today is her stomping ground, the Rock-za, one of only seven strip clubs left in the city.

Mama — née Chieko Saitō, 89 years old — moved here in the 60s with her two sons, when she was 35, and soon began her striptease career. Ten years later, she started investing in real estate and managed to buy the the Rock-za. Though she recently signed it over to her grandson, she still treats the place like her home. Her apartment is upstairs, she reportedly hasn’t left the premises for decades, and everyone whispers her nickname with respect and adoration. Mama has become a symbol of a more permissive past, wiped out by economic transformations, laws that favored decorum, and the advent of mass tourism.

Before the war, Asakusa was the capital’s most popular entertainment district thanks to cabarets, theatres, cinemas and strip clubs like the Rock-za. Today, the area is best known for the kiosks that dot the road leading to Kaminarimon (the ‘Thunder Gate’) — the entrance to the imposing Senso-ji temple — for its renovated restaurants and corner stores, and for its views of the hyper-modern Skytree, the gigantic broadcasting tower planted on the other side of the Sumida river.

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Faded photographs adorn one of the restaurant’s walls, showing Mama alongside celebrities and members of her family. The portraits with actor, director, comedian and artist Takeshi Kitano stand out particularly. At her grandson’s wedding in 1999, Mama asked Kitano to adapt the 1970s TV series, Zatōichi, which had starred Shintarō Katsu with whom she once had a close relationship. Before his break, she had helped Katsu and his actor brother, hosting them in one of her Asakusa houses and lending them money (though rumor has it that her relationship with Katsu went further). Initially reluctant, Kitano eventually gave in to her request. Like Mama, Kitano had also begun his career right here, opening the shows at the France-za, another famous striptease club. “I’ll take you to Europe,” Kitano promised her, and indeed, the film would go on to win a Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

While we wait, Chocolat, a brown Chihuahua, jumps onto my chair. He has stopped barking and stares at me through bulging eyes. There is a large goldfish tank and, above it, a flat-screen TV retransmitting a baseball match. Two older men sit with a younger client looking up at the screen. They discuss the players and their tactics, while smoking and drinking cold tea. The cook, a jovial, toothless woman in her sixties, leans out of the kitchen to greet us. The Taishōkan serves ramen and soba 24/7. Mama opened it 40 years ago, for the customers and dancers of the Rock-za, who, until the 90s, used to work well into the morning. Nowadays the last performance starts at 9pm and the theatre shuts by 11pm, but the restaurant remains open for aficionados and the neighbourhood’s night owls.

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Mama makes her entrance in a wheelchair, pushed by one of her employees, just in time to tell me to hurry up. “My girls have put together a fabulous show,” she tells me, as we rush to the theatre. Aside from the flower wreaths and the posters showing today’s dancers, it looks exactly like an old-school cinema. An elderly man, wearing a mustache and an old-fashioned bow, sits at the cash register. There’s a foyer with a bar and three vending machines; one for spirits, one for soft drinks, and another for cigarettes. Folding seats are lined up in front of the stage, from which a catwalk juts out, leading to a rotating platform. This is where the star-dancer will perform her solo.

The Rock-za is quite different from your classic American strip club. The show alternates between group performances (inspired by movies, musicals and manga) and solo stripteases performed by veteran dancers. Here, like in most spheres of Japanese society, organization is strictly hierarchical. The solos are a privileged moment for the public to establish a connection with the dancer. It’s not rare for a spectator to get up from his red seat, walk towards the stripper with a nervous smile and offer her a bouquet before getting back to his seat, next to other suit-wearing men, some of them sporting the distinctive briefcase of the salaryman. The soloist, on her platform, accepts the flowers and kindly returns the smile. The gift, for the pleasure of the donor, then becomes part of the choreography, though things never get indecent or perverse.

In a country that produces industrial amounts of porn, the Rock-za seems like an oasis of subtlety. The show even draws a few women and young couples to join the crowd of middle-aged regular. This establishment stands out among a desert of urban regeneration, luxury hotels and bars for tourists — a dark and smoky slice of genuine life. But like an oasis, the Rock-za is threatened by the advance of the surrounding desert.

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In Asakusa, one of Tokyo’s historic centers,  the legacy of the late Edo (the name of Tokyo, before the 1868 Meiji Restoration made it ‘capital of the Orient’) is still palpable. Before the war, the neighborhood was the capital’s most popular entertainment district, with cabarets, theatres, cinemas and strip clubs. All this was damaged substantially by American bombs during the war’s final act. The boom of the 1960s brought grey highrises. The 1964 Olympics provided another turning point, making new neighborhoods like Shinjuku and Shibuya the epicentee of the capital’s nightlife — drawing away Tokyo’s youth. Cinemas started disappearing too, replaced by mall and hotels. Only a few theatres remained, along with a handful of cabarets, and the Rock-za.

The biggest blow to the neighborhood came in 1984, with the passing of the so-called fuheihō law on public decorum, which set the closing time at midnight for adult establishment. That burst the bubble. “Before that, money was flowing,” customers tell us almost nostalgically. Everything is different now — people go out less, spend less, and most of all they don’t feel like being out all night. “They’re all worried about the shuden, the last train,” I am told.

With the 2020 Olympics looming, Asakusa’s story — a traditional area defaced by speculation and redevelopment — may serve as a precursor for the rest of the city. Tokyo risks losing the vitality and energy that characterized it, the atmosphere that the japanese call Shōwa no nioi, “the scent of Shōwa.” A recent article in the english language paper The Japan Times warned of  a “drift towards anonymity” in many of Tokyo’s neighborhoods, which used to be lively transitory spaces made up of small shops, restaurants, cafés and bars.

In Chiyoda, between Tokyo’s central station and Yurakucho station, it is hard to keep track of all the new skyscrapers popping up. Civic and governmental authorities prefer not to discuss the social questions raised by these new developments, and instead have found excuses to speed them up. The Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011 served as such. In Musashi-Koyoma — or the Shinagawa district near Yokohama, famous for their narrow alleyways, shōtengai, small eateries and nightclubs — owners are being encouraged to close up shop in the name of “disaster prevention policies.”

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Tokyo is going through a painful transition, which risks burying its peculiarities under a generic vision of the future. As Manjo Shimahara – head of the Home’s Research Institute, a think tank which has been following the revitalization projects launched in the capital — remarked in the The Japan Times, “The regenerated neighborhoods might be newer and cleaner, but are they interesting?”

Director Kenji Murakami took this opportunity to document what remains of Japan’s old popular culture, choosing the love-hotel as his starting point. The rabu-ho, as it is called in Japanese, is a pay-by-the-hour hotel. Rabu-hos started spreading during the post-war economic boom, with overpopulation in the cities creating privacy issues, leaving couples with no place to be intimate. These spaces were characterized by private bathrooms, desirable in a country where bathing has been a group experience for centuries. Some owners’ customized their love hotels to attract niche clients, with themes ranging from the traditional Zen garden to a satellite launching pad or a Formula 1 circuit.

Curiosity and nostalgia for that period encouraged Murakami to travel across the whole Japanese archipelago to document the most unusual rabu-hos. It’s a race against time: many of the buildings that used to be Shōwa-era love hotels have been demolished or closed. “Once in a-while the hotels are restored and whatever there was before disappears,” Murakami explained in a TBS special about Tokyo. “Today’s love hotels have all become similar, simpler.” In an effort to preserve this vanishing history, he decided to collect images, sounds — like the sound of rotating beds — and interviews with hoteliers, compiled on a double DVD titled “Love Hotel Collection” and in a namesake book published in 2012.

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One of the most bizarre and unique Showa love-hotels can be found in Osaka. Stuck in a little road near Kyobashi station, an area popular for its agekushi restaurants (they serve breaded and fried meat skewers, typical of the “capital of occidental Japan”), izakaya ( informal bars and eateries), hostess clubs and by-the-hour hotels, the Fuki’s exterior looks like a generic hotel. But inside it is quite different. The entrance floor is covered in red carpets with blue and gold floral decorations. The walls are plastered with white and beige wallpaper. Elaborate chandeliers hang from the ceiling, at the center of which a square skylight looms, decorated by an elegant paulownia leaf.

“Rest or stay?” asks the receptionist. I can only see her mouth, as she sits behind a series of black and white screens, which broadcast the images from the close circuit cameras pointed to the entrance of every room. (The rooms can be opened and closed from her front desk.) In Fuki, like in all the other love-hotels, you can rent the room by the hour or for one or a few nights. Due to the eccentricity of the hotel, however, the owner allows single visitors to stay as well.

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The next morning, I bump into the receptionist as she leaves at the end of her shift. She is an old woman in her seventies. I ask to see the most representative rooms in the establishment. She takes me to the “boat,” a large room with a bed on a prow-like structure at its center, and then another large room that contains a rock garden like a buddhist temple. “These are rooms for important clients,” she says. “Business owners and the like. Once in a-while they stop by, still today.”

Before I can ask her more questions, she suddenly bids me farewell. “Come back to visit us,” she says, proceeding swiftly to the exit. I see her again outside, from behind, until she disappears into a sea of people, narrow streets, electricity cables, and neon signs now switched off.

Photographs by the author and translation by Justine Dorion.

This article was written in collaboration with China Files.