It was early morning. A drunk old woman puffed on a cigar and shouted at nobody. Men with straggly beards and beaten up clothes were curled up asleep on the pavement. One cuddled an empty bottle of shōchū. The adult cinema, the blowfish restaurants and the cheap clothes stores were yet to open. They might have closed for good. But the lanterns were already – or still – illuminated at the casual kushikatsu places, selling deep-fried things on skewers. Forlorn-faced maneki neko cats waved limply to customers who did not come. Lights pulsated on the facades of the pachinko parlours; the music inside was amped-up to festival volume.
Shinsekai, it says on the signs: New World. Half was modelled on Paris, half on Coney island. What could go wrong? It was meant to show the world how forward-looking Osaka was when it was laid out in the early twentieth century and everything Western was fashionable. There was even a version of the Eiffel Tower. They called it Tsūtenkaku: the tower reaching to heaven. An ‘aerial tramway’ connected it to a Luna Park. There were Billiken statues copied from the United States. They are supposed to bring good luck.
But the amusement park closed in 1925. Tsūtenkaku was torn down in the War, although another was built in the Fifties. The New World grew old. There was no longer anything fashionable about it. If it suggested Paris, it was the Paris of the shabby streets around the Gare du Nord. “The entire area is squashed with small, cheap eating houses,” says the Japan National Tourist Organisation with what is presumably meant as positive spin. Shinsekai became the seediest quarter of Osaka. It was – by reputation – the most dangerous place in Japan. That is all relative, though. If Shinsekai were in London or New York, wealthy professionals would happily live there, and walk home late at night.
Everyone has heard the stories about salarymen who were made redundant in the slump of the 1990’s but kept on dressing up in their suits every morning and taking an early train to jobs they no longer had. To admit to their families and friends that they were out of work would have been too great a loss of face. Some, instead, moved to Shinsekai, where they could live in penurious anonymity. The rough sleepers with the straggly beards might well be the ambitious middle managers of twenty years ago.
It is, indeed, a New World.
© Richard Senior