Trying to Tame Tokyo’s adult playground
Once a U.S. serviceman’s haunt, the Roppongi district became a respectable business district, then fell back into disrepute. It’s now home to drugs, the yakuza, hostess bars, drink spiking and murder.
Through it all, Shimbo has fiercely gone to battle over Roppongi’s reputation. Now the 58-year-old merchants association leader is facing a new challenge: bar touts.
Popping up sometimes five or six to a block, the mostly young men from Nigeria and other African nations have a particularly un-Japanese way of doing business. In a country protective of its personal space, the hawkers sidle up to male foreigners, taking them in by the arm to suggest the charms of the scantily clad women waiting inside nearby hostess clubs.
Many take the bait of cheap drinks and casual sex — and wind up with a headache the next morning. Patrons have had their drinks spiked, then woozily regained consciousness hours later with no memory of the previous evening or knowledge of the thousands of dollars charged to their credit cards.
In an unprecedented move, the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo last year warned the 40,000 American citizens here to avoid Roppongi and its nearly 350 bars and clubs. Without citing numbers, officials pointed to a “significant increase” in drink-spiking incidents.
“The U.S. Embassy continues to receive reliable reports of U.S. citizens being drugged in Roppongi-area bars,” the warning read. “Assaults on Americans have also been reported in connection with drink-spiking.”
The July bulletin, which followed warnings by the British and Australian embassies, sent Shimbo into action. Within days, members of the Roppongi Commerce Shop Owners Assn. met with U.S. officials and pledged steps to correct the problem.
“I wish I could have told them there isn’t such a practice in Roppongi,” said Shimbo, the group’s vice chair. “But in reality, these things do go on here.”
Roppongi’s name translates into “six trees,” from the samurai families who lived here during feudal times. After World War II, the area was a popular haunt for U.S. servicemen, and visiting military men still sometimes abound here.
When the economy was good, foreign-born stockbrokers and stock traders wandered out of their offices in the upscale Roppongi towers to spend their money here, attracting a parade of young, single Japanese women.
But Roppongi can also show a reckless, bad-boy side. In 2004, four foreign businessmen died after snorting cocaine that police said Roppongi dealers had mixed with heroin.
The area has also been the turf of yakuza. For years, the Inagawa-kai, a major crime syndicate, has been based in Roppongi. In 2007, there was a mob hit in broad daylight nearby.
For years, Roppongi has also attracted countless foreign women lured by the prospect of making big money talking to customers in the area’s numerous gentlemen clubs. Lucie Blackman of Britain, a former flight attendant who worked in a Roppongi hostess bar, disappeared in 2000 and the remains of her dismembered body were found in 2001.
“The irony of Roppongi is that the rest of Japan feels so safe and suddenly you’re in this unknown territory,” said Clare Campbell, whose 2009 book, “Tokyo Hostess,” detailed Blackman’s death. “You can’t assume that every place in Japan is safe, because it isn’t.”
The bar touts began appearing a decade ago. Slowly, their tactics have gotten more brazen, merchants say.