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Sunday, June 2, 2002

See you at Almond

Where Roppongi's boogie nights begin

Special to The Japan Times

Earlier this year, the Dentsu Research Institute predicted that Japan's co-hosting of the World Cup would benefit the economy to the tune of 3.182 trillion yen. While Tokyo isn't hosting any of the games, its glitzy Roppongi district will likely play host to thousands of soccer fans from around the world in search of excitement on other fields of play.

News photo
The sidewalk outside Almond cafe, near Roppongi Stations's Exit 3, is the area's favorite rendezvous point.

For them, and others, here's a taste of what awaits in Roppongi 2002.

In the long, hot summer of 2000, Roppongi was besieged by reporters and camera crews from all over Japan and the world. Back then, though it was already renowned as Tokyo's most cosmopolitan dusk-to-dawn adult playground, the area was propelled to international notoriety following the disappearance of a young British woman working illegally at one of its many nightclubs employing foreign hostesses.

For those who just stepped off a spaceship and missed that tragic tale, it was on July 1 that Lucie Blackman -- a 22-year-old former British Airways flight attendant -- called her roommate to say she was going to the beach with a customer and would soon return.

The next day, a man speaking accented English called the roommate and informed her, "This is the last time you are going to hear about Lucie. This is goodbye." He said she had joined a "newly risen religion" and "is doing fine." She was never heard from again.

Frantic public appeals by her family, British diplomatic pressure and the offer of a large monetary reward kept the search for Blackman constantly in the news. Even before Feb. 9 last year, when Blackman's dismembered remains were found in a seaside cave, Tokyo police had already detained a prime suspect: a reclusive 48-year-old property developer and playboy named Joji Obara, whose various residences yielded boxes of videos recording dozens of his sexual conquests -- many, allegedly, achieved by drugging his dates' drinks.

This sordid tale of foreigners and fetishes, drugs and decadence, money and murder, served to highlight Roppongi's oft-maligned reputation as never before. But despite that, and the lurid details presented at Obara's ongoing murder trial, there appears to have been little or no impact on the Roppongi status quo.

"Nothing has changed," sighs Bill Hersey, PR manager for Lexington Queen which, with its 22-year history, is one of the area's best-known and longest-established nightspots.

Hersey, who is also travel and society editor of the Tokyo Weekender, has been critical of the authorities' lackadaisical policies regarding what he sees as the growing problems of illegal sojourners, drugs and other nefarious activities. He voiced worries that things are on the verge of spinning out of control -- an opinion shared by several other longtime foreign residents who agreed that Roppongi has "gone downhill" and has now become a "scary" place.

Meeting of equals

Yet as could be seen by the crowds thronging its sidewalks on May 24 -- the most recent payday evening -- Roppongi is still an irresistible draw.

With Tokyo offering no lack of places where foreigners can intermingle with Japanese, what is it that sets Roppongi apart from the city's other watering spots?

One answer would have to be its status as a meeting ground between equals. Just as the Western-style beer halls in the late 19th century created venues for Japanese from different social and economic strata to intermingle, so Roppongi -- set in Minato Ward, where one in 10 residents is non-Japanese -- has somewhat leveled the playing field. And besides, the diplomats, corporate executives, foreign entertainers, backpacking tourists and U.S. Marines from Yokosuka -- the latter's identity revealed by their "sidewall" haircuts and bulging biceps -- put on a great show for their Japanese hosts.

News photo
A couple enjoys a snack during Roppongi's quiet midday hours.

Waiting on the sidewalk to greet visitors of all nationalities and persuasions, and direct them to the area's attractions are a small international army of well-attired touts: Africans, East Europeans and Australians; Peruvians and Israelis; Chinese and Filipinos.

And everywhere, chattering away on their mobile phones, are the kogyaru (a term originally applied specifically to high-school girls, but now generally used for any female minor). Mincing unsteadily on shoes designed to boost their height by an extra 10 cm, they can be easily distinguished from salaried workers by their short skirts, bangles, tinted hair and heavy makeup. For a Roppongi girl bent on an evening's fun, every day is Halloween.

Some historians believe the name Roppongi, which means "six trees," derives not from its arboreal paucity but from six samurai families whose estates dotted the area in feudal times, and whose family names each featured some sort of tree -- Aoki, Ichiryu, Katagiri, Kutsuki, Takagi and Uesugi, as the story goes.

From the Meiji Era (1868-1912), Roppongi became home to numerous military garrisons and these, following the end of World War II, were replaced by U.S. Occupation troops. The strip of tacky bars that sprang up along the main thoroughfare to serve them set the stage for the entertainment area of today.

The definitive work for anyone wishing to understand Roppongi's history is "Tokyo Underworld: The Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japan." Over 372 fascinating pages, American author Robert Whiting relates the life story of a former U.S. Marine from New York City named Nicholas Zappetti, who came to Japan at the start of the Occupation and hung around to deal on the black market and hobnob with local toughs. Zappetti put Roppongi on the map by opening Japan's first pizzeria.

"When [Zappetti] first opened his tiny eight-table bistro," writes Whiting, "Roppongi was little more than a military camp. By the end of the century, it stood in the same league as the Champs Elysees, the Via Veneto and other famous international playgrounds . . . and was a stunning example of the power of the yen, even with the long recession."

Tokyo's reputation as a nightless city, however, belies the fact that until the mid-1980s, Japan's capital offered little in the way of commercial activity after 1 a.m. As recently as '82, many years before Citibank finally introduced the first 24-hour ATMs, only three districts of Tokyo, including Roppongi and nearby Akasaka, featured any kind of round-the-clock action.

Instant new customers

Then in September 1985, the New York Plaza Accord set the stage for the yen's appreciation against the U.S. dollar, which, in turn, led to the boom period referred to as the "bubble economy." During this period of frenzied economic activity, investments being directed into overseas markets obliged growing numbers of "Japan Inc." staff at manufacturers, trading companies and financial institutions to work late into the night in order to communicate with their counterparts many time zones away.

This led growing numbers of companies to abandon the 9-to-5 shift in favor of flex-time -- in the process creating instant customers for the late-night market. Meanwhile, the burgeoning IT revolution was also creating more jobs for programmers and people in other technical fields, many of whom performed their work during the late night and early morning hours. It also put large amounts of money in the hands of young entrepreneurs who, unlike their staid forbearers, had few qualms about flaunting their wealth.

And fully heedful of the fact that approximately 40 percent of males in Tokyo between the ages of 30 and 34 are still bachelors, the area does not shy away from offering a full range of titillating services.

A widely traveled American named Frank (a pseudonym), who has frequented several Roppongi clubs featuring foreign hostesses, said he was struck by the fact that, with the exception of Southeast Asia or Latin America, prices for services were almost standardized around the world, and that Tokyo was no exception.

"You can get in for 6,000 yen or 7,000 yen or so, which buys you admission and two drinks" he said. "Drinks for the hostess run about 1,000 yen, and they hustle you for them, but not too aggressively. The girl they brought me at one place, from the Czech Republic, was really stunning, but there are a lot of other nationalities.

"What really runs up the tab is when they talk you into joining them in a private cubicle for a lap dance. These cost 7,500 yen for five minutes. You can touch the girl from the waist up, but sex is not permitted -- unless it involves two girls doing it to each other while you watch."

For those with even less orthodox preferences, Roppongi also boasts several S&M clubs, whose "queens," may be available, for a fee, to attend to customers in need of stern discipline. The rates run 10,000 yen or more an hour, with no limit on kinks, er sorry, drinks.

Frank was skeptical of unsubstantiated stories about bar customers being drugged and robbed of their money and passports, or of cases of skimming data off credit cards.

"There may be stories like that, but I wonder how true they are. At the rates they can charge you legally, why would they want to risk that kind of trouble?" he asked.

Steering clear of such trouble may be, strangely enough, thanks to in large part what the National Police Agency refers to as "designated criminal groups" -- specifically, four "families" that oversee the nocturnal action and, at least for now, make sure foreigners working there toe the line. In fact, one of Japan's largest crime syndicates, the Inagawa-kai, maintains its national headquarters in Roppongi 7-chome, only two blocks away from the main intersection, directly opposite the now-vacant grounds of what used to be the Defense Agency.

If Japan's economy can recover its momentum, Roppongi's sleazy underworld may someday become irrelevant. Already casting its shadow over the district is Roppongi Hills, a gleaming new development whose hulking 54-story, 238-meter tower dominates the district like a concrete-and-glass Godzilla.

Touted by its developer Mori Building Co. as a "cultural center in midtown Tokyo," the 11-hectare complex, when completed next spring, will include residential apartments, offices, the 390-room Grand Hyatt Tokyo, TV Asahi's broadcasting center, a modern art museum and other cultural attractions.

In addition to Mori's humongous project, two more large tracts await the green light for similar ambitious developments. They are both a three-minute walk from the bustling Roppongi Crossing, where the long-established Almond cafe is one of the city's best-known rendezvous points. As these classy high-rise buildings and new cultural facilities rearrange Roppongi's skyline, the area will almost certainly encounter yet another turning point in its glitzy, ritzy history.

This begs the question of whether moneyed respectability will eventually chase the area's darker denizens off its streets for good.

"Oh I think they'll coexist, at least for the time being," says Robert Whiting. But considering Roppongi's unwavering devotion to hedonism, as a place with precious little innocence left to lose, perhaps such a view shouldn't surprise anyone.

In the end, one can only wonder whether all this cosmetic surgery will succeed in imparting a glamorous new image to Roppongi -- or merely rearrange its visage into some kind of grotesque, Picasso-like abstraction.

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