4/3/19

&: Japanese walls (a wall in Nihonzutsumi)



Up until a couple hundred years ago, this area was a backswamp, a slimy wetland routinely flooded by the Iruma and then Sumida. The name Nihonzutsumi 日本堤 (Japan dike?) might originally have been written as 二本堤, referring to the two dikes in the area, one running between Asakusa 浅草 and Minowa 三ノ輪 and then another from Sanya 山谷 to Shodencho 聖天町. What is now the district of Nihonzutsumi within the ward of Taito was formerly way out on the edge of the city and known as a place that outcastes and other people relegated to the filthiest municipal chores, such as hauling night soil and tanning leather. It was not a safe place to live because it was prone to flooding. Eventually, the red light district of Yoshiwara 吉原 relocated from the center of town, and the entertainment district of Asakusa began to grow a bit further south, but Nihonzutsumi became the center of Sanya, a neighborhood whose name has been scrubbed from maps because of its association with outcastes and later the yoseba 寄せ場, an informal labor market, the doyagai ドヤ街, the collection of flophouses and shortstay rentals for workers, and the criminal organizations, dominated by the Kanamachi Ikka 金町一家, that were based in the neighborhood to act as labor brokers and skullcrackers while also doing side business in extorting workers, prostitution, gambling and loansharking.

The name was scrubbed, the string of building booms that brought workers to the city was snipped by the Japanese asset price bubble. The workers had brought life to the neighborhood and that life was drained out when most of those workers moved on, heading back up north or moving on to Yokohama or Osaka. Nihonzutsumi was still home to older workers that had nowhere else to go, living off benefits in the cheap lodging of the doyagai or sleeping rough in Tamahime Park, but the stigma the neighborhood carried meant that nobody was scrambling to snap up cheap property in Sanya. That's changed as the economy has recovered and the rest of the country begins to empty into Tokyo. Outsiders that don't know the history or don't care about the history are happy to live in a quiet neighborhood with fairly low rents and proximity to transit—that's why I moved there.

When I first moved into the neighborhood in early 2016, Nihonzutsumi was dominated by a long shopping arcade called Irohakai いろは会商店街. I remember walking through when I first arrived and noting its uniqueness in Tokyo, where the streetlife is fairly sedate. The roof of Irohakai offered shelter to the working men that still called the neighborhood home, and they'd sit under its shelter and pass around a bottle on a rainy day, take a snooze in the shadows when it got hot. There were a few cheap bars and restaurants along Irohakai that still catered mainly to those men. But the roof of the shopping arcade came down, the arcade's organizing committee disbanded, and people began selling their properties to developers. In just a few years, Nihonzutsumi has been transformed.

The walls around Nihonzutsumi are an expression of the neighborhood's disorderliness and decay (this is relative to the rest of the city, of course). It's one of the few places to see xiaoguanggao 小广告 like you see in China, stenciled torii discouraging public urination, advertising work or short-term rentals, and, instead of just the usual wall decoration of campaign posters, approved and unapproved graffiti by ESOW and affiliated street artists. There was a short-lived scheme to have the shuttered stores on the arcade painted, but they've mostly faded. The wheatpaste art just off Irohakai, looking back at older pictures, was once a colorful piece that stretched across most of the wall. I have in my notes that it was done by an Italian artist but the only references to it online suggest it might have been done by Swoon, an American artist. The smaller white cutout to the left is definitely her work, and another wheatpaste cutout survives right around the corner on one of the Irohakai shutters (I believe it was a liquor store).

It seems like, maybe in another city, cheap rents around Nihonzutsumi should have brought another kind of gentrification, like.... sophisticated young people who would be followed by coffee shops and vintage stores and remodelers of dive bars? (I'm trying to draw this toward a closing point, so this is a parenthetical thought, so but why did that kind of gentrification not happen? Let me speculate. First reason and crucial, there's not much old housing stock over there. Developers would prefer to build crisp new highrises for people that do their shopping and dining out around distant commuter hubs. Second, the stigma attached to the neighborhood is mostly outdated, but supposedly—and this is just what I've heard—it does remain difficult to do business there for various reasons. Third, it's too far away from anything interesting?) So, I can almost imagine this wall becoming some kind of neighborhood Instagram trap, with the liquor store around the corner being converted into one of those Showa-themed pubs where twentysomethings drink Hoppy and eat canned food. But as it is, as I write this, not having walked by that particular wall in a couple months, it might already be gone, replaced by God knows what but probably an apartment block or maybe a drug store.