Irohakai Shōtengai (いろは会商店街) is a covered shopping arcade that fills most of a 370 meter street at the center of the neighborhood formerly known as Sanya (山谷), though its official postal address is now Nihonzutsumi 1-chome in Taitō Ward. A business association was created in 1919 and businesses had been setting up on the street even before that, though it did not become a covered arcade until 1976. This was a suggestion I received from a reader in response to my walk of the nearby Joyful Minowa Shōtengai in 2012 as part of Volume 1 of The Tokyo Project. With Volume 2, I was deliberately looking for more counter examples to balance the exemplars of good transit-oriented development and public space I chose the first time. An arcade described as the most desolate and decrepit in all of Tokyo certainly fit the bill. Although I zeroed in on the arcade, I realized quickly after arriving and again in subsequent reading that it is difficult to put Irohakai into context without explaining a little about Sanya.
Historically, Sanya had been the domain of Edo’s outcasts, the eta (abundance of defilement/filth) and hinin (non-human), later subsumed under the label burakamin (euphemistically: hamlet people), which included those engaged in trades deemed impure by prevailing thought, including butchering, leather work and disposal of the dead (specifically criminals from the Kozukappara execution grounds in what is now Minami-Senju, Arakawa Ward). More recently, it became the community of the modern underclass: migrant day laborers who—as in cities across Japan—built much of Tokyo’s modern infrastructure after World War II and on through the economic boom of the 1980s. The name Sanya was so strongly associated with its historical stigma that it was officially removed from maps in 1966, splitting up the area among what is now Nihonzutsumi, Kiyokawa and Higashi-Asakusa, all Taitō Ward (some accounts include Minami-Senju and Hashiba, as well). The change in name did as little to improve the living conditions of its residents as one might expect. In Sanya, the workers were constant targets of exploitation by yakuza and right-wing extremists (often in tandem). Presently, they find their situations even more dire, as disappearing economic activity leaves them unable to afford the meager offerings of flophouses (themselves disappearing or upgrading as part of gentrification), leaving many homeless and frequently turning to alcohol abuse. This is a dense and difficult story, the preceding gloss amounting to the introductory paragraph of the encyclopedia volume needed to fully catalog and explain it.
While I’ve developed a rhythm in my approach to shōtengai photowalks, for this one I realized that I wasn’t really sure how to handle subjects like poverty and homelessness from either a visual or narrative standpoint. These photos have been finished for a few weeks, but I’ve been sitting on them as I sifted through others’ work looking for guidance and thought things over in my head. In this set, there ended up only being a handful of images for which I had concerns, but as I’d like to pull back more layers of Sanya and places like it going forward, it was important to begin as I meant to go. I think what I can do for now is to offer my images and relay my observations as documentation, keeping commentary to a minimum. While I had a couple of brief conversations with people I met in Irohakai, I’d like to have more interactions and digest more scholarship on the subject before I try to put all of the pieces together. The people who do their best to eke out an existence in a physical and social environment that offers them little comfort deserve at least that much.
The east entrance to the arcade is set back from Metropolitan Route 464, known colloquially as Kotsu-dōri (Bone Street), a reference to the Edo period practice of displaying the severed heads of criminals that had met their end at Kozukappara. The neighborhood kōban is on the left. There is a subtle but noticeable police presence patrolling the area.
I hadn’t even reached the entrance when the first handful of locals (seated behind the bicycles) took note and came out to see what I was up to. They had already had a few drinks, but fortunately for me they were both curious and friendly, far more warm and forward than most people you meet on the street in Tokyo. The leader did the questioning. Where are you from? I’m American, but I live in China. Best not to share that second part too loudly, huh? (With a wink) What are you looking for? I study shōtengai. Oh! You must be looking for ashita no jō! (gesturing wildly into the arcade). Ashita no jō! (squares off into a boxing stance and demonstrates a few uppercuts). Oh, ok! (I still didn’t get it, but thanked him anyway. They kept pointing in, so I figured the answer would eventually reveal itself.)
I hadn’t noticed the banner at the entrance as it was above my head, but it was hard to miss the portraits and other paraphernalia that line the arcade. Ashita no Joe (あしたのジョー) turns out to have been a widely popular series that began as a manga in 1968, subsequently developed as a long running broadcast anime and a few animated films spanning 1970 to 1981, and a live action film in 2011. In the story, Yabuki Jō (矢吹 丈), known as Joe (ジョー), runs away from his orphanage and attempts to survive in Tokyo’s slum. He becomes involved in illegal activities and fighting, does some time in prison, and eventually returns to the neighborhood and strives to become a better person (the Joe of Tomorrow) through the pursuit of professional boxing. The neighborhood is referred to as Doya Town (ドヤ街 Doya-gai), which is a general term used for flophouse districts. I haven’t read or watched the series myself, but I understand that parts of Sanya are incorporated into Doya Town
In the past several years, Irohakai Shōtengai has employed Ashita no Joe in an attempt at business revitalization, including a large annual festival first held in 2010.
The welcoming committee is satisfied to see that I’ve finally figured things out.
Turning to the state of the arcade itself—and with all the usual caveats about this just being one visit, possibly at a low activity time—you get the sense that while Joe may have come back to Irohakai, the hoped for economic activity seems not to have materialized. Some shops may only open at night, but many of these shutters were clearly closed for good.
Those shops that are open tend to keep a limited stock that includes cheap mens work clothing, instant food and practical necessities.
Joe and Rikiishi Tōru (力石 徹), his first big rival
Tange Danpei (丹下 段平), Joe’s trainer and spiritual guide
Old and rusted, but the clocks still keep accurate time.
One wonders to whom this very out-of-place vehicle belongs.
Shiraki Yōko (白木葉子), Joe’s love interest
Aoyama Tadashi (青山正)
There are handful of shops selling finer goods, such as this one with laquerware and tea sets. It’s not clear if this is a long-time tenant or a recent arrival in response to the influx of foreign tourists that end up in Sanya for its cheap accommodations.
Sachi (サチ), the head of the chibi-tachi (pipsqueaks) of Doya Town
Space heaters, mini refrigerators, thermoses, hotpots and shoes
Though official use of the name Sanya is long in the past, it appears all over the arcade. For the shops, it’s not hard to imagine that many of the signs have literally been there for 50 years or more. More interesting is that the name also appears on some of the banners from the Ashita no Joe festivals, printed only a few years ago.
Joe and his rivals
A few bloggers note the art of decay found everywhere in the arcade. I have a hard time making light of the squalor when considering that, come evening, this becomes a communal sleeping area.
An image of contrasts, new construction begins on one of the lots that abuts the arcade, as a man sleeps through the afternoon in front of it.
The small, vermillion torii at the base of the black wall is meant to discourage littering and urination.
The west end of the arcade is the only section that gives the impression of a fully functional business street. Most of the shops are open with displays in front and visible staff.
The shop on the right, with the red t-shirt, is one of several that sells Ashita no Joe paraphernalia in addition to their regular fare. The woman minding the shop was about my age. Though her knowledge of the manga and anime was hazy, she explained the general story and its connection to Sanya to the extent that she was able.
Joe’s friend Nishi Kanichi (西 寛一), who goes by the nickname Mammoth Nishi (マンモス西), Tange and Joe
This bakery sells Joe themed pastries that look like boxing gloves.
Tange, the chibi-tachi and other residents of Doya Town
A toystore that came right out of the Shōwa era
Booze in vending machines isn’t unusual in Japan, but it’s hard not to note that there is an awful lot of them in Irohakai, particular ones that stock some fairly strong stuff.
Sachi welcomes you at the west entrance—
—as Joe keeps watch from the edge of the road. While Ashita no Joe was an interesting and unexpected find, I think the important takeaway is to note that as rough as Irohakai looks, it is significant as one of the last fixed visible reminders of the legacy of Sanya. In Japan, the narrative that everyone is middle class, or at least that the status is attainable to anyone who wants to put in the effort, makes it difficult to have constructive conversations about how to help those mired in poverty. Some just choose to ignore it altogether. Though I don’t yet know enough about this particular place to offer thoughts on remedies, I think being here to see things with my own eyes was a good first step.
Leaving Irohakai and Sanya, we cross through Namidabashi (泪橋 Bridge of Tears), the intersection that memorializes the bridge where prisoners were permitted their last words with family members before being led to the execution grounds.
Pedestrian bridge connecting to Minami-Senju Station
The Shiori switchyard occupies what was the Kozukappara execution grounds. Even in death, the condemned remain behind bars.
This post is part of The Tokyo Project, Volume 2. Click here to go to the introduction and table of contents.