Tokyo today: How history shaped Roppongi

Tokyo today: How history shaped Roppongi

The U.S. military, an Italian restaurant and a boom-and-bust economy kick-started Tokyo’s controversial nightlife district
Dawn view of Tokyo from the 270m-high open-air Sky Deck of Roppongi Hills.
Dawn view of Tokyo from the 270m-high open-air Sky Deck of Roppongi Hills.

Roppongi is one of the strangest places in central Tokyo -- contradictory, entertaining, crime-ridden, loved and loathed in more or less equal measure. The story of how it became such a curate’s egg of a district is intimately tied to Japan’s postwar history.

For Japan, the end of World War II ushered in a new era in which old hierarchical structures and extreme nationalism were to be replaced with a more modern, and in many ways more liberal, view of the world.

The occupying U.S. forces and overseas bureaucrats located themselves in Roppongi. The area, close to the Emperor’s palace and the Diet, made it ideal for the occupiers and created the circumstances needed for Roppongi to become Japan’s premier entertainment district.

But it would take more than foreigners simply living and working in the Roppongi area to put it on the path it has remained on ever since. Enter Nick Zappetti, an Italian-American from New York.

Tokyo's first pizza

In 1954, two years after the end of the occupation, Zappetti opened Nicola’s, the first restaurant in Tokyo to serve American-style pizza. Though it may be hard, many claim it was an event that was to change Roppongi forever.

Zappetti “left his own unique legacy: Roppongi,” argues Robert Whiting in Tokyo Underworld, a book documenting the adventures of Zappetti, the nightlife of Japan and the more shadowy aspects of the nation’s postwar history.

“When he first opened his tiny eight-table bistro, Roppongi was little more than a military camp,” Whiting writes.

“[But] his restaurant became such a lodestone for Tokyo night owls that it caused the creation of other night spots in the area.”

These were soon to be joined by Tokyo Tower and the Asahi television building, cementing the area’s position as a fashionable district for Tokyo’s nocturnal crowd.

Wonder years

Roppongi Hills continues to draw crowds to its sleek, modern interior.Roppongi Hills continues to draw crowds to its oh-so-modern interior.As the years went on, and Tokyo experienced the heady heights of a bubble economy, the city was to become home to numerous smaller bars, such as the legendary Georges, which attracted crowds looking for a drink and good music.

Places to dance, such as the Lexington Queen, ensured a celebrity crowd that attracted onlookers, entourages and partygoers, as well as harder drinkers.

By the time the 1980s bubble burst, Roppongi was cemented in local imagination as a center for debauchery, perhaps only rivaled by Shinjuku’s notorious Kabukicho district.

And like any center of this sort, the place also gained a reputation for crime that has lasted to this day.

The 1990s saw numerous bankruptcies and rapid change, as businesses were swapped out, disappeared, were renamed or closed down, and the foundations for the Roppongi of today were laid.

Building anew

The last decade has seen the rise of numerous building projects, notably Roppongi Hills, Tokyo Midtown and Izumi Tower, which brought in a different class of customer.

While the area had long been a favorite hangout for military personnel, a new army of foreigners came to town: the alpha-male-dominated bankers working in new offices in the area.

Attempts to clean up the district as it strived for classiness, however, have remained fruitless.

The strip bars and hostess clubs that were to draw international attention after the death of the British former flight attendant Lucie Blackman in 2000 are still going strong. Nigerian hustlers still heckle from doorways, looking for customers for their bars. And the place has a reputation for meat markets, drug dens and danger.

At the end of the day

Cherry blossoms in full bloom in the heart of Roppongi.Cherry blossoms in full bloom in the heart of Roppongi.

When all is said and done, however, Roppongi remains a fun place to go if you visit the right places, and don’t let your guard down too much.

Journalist and author Jake Adelstein had no choice -- while searching for leads on the Blackman murder, he had to visit the area most nights. In his book Tokyo Vice, he describes the effect Roppongi had on him:

“After a few weeks... the appeal faded. You notice the lines under the women’s eyes, you get to know their backgrounds, you see the bruises on their arms. You can see the Japanese discussing the women like so many cattle.

“If you’re approachable, which I am, the girls will begin to tell you how the system really works. They’re not enjoying themselves and many of the girls working there see you as an enemy to be crushed, a con to be milked. Not fun anymore.”

But the last, level-headed, word goes to Nick Clarke, a Tokyo resident who DJs under the name Groove Patrol. He correctly sees the risks of Roppongi as exaggerated for sensible punters, particularly when compared to other parts of the world.

Clarke says: “It’s no different than any other major city, except for one thing -- you typically won’t get the shit kicked out of you elsewhere for no reason. That’s something which happens everywhere else if you walk down the wrong street or at night.”