More Shinjuku Golden Gai
In yesterday’s post I promised to tell a little bit more about the history of Shinjuku’s famous Golden Gai (新宿ゴールデン街). On August the 15th 1945 a black market was opened on the firebombed fields east of Shinjuku train station. The organizers were a quick to take advantage of a the chaos of war and the lack of civil jurisdiction in the midst of the hand over from a wartime government to the incoming occupational forces of the Allied Countries under General McArthur. Food, clothes and goods were all heavily rationed by the government and the only way for some people to survive was to rely on these unregulated black markets. The market was located in the spot where the Zara main store in Shinjuku is these days, about 100 meters to the east of Shinjuku station. In 1949 the GHQ (the military occupational government) ordered all the black markets away from the major stations and the gangsters who ran the “Shinjuku Market” had to move a few hundred meters to the old town of Sankochou (三光町) that lay just to the east of the old Street Car Train line. The town had been almost completely destroyed in the firebombings a few years earlier and there was noone around to enforce building regulations, zoning laws or even to draw up proper streets. The black market quickly morphed into a series of stalls serving food and drink. One of the few remaining pre-war streets in this area is the tree lined alley that you could see in the first photo of yesterday’s post, it used to be where the train line ran.
The police and the military drew a red line on the maps around the areas where they would not tolerate black markets and so the area of what would become Golden Gai became known as a “red line area”. The market and food stalls changed into a red light district and brothels sprung up and prospered, not least because of the close proximity to the large U.S. Air Force barracks in what is now nearby Yoyogi Park. Still the area could not be regulated and people had taken it into their own hands to build rows of narrow houses. In 1958 police added a second line to their maps, a blue line within which prostitution would not be tolerated and so the nature of Golden Gai changed again, and the present day area was finally formed as a place of bars, drinking and loud music but absolutely no prostitution. The name Golden Gai was set in 1960.
Today there are two merchants associations in the Golden Gai. The North consists mainly of bars that are 2.5 meters times 2.5 meters. The south association consists mostly of even smaller bars that are no wider or longer than 1.7 meters! There is a long waiting list to be allowed to operate any of the bars here and every year between 5 and 10 bars close and new ones take their place. The oldest bars have been in the owner’s family for at least three generations! Legally Golden Gai is not quite a autonomous free town, but it is pretty close to being independent. Naturally, this legal limbo is not very popular with city officials and the last few years the Tokyo Mayor has been very outspoken in his dislike of the area. Right now there are not unfounded fears that the city government will order a crackdown on Golden Gai to coincide with the Tokyo Olympics 2020. Naturally it would be a massive loss to Tokyo and to the world if Golden Gai were to be abolished. I sincerely hope that no Tokyo politician will be so foolish as to destroy this fantastic piece of Tokyo living history.