Due to the nature of JapanThis!, one of the benefits of doing a series on loop train lines that go around the old city is that chances are I’ve already written about most of these places. I can give a few details here, point out an old article if you want more details, and move on to the next topic.
However, I’m sad to say that I haven’t yet covered 大久保 Ōkubo or its more famous cousin 新大久保 Shin-Ōkubo. It’s been put on the “to do list” for 2016, so I’ll give it an in depth exposé worthy of the area later. We’ll get into all the history then. I promise. But for today, we’re just going scratch the surface of the area immediately surrounding 新大久保駅 Shin-Ōkubo Eki, literally “New Ōkubo Station.”
Like other Japanese place names such as 中野 Nakano and 新中野 Shin-Nakano or 大阪 Ōsaka and 新大阪 Shin-Ōsaka, this 新～ shin- means “new” and is generally affixed to the names of bus stops and train stations to differentiate it from the original station. Yes, there is an Ōkubo Station that opened in 1895 (Meiji 28), but Shin-Ōkubo Station opened in 1914 (Taishō 3), ergo “New Ōkubo Station.”
There’s no history in this article. History geeks will have to wait until the official Shin-Ōkubo article comes out. Well, that’s not totally true, but…. you’ll see what I mean if you read to the end. I also think some people are going to get pissed off about some things I’m going to say.
If I Get Off the Train at Ōkubo Station, What Can I Expect?
You can expect Korea Town.
Did I stutter? Yes, Korea Town. There are quite a few areas in Tōkyō that could be considered Korea Towns, but the largest, most famous, and most deeply entrenched Korea Town is without a doubt Shin-Ōkubo.
But I Thought Korea and Japan Hated Each Other…
I dunno, maybe their governments and some nationalistic fucksticks do, but open-minded and internationally-minded people in both countries generally feel a cultural bond[ii]. In fact, Korean food is extremely popular in Japan and Japanese food is extremely popular in Korea. But, while there are plenty of excellent Korean restaurants in Tōkyō, ground zero for all things Korean is Shin-Ōkubo[iii].
Where’d All These Korean Folks Come From?
When the Japanese Empire occupied 朝鮮 Chōsen Joseon (what is now modern South Korea and North Korea[iv]), many Koreans emigrated by force or by choice to Japan. However, after Tōkyō’s destruction by American firebombing raids at the end of WWII, many ethnic Korean families chose to stay and helped rebuild this section of Tōkyō and planted firm roots in the area. The result was a peculiarly Korean neighborhood that maintained a strong ethnic identity and generally manifested as a cluster of Korean restaurants, Korean speaking Japanese residents, Korean schools[v], and an access point to Korean media in the form of music, TV, and film.
When I first came to Japan in 2003, this was kind of a quiet area famous for Korean food – 삼겹살 samgyeopsal Korean BBQ, in particular[vi]. A few years later, there was a boom in Korean soft culture. Korean dramas, movies, and eventually pop music got huge in Japan. Restaurants got television spots and then Shin-Ōkubo became the place to go. For a time, it seemed like every other week, 草彅剛 Kusanagi Tsuyoshi, arguably one the most irritating members of the irritating boy band, SMAP, was on TV visiting restaurants in Shin-Ōkubo and giving his opinions about them. His Korean is apparently impeccable – he’s even interviewed a South Korean president – and every restaurant he gave a thumbs up to became an instant hot spot. The once sleepy Korea Town became one of the hottest spots for Tōkyōites who wanted to get as close as they could to Korea while they saved up to buy airplane tickets for the 2 hour flight to go to Real Korea. Restaurants that once had people on the street trying to drag in customers, now had 1-2 hour waiting lists and no reservation policies[vii]. The average Japanese person on the street, especially the average middle aged woman, was in love with Korea. Never mind what the asshole politicians were saying, the average person was enamored with Korea. Korean language schools were booming. Korean models, idols, and even history became a big thing here.
Trends are trends. Bubbles are bubbles. And politics, nationalism, and buffoonery run rampant all over this fine planet of ours. Korea was all the rage in Japan. That is until it wasn’t.
More precisely, until conservative agitators in Korea started playing the victim card and pointed at a contested territory – more like a quickly eroding cluster of rocks in the ocean, actually – bringing up an old claim that these “islands” were Korean and Japan was trying to hold on to its empire by claiming these “islands.”[viii] And I can’t blame Korea only. As soon as Korea started bitching, the conservatives in Japan’s government also started bitching.
I’m keeping this territory dispute minimal because it’s super fucking boring. However, these grumblings happened around the same time China was grumbling about another cluster of contested rocks in the ocean[ix]. Both of these issues came up a lot in the mainstream Japanese news and the whole China/Korea/Japan bickering about shit that happened before most people born in Asia ever lived reached fever pitch. China sucks at exporting soft culture because, well, it’s China and it’s better at forging and plagiarizing than innovation. Korea, on the other hand, has a total cottage industry – learned from Japan – centered on pop culture, music, and visual media. In short, Japanese people aren’t interested in Chinese soft culture, but they couldn’t get enough Korean soft culture. This meant that when the territorial disputes flared up again, many people in Japan felt betrayed by Korea or became disinvested in Korean pop culture. Up to this point, many people had looked the other way while anti-Japanese conservatives from Korea were pushing to change the name of the Sea of Japan to the East Sea[x]. But that’s just one example.
It’s debatable, but I’d argue that the tipping point came when a certain South Korean soccer player named 박종우 Park Jong-woo got cocky during the 2012 Olympics and made a political statement violating Olympic rules by holding up a banner that basically said “The Liancourt Islands are Korean.” Park’s actions didn’t cause the Korea Town Boom to come crashing down, but it happened at a time when the political climate among Japan, Korea, and China were spiraling down, down, down. The Korean soft culture bubble had probably already burst, but this soccer player’s irresponsible behavior on a truly international stage and in direct conflict with the Olympics’ message of global peace and fair competition wasn’t lost on Japanese consumers. Consumers voted with their wallets.
At the peak of the boom, K-Pop idols were releasing Korean and Japanese language editions. Korean performers weren’t just touring Japan regularly; they were participating in K-Pop festivals that brought all of the top Korean groups together in elaborate showcases. These days, only a handful of groups produce Japanese language editions – there isn’t any demand for them anymore. Korean TV dramas, originally fodder for lonely Japanese housewives and spinsters but later the preferred genre for females of all ages, have once again become a niche style associated with lonely women in their 30’s-40’s.
Thanks for all the racism, but what does this have to do with Shin-Ōkubo?
Right, so let’s reframe everything I’ve told you because I don’t want people to finish reading this article and think, “Goddammit, Asia is fucking racist as fuck[xi].” I also don’t want you to think that Japan and Korea (and China, for that matter) are sworn enemies with fickle and petty feelings about each other[xii]. Governments are to blame. Media is to blame. And yeah, some individuals are to blame. The thing that I want to point out is that, Japan fully embraced Korean pop culture to such an extent that Korean record labels and production companies were customizing and localizing everything with Japan as a priority. Some K-Pop idol groups like 2NE1, were being promoted by Korean media as the next big global music phenomenon. Korea was huuuuuuuge for a few years, not only in Japan – but Japan was a portal from which K soft culture spilled over to the west like a metaphorical retweet. And in those years, getting into a good restaurant in Shin-Ōkubo on a weekend was a struggle.
I like some K-Pop, but I can get that stuff online. I also love Korean food, but that’s something I can’t download. When the bubble burst, Korea Town became accessible again. Shin-Ōkubo started to become cool again – old school cool. I wouldn’t have recommended this neighborhood 5 years ago, but I think it’s safe for me to say it’s worth checking out again these days.
[i] Actually, by 2020, there will be 30 stations. I’ll create a place marker article so we can discuss that when it happens.
[ii] Any animosity between the 2 countries tends to do with history as Japan took Korea and made it part of the 大日本帝国 Dai-Nippon Teikoku Empire of Japan. Easy to see why Korea may have some animosity.
[iii] But here’s a little secret for those of you who actually read the footnotes. The Embassy of South Korea is located in Minami Azabu and there is a small Korean supermarket and restaurant there that is famous for being authentic to the point of being boring to Koreans because it’s so authentic. Haven’t tried myself, but I’ve seen it and, yeah, it looks legit.
[iv] In Japanese, North Korea is called 北朝鮮 Kita Chōsen North Joseon using the old name, while South Korea is called 韓国 Kankoku, these reflect the names each modern country uses for itself. Neither country thinks of itself as “North Korea” or “South Korea” – rather they are just the real Korea and the other is a poseur. North Korea uses the old name (which Japan also uses), 조선 Chosŏn (Chōsen in Japanese, Romanized as Joseon). South Korea uses 한국 Hanguk (Kankoku in Japanese, Romanized the same way).
[v] Including some with North Korean leanings.
[vi] Samgyeopsal is essentially 焼肉 yaki niku grilled meat, but Korean style. There’s some debate about whether samgyeopsal and yaki niku are the same thing. Personally, I don’t care. They’re both yummy and the Japanese version is clearly influenced by the Korean style, but it’s definitely not dependent on it.
[vii] Unless you booked a month or more in advance!
[viii] These useless, crappy sea rocks are called the Liancourt Rocks in English, 竹島 Takeshima Bamboo Islands in Japanese, and 독도 Dokdo Isolated Islands in Korean. In case I haven’t be clear enough, let me reiterate these are just a bunch of stupid rocks.
[ix] These being another cluster of stupid rocks claimed by not only Japan and China, but also Taiwan. Taiwan itself being claimed by China while claiming itself as independent. The islands are called the 尖閣諸島 Senkaku Shotō Senkaku Islands in Japanese, 钓鱼岛及其附属岛屿 Diàoyúdǎo jí qí fùshǔ dǎoyǔ in China, and 釣魚台列嶼 Diàoyútái liè yǔ in Taiwan. They have an English name, the Pinnacle Islands, but most English maps label them with the Japanese name, the Senkaku Islands.
[x] Essentially, a move to theoretically emasculate Japan in Asia. The logic is that Japan is an island east of the Asian continent and not part of Asia. Admittedly, some conservative Japanese don’t consider Japan part of Asia (and those people tend to use “Asia” as a derogative term). But let’s be honest, Korean Konservatives just wants to re-define the water between Korea and Japan as the East Sea to emphasize East of Asia = East of Korea and China and 100% not Japan.
[xi] Sure, there are some racists in Asia. There are racists everywhere, unfortunately. Asia isn’t unique in this sense.
[xii] This argument could be made lol. But I think it’s too simple.