Robert Fulford's column about Shinjuku

(Globe and Mail, October 29, 1997)


In one of the underground public spaces in Shinjuku, the largest railroad station in the world, scores of people live in old shipping crates. They demonstrate that the Japanese economy has its failures, like all others, but they're also living proof of unexpected diversity and tolerance in Tokyo.

These people are homeless, and also ingenious. Having established themselves on fabulously expensive real estate, they do their best to live up to it. Many have decorated their boxes with wildly surrealistic murals. Several have brought in furniture, rescued from garbage (Japanese tend to discard rather than repair a broken table or chair). One squatter uses a nearly intact stuffed-leather armchair, and a floor-standing metal ashtray. Someone else has put up a pink plastic clothesline. One man sleeps under a handsome quilt.

There's another surprise in this corner of Shinjuku station. Beside a handsome florist's, and just outside an up-market department store, a peddler is selling used comic books for a dollar apiece. Another guy has wheeled in racks of cheap dresses, and he's doing serious business.

If suddenly transported to the concourse level of Place Ville Marie in Montreal or the T-D Centre in Toronto, the homeless and the peddlers would trigger severe consternation and a flurry of security guards. In Shinjuku they're just part of the scene. Japanese society is in some ways tightly controlled, but that's only part of the truth. Among the secrets of Tokyo--almost the only city in the modern world that has grown better while growing bigger--is a certain spontaneity. That's one reason I'm spending a couple of months here, to study urban life in a place where it's both amazingly efficient and astonishingly flamboyant.

The Shinjuku district combines the raffish and the sternly corporate in a way that may be possible only in Japan. Six railway lines and two subway lines carry some 4-million humans a day. They can walk directly into four connected department stores, go upstairs to reach the 15 or so skyscraper office buildings, or turn in another direction for entertainment. By all the rules, this should be urban hell--and no doubt unprepared visitors sometimes experience the oncoming commuters as a terrifying flash-flood of humanity. But Shinjuku is not hellish. It's often delightful. One reason is that no central authority guides its existence.

The city government of Tokyo designs satellite business centres and other large-scale planning exercises but zoning, as North Americans know it, does not exist in central Tokyo. The city government doesn't decree that stores go here and not there, or that this street must have only single-family dwellings. Everything goes everywhere. As a result, there are really no slums of the traditional western kind, and no exclusively rich districts. Stores are even more mixed. The best hairdresser in the district may be next door to the pinball parlour, and nobody considers that odd. Workers and owners often live close together, and even mingle. In a not-bad restaurant the other night, two hard-hat workers sat on one side of us, and on the other a family whose clothes spoke of considerable comfort, if not wealth.

Unplanned though they are, most of the districts in Tokyo all slightly resemble each other. The city grows like an organism, endlessly replicating itself according to genetically coded instructions, carried in the DNA of the citizen-entrepreneurs. Shinjuku, however, remains a special case. It began prospering when the 1923 earthquake destroyed much of the central business district. After 1945 it was the core of the black market, and many black-marketeers eventually turned into legitimate storekeepers.

Farther back, in the 19th century, it was the last local stop on the road to Kyoto, and the place where travellers sought urban entertainment before going on their way. It now displays, more than anywhere else, the Tokyo-style neon assertiveness that makes Times Square look like an afterthought. On any given evening, perhaps 100,000 people are enjoying the bars and restaurants. These establishments are arranged vertically--five or six are stacked on top of each other, with a sign at the building entrance listing their names and specialties. One landlord, no doubt the envy of his peers, achieved what may be a record: for a while he had 49 bars operating on the eight floors of one building.

Today, if you pick your way through the streets north and east of the station, you reach Kabukicho, the commercial-sex annex of Shinjuku. The name reflects long-ago cultural ambitions: a kabuki theatre was supposed to lift the tone but never got built. Instead, Kabukicho became Eros Central, where, at peep shows, strip bars, and audience-participation sex shows, the most outlandish sexual fantasies of affluent males are made flesh.

One section specializes in love hotels, which rent their rooms by the hour and decorate them in exotic styles, from Louis XIV to South Seas. Foreigners imagine they're used mainly for prostitution and adulterous office affairs, but Tokyo people claim that at any given moment a room is likely to be filled by two lovers who are unlucky enough to live in different and distant suburbs; or even by a married couple briefly escaping the children and in-laws who share their small apartments. Love will find a way, even married love, in Shinjuku.

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