All images © Watanabe Katsumi

Gangsters, prostitutes and debauchery in Tokyo’s Red Light District

Deep inside Tokyo, following what is officially known as the ‘entertainment area’ but unofficially referenced as the cities Red Light District, the underbelly of Kabukichō continues to build its debauched reputation.

The district’s name comes from late 1940s plans to build a kabuki theatre. However, while the theatre was never built, the name stuck to those locals around the area. The area was known as Tsunohazu and was a swamp, now, however, it’s living by its various nicknames and ‘Sleepless Town’ is one that is always mentioned.

In 2004, in a study made by a spokesperson of Metropolitan Tokyo, there are more than 1,000 members of organised crime in the area. These people are known locally as ‘yakuza members’. With around three thousand bars, nightclubs, love hotels, massage parlours, hostess clubs dominating the area, Kabukichō has earned a notorious reputation.

Today, police are regularly attempting to crack down on the growing crime. In the 60s and 70s, however, it was a different story. Watanabe Katsumi, an itinerant portrait photographer, made Kabukichō his playground in this era.

In 1973, the first volume of Watanabe Katsumi’s photographs was published in the form of his book ‘The Gangs of Kabukichō’ was published. This book was then reissued in 2006, following his death. A quiet, unassuming character, Katsumi had a fascinating ability to make his dangerous and intimidating subjects feel at ease in his presence.

Gangs of Kabukicho reproduces the 155 photographs taken in the 60s and 70s in the blue light district of Shinjuku, depicting the prostitutes, street people, Drag Queens, entertainers and gangsters that dominated the night.

Essentially, Watanabe made his living by selling the photographs back to his subjects. He would offer three prints for 200 yen. Here is a selection of those images:

(All images in this article have been sourced via Gangs of Kabukicho and American Suburb)

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