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Blinded by the Night opens in a bar* in Roppongi. This scene was inspired by a now defunct bar which was, in its day, one of the best and most popular bars in Roppongi. Practically every night was party night. Most of the male clientele were Westerners while the females were predominantly Japanese with a preference for western men.
Bar in Roppongi

Most people probably think that the scene that greeted Toyoda as he entered the bar from the street—a bare backside—is something inverted by the author. In fact it is the kind of thing that frequently happened, especially on Fridays. A group of brokers gathered there every Friday to let off steam and one of them invariably dropped his pants every week.

That the bar no longer exists is indeed regrettable, but while it was in business it was definitely a fun place to drink in. It had a great staff, friendly and very efficient, and they kept the drinks flowing as long as people were still standing and able to enjoy the party spirit.

The only negative aspect about the bar was the fact that there was only one toilet — problematic with the amount of liquid consumed on the premises — which often called for creative solutions to the call of nature. It was not unknown for some of the clientele, usually foreign men, to relieve themselves over the balcony at the back of the bar. This occasionally caused offense to some of the more vociferous denizens of Roppongi, especially when they were the recipients of an unwelcome shower.

* The name of the bar has been changed in accordance with wishes of the original owner of the bar.

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Although he seldom took the subway, Toyoda didn’t mind the Hibiya-line. It was more gritty and down-to-earth than some of the pretentious newer lines, and it meandered through the center of the city, through some of the older and more traditional areas that he liked very much. Moreover, it was a gallery of characters. A thirty-minute ride on the aging train was a journey back in time.

He glanced at the man sitting opposite and he lightened up. He practically smiled at the man, but that would have been a wasted gesture.

Dressed in an expensive suit and an elegant Italian necktie, the man had the face and the posture of a coolie. He was slumped in his seat with his legs spread wide and his chin on his chest. His mouth was wide open and spittle drooled from his protruding bottom lip. And every now and then he groaned. If he had been dressed in a loincloth and had his hair in a topknot, Toyoda thought, the man would not have been out of place in a mid-nineteenth century daguerreotype scene of the Yokohama docks.

Toyoda could not resist the temptation. The man had such a classic face that he simply had to record it. He took out his cell phone and surreptitiously snapped a shot. A young woman sitting along from the man adjusted her skirt and threw an accusing glance at him. Toyoda quickly put away his phone. The last thing he wanted to do now was to answer questions about his photographic tastes.

For the rest of the journey, Toyoda kept his eyes focused on his magazine. He did not even look up as the young woman, just as she got off at Ginza, screamed that he was a pervert.

The main feature in the magazine was the Wakayama curry-poisoning incident that had happened a month earlier. Toyoda shook his head as he read about the incompetence of the local police. Four people had died and 63 had been sickened after eating curry spiced with arsenic. It had taken the police a week to identify arsenic as the poisonous ingredient. For a few weeks they had run around like the Keystone Cops, bungling one lead after another. Meanwhile, the whole country was practically overwhelmed by a spate of copycat poisonings.

Fingers were pointing and tongues were wagging, but still the local police had neither made an arrest nor questioned a likely suspect. That’s the case I would like to be on, thought Toyoda, instead of riding the subway to east Tokyo on a Friday evening.

The thirty minutes flew by and before he had even read the article to the end, he arrived at Minami Senju and entered a world much different to the world he was used to. Although he was familiar with the reputation of the area, he was shocked at what he actually saw. There were new buildings around the station, but there was also an air of desperation about the place.

Walking away from the station, he felt as if he were in the Tokyo of half a century earlier. Minami Senju resembled the Tokyo that Toyoda had only seen in photographs, a city overwhelmed by economic depression and despair following defeat in the Second World War.

The faces of many of the people he passed were different to the faces of the people encountered in central Tokyo. These faces, with their tired and downtrodden expressions of despair, definitely belonged to a bygone era.

There was something else that differentiated Senju from central Tokyo—and that was the air. Senju exuded a strong exotic aroma that was difficult to categorize, but seemed to constitute a blend of temple incense and body odor with a kick. The further away he moved from the station, and the closer he got to the down-and-outs sprawled over the sidewalk, the more powerful and pervasive the smell became. As a wizened old man in filthy rags shuffled past him, his nostrils instinctively contracted.

Why on earth do they let themselves get like this? Toyoda asked himself. After all, there was quite a colony of homeless men in one of the parks in Azabu Juban, just behind Roppongi, but they managed to keep themselves clean. In fact even their blue tarp tents and other improvised shelters were well kept. He knew that they used the public toilet behind the police box at the corner of the park to wash and shave. One of the uniforms stationed at the police box had once told him that the homeless men had a system for cleaning the toilet and the area around their shelters. He had been impressed when he heard that. But things were different here. These people had given up.

Toyoda watched the malodorous old man stop at a vending machine and purchase a one cup Ozeki, the drink of choice for the down-and-outs, which was 200ml of hot sake in a glass cup with a ring-pull top and a plastic cover. The old man opened it and gulped it down without stopping for breath. Then he threw the bottle into the trash can and shuffled off.

Toyoda suddenly realized that he didn’t know where the police box was. He strode briskly back to the station kiosk and asked for directions. The man in the kiosk ignored him. He asked again, this time with a sting in his voice. Without looking up, the man told him that it was back the way he had just come from. He set off again for the police box, moving as quickly as he could in the hope that the air would get better: it did not. When he arrived at the police box he found it closed. There was a notice informing him that there were two police boxes at Minami Senju, one either side of the track. The one he had just arrived at was temporarily closed.

The police box was right next to a small temple. Toyoda looked at his watch; it was just before eight o’clock. Another five minutes would be neither here nor there, he thought, and decided to take a quick look at the temple. He discovered that it was called the Enmeji Temple and that it housed the Kubikiri Jizo, a statue of a Buddha dedicated to the 200,000 criminals beheaded at the nearby execution ground during the feudal period. He made a mental note to read it up later. Then he turned toward the bridge that crossed the track.

Three day laborers who had been arguing over a bottle of sake fell silent when he approached the bridge. As he walked past them, one of the day laborers shouted that he looked like a twat and threw some soy bean shells at him. Toyoda ignored the provocation and quickly climbed the stairs of the bridge. As he crossed the bridge he could see that the area he was approaching was even worse than the area he was leaving.

The crossroads at the other side of the tracks is called Namidabashi, or Bridge of Tears, and it marked the northern boundary of the miserable quarter known as Sanya. There is no bridge here anymore for the canal it crossed was filled in long ago. But this was the bridge that the condemned crossed on their way to the execution ground of Kozukappara. Here the unfortunate were beheaded, burnt or boiled alive, sawn in half or crucified. Another testament to the suffering endured here is Kotsu Dori, or Street of Bones, a section of the road where the heads of the executed were displayed on poles as a futile warning of the consequences of crime or dissent.

From its very beginning Sanya has been cursed. Located in the northeast of Edo—the former name of Tokyo—a direction considered to be prone to evil spirits, Sanya has always been inhabited by social outcasts. Formerly the outcasts were called eta, a derogatory term that means full of filth. The eta were employed as executioners and torturers, undertakers, butchers or leather workers, all professions considered unclean. Another group of outcasts were the hinin, or non-humans, a group that included ex-convicts, street cleaners or vagrants. Now the outcasts are the day laborers and the homeless.

As he crossed the road at Namidabashi, Toyoda realized that the name was still appropriate today. There were a number of new buildings scattered among the shabby shells that housed many of the indigent temporary residents of the district, and some people had obviously made an effort to uplift the image of the area with flower boxes and colorful murals. But it was the drunks and down-and-outs sprawled all over the sidewalks that a visitor would remember, not the flowers. They were in various stages of undress: most retained their trousers, but there were many in just their underwear. Toyoda notice that one man, dressed in a loincloth that exposed his genitals, was arguing with himself as he staggered around trying to drink from a two-litre bottle of sake.

There were two patrol cars parked outside the police box and two uniformed cops were struggling with an older man in a well-worn suit. The man in the suit was mounting stiff resistance for a man who had obviously been on a prolonged binge. One of the uniforms looked up briefly at Toyoda; then he focused his attention back on the drunk.

When Toyoda flashed his card and introduced himself the altercation stopped. The uniforms and the drunk all turned to look at Toyoda.

“Are you here about the murder?” asked one of the uniforms, as he looked Toyoda up and down.

“Yes,” said Toyoda, “I’ve been told the victim is a foreigner. Where is the crime scene?”

The struggle started up again as the drunk tried to break free, and the cop answered breathlessly so Toyoda had to ask him to repeat himself.

“It’s on the container park at the other side of the track. If you wait a minute, I’ll drive you over there.”

“I’ve just come from that side,” said Toyoda. “I can walk back myself. You look to have your hands full.”

“Please yourself!” The uniform straightened out his shirt and wiped the sweat off his brow while the other one took the drunk inside the police box. “It’s over the other side, but you are going to have to walk right around the fence to get there. It would be quicker in the squad car.”

Before they got into the car, the uniform took another good look at Toyoda and said, “Does everybody in your division dress like that?”

Toyoda had no wish to explain why he was wearing a white Guayabera shirt and Faconnable flat front linen slacks to a murder inquiry, so he replied, “Yes, it’s part of the image.” His answer seemed to impress the uniform, who fell silent until they were in the car.

It took less than three minutes to reach the scene where the body had been found, just long enough for the uniform to tell Toyoda that more and more foreigners were coming to Minami Senju these days. It had something to do with the hostels advertising on the Internet, he claimed. Most of the foreigners were young backpackers, and they were quite well behaved, which was contrary to the image of foreigners portrayed by the media. He also told Toyoda that he was learning English—he pronounced it Ingurish—so that he could be more helpful when visitors asked him directions.

Although he was impressed by the attitude of the uniform, Toyoda was not impressed by the area they were driving through. If they have cleaned up their act, he thought, it must have been a hell of a mess before. He had been to Kita Senju, or North Senju, a number of times a few years earlier on a case involving stolen credit cards, but this was his first time in Minami Senju, the southern sector of the district. The area around Kita Senju station was a bit scruffy, he recalled, but it was definitely up-market compared to Minami Senju.

Looking out of the car window, Toyoda could not figure out what it was that was attracting the foreigners to Sanya. The uniform, who seemed almost clairvoyant, told Toyoda that it was the hostel prices that attracted the foreigners. He also added that he had been inside a few of the hostels and that they were very clean with good amenities, including free wireless internet.

They arrived at the scene and before he even got out of the car, Toyoda knew that he was in for an unpleasant night. The first person he saw was Inspector Hideki Watanabe, the last person he had ever wanted to meet again. Watanabe was talking to someone who looked like a medic.

Watanabe threw away his cigarette when he saw Toyoda get out of the car and he said something that made all those in hearing distance laugh and turn to look at Toyoda.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” Watanabe was obviously on home turf, and felt confident enough to be belligerent. “This is a murder scene not a stable.”

The last time Watanabe had mocked Toyoda for his hobby—horse riding—Toyoda had broken his jaw. And for that he had almost been thrown off the force.

“No, it’s not a stable,” responded Toyoda, “but there’s just as much shit on the ground.” He walked up to a member of the scene-of-the-crime scene team and asked for an evidence bag and a pair of tweezers. He went back to where Watanabe had thrown away his cigarette butt, bent down and picked it up with a the tweezers. Then he made a show of dropping it into the evidence bag.

Watanabe nearly exploded but, realizing that all eyes were on him, he managed to keep himself under control. “Well watch you don’t slip and start rolling around in the shit,” said Watanabe. “We’ll have to go back to the station when we’ve finished here and there are no showers.”

Toyoda ignored the remark and went over to where members of the scene-of-the-crime team were examining the area around the body. “What’s the cause of death?” he asked.

“Can’t be sure yet,” replied one of them, “but she certainly wasn’t killed here.”

“So she was definitely murdered?” said Toyoda.

“I would imagine so,” answered the officer. “Take a look for yourself. You can see marks of restraints around her wrists and bruising on her throat. It looks as if she’s been tied up and strangled. It doesn’t look like suicide to me.”

“Point taken,” said Toyoda. “Is there anything else you can tell me about her?”

“Nothing except that she’s Caucasian. Oh, and she’s got a hell of a pair of tits. At a guess I would say that she has also been raped, but you will have to wait for him to finish with her before you know that for sure.” He gestured to the man talking with Watanabe, and Toyoda assumed that he was the pathologist.

“They seem pretty chummy,” said Toyoda.

“Dr. Amakawa is Watanabe’s brother-in-law,” replied the officer.

Toyoda walked over to the two of them and, ignoring Watanabe, spoke to Dr. Amakawa. “How long do you think she has been dead, doctor?”

“About twelve hours, I would estimate,” he replied, “but I will be able to give you more precise details after the autopsy.”

“Who found the body and when?” asked Toyoda.

“It was an old man,” growled Watanabe. “He walks his dog here twice a day, seven o’ clock in the morning and six in the evening. He’s regular as clockwork, and he swears it wasn’t here this morning.”

“So that means the body was dumped sometime between seven this morning and six this evening.”

“Well done,” said Watanabe miming a round of applause. “You’re starting to talk more like a detective than a sheriff. By the way, I see that you came up with a squad car today, what happened to your horse?”

Sensing the confrontational atmosphere between the two men, Dr. Amakawa was starting to look uncomfortable. He tried to change the subject. “I will start the autopsy as soon as we have finished here and get the body back to the morgue.”

Toyoda looked past Dr. Amakawa and spoke directly into Watanabe’s face. “The last time you spoke about horses, you got a kick in the face—and it wasn’t a horse that did it!”

Toyoda was referring to the incident between them. When Watanabe had learnt that horse riding was one of Toyoda’s hobbies, he had brought up the subject at every possible opportunity. Eventually Toyoda, tired of all the comments and drawing on the humor he had become accustomed to growing up in England, said that constant references to horses was a sign of penis envy. The joke was, unfortunately, lost in translation and Watanabe responded by throwing a punch at Toyoda. He missed, which was a big mistake. Before he could throw another one, Toyoda caught him with two left jabs to the face and a cross-cut punch that knocked him down. He finished him off with a kick to the face, which broke Watanabe’s jaw.

Watanabe, the big mouth and bully of the precinct lay on the floor, blood streaming from his nose and mouth and his jaw hanging loose. Nobody made any move to help him to his feet. Unfortunately, a senior officer was passing at precisely the moment the fight started, and he had them both hauled over the carpet.

Their superintendent at the time, a man of constant ill humor, had torn into them. He asked Toyoda to explain why he had kicked a man who was down. Toyoda had just shrugged and said that it was an instinctive reaction. The response had infuriated the superintendent so much that Toyoda thought the man was going to have a stroke.

Toyoda covered his smile with his hand as he remembered the scene. Watanabe, blood still trickling from his nose, held his jaw in place and desperately tried not to show any sign of pain or discomfort. The verbal battering had lasted thirty minutes, during which time the superintendent, his face burning with rage, had stood to attention behind his desk screaming at them. It only ended when a phone call from the justice ministry came in.

Before he answered the phone, the superintendent made them shake hands. As Watanabe removed his hand from his chin, Toyoda thought he was going to faint. But somehow he managed to bear the pain and shake hands.

The next day, they were both transferred: Watanabe went to Osaka, and Toyoda joined the International Criminal Investigation Division. In a way, Toyoda thought, he ought to thank Watanabe. If it had not been for the fight, he would probably still be in a domestic division.

Watanabe broke into his thoughts. You threw a lucky punch, but you’d never be able to do it again.”

Toyoda, who recalled landing three punches before Watanabe went down, shrugged. “I hope I don’t have to. That was eight years ago and we were both young. Why don’t you just forget about the past and concentrate on the job in hand. That way we can get this case cleared up quickly and both go our separate ways. Like it or not, we have to cooperate on this, and I intend to do so.”

“This is a murder investigation,” said Watanabe. “Murders aren’t as easy to solve as visa violations.”

“The International Criminal Investigation Division investigates murder, too. If you have been reading the tabloids, you would probably see that the number of murders we are investigating is on the rise. I’ve had three cases this year, how about you?”

Watanabe did not respond. Instead, he walked over to his car, got in and lit a cigarette.

Dr Amakawa almost heaved a sigh of relief when Watanabe walked away. He nodded courteously to Toyoda, and practically trotted over to his car.

Back at Senju police station Watanabe addressed the murder team with more self confidence than Toyoda expected. “We know only three things. She’s young and attractive, she’s foreign, and she’s dead.”

That’s four, thought Toyoda, and he struggled to keep a smile off his face. After all, he did not want to provoke a confrontation with Watanabe in Senju.

Watanabe continued, oblivious to the gaff he had just made. “At the moment we don’t know why she was murdered, but I am sure that we can assume there is a sexual motive.” He gestured to Toyoda and said, “You are our expert on foreigners, do you know where she is from?”

“No, but I would guess East Europe or Russia,” answered Toyoda. “I will need photos of the face; then I can start looking. When can you get them to me?”

Somebody coughed and started to speak. “Most of the backpackers around here are from western Europe, the United States or Australia.” Everybody turned to the speaker. He was a young, fresh-faced, tall young man.

“Who said she is a backpacker?” Watanabe fixed his eyes on the young man.

“Well, nobody. But the only foreigners we get up here are those staying in the cheap inns.”

“Exactly,” said Watanabe. “And most of those, especially the women, are traveling in pairs. If one of those had gone missing, somebody would have noticed. Has anybody reported a missing person?”

Nobody spoke.

Not bad, thought Toyoda. Watanabe must have been reading the manuals.

Watanabe looked at Toyoda. “You can have Polaroid shots now.” He gestured to a junior officer to hand a file over to Toyoda and then continued. “I will get the others to you by tomorrow morning.”

Toyoda took the file from the junior officer and asked for an envelope. The officer picked one up from the table in front of him and gave it to Toyoda. Watanabe sighed loudly and shook his head. Toyoda thought he heard him mutter something about powers of observation, but he let it go.

“There is not much I can do here until we have the crime scene and autopsy results, so I will head back,” said Toyoda. Is there any chance of a car to take me back?”

“What happened to the car you came in?”

“That’s from the police box at the other side of the tracks,” said Toyoda.

“How did you get here?” asked Watanabe.

“Subway.”

“That’s the quickest way back,” replied Watanabe. “We don’t run a chauffeur service here.”

“Thanks for the help,” said Toyoda as he turned and left the room. He heard someone say that working with foreigners must wreak havoc with your dress code, followed by a sudden outburst of laughter. He stopped, thought about going back into the room and confronting them, but he changed his mind and left the station.

Chapter 3

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Akira Toyoda’s mobile started vibrating in his pocket; he ignored it and took another swig of Newcastle Brown Ale. The vibrating persisted. Shit, he thought, it’s got to be headquarters. For a moment he considered switching it off; then he relented. There was no point in getting himself into any more trouble.

He took the phone out of his pocket and checked the call number on the liquid crystal display screen. He was right: headquarters. That could mean only one thing—the end to his Friday night. He leant over the table and shouted, “Back in a minute.” Yelena stuck her tongue out.

Toyoda pushed his way through a rowdy crowd of drunken foreign brokers, some of whom looked as if they’d been drinking since lunchtime, and stepped out into the balmy, grimy night air of Roppongi.

Although the second-floor terrace that fronted Inn for the Night was not as comfortable as the interior—there was no air-conditioning—it was just as crowded and just as noisy. The overhead speakers blasted out White Room by Cream. Everybody on the terrace was speaking at full volume.

One man, an American, was drowning out Eric Clapton’s meaty guitar solo with boasts about his business acumen. And a young Japanese woman, the only person trying to follow the man’s one-way conversation, was awestruck.

For a split second, Toyoda thought of giving the man a shove that would send him crashing down the stairs and knock the wind out of him. Then he relented and squeezed past him to go down to the street.

The humidity was stifling. It had rained until mid-afternoon, then the sun had come out, and the temperature had risen to thirty-five degrees. But it was the humidity—it stood at about ninety percent—that hit Toyoda the hardest. By the time he arrived at street level, Toyoda was drenched. He dialed headquarters and got an answer at the first ring.

“Where are you?” snapped Superintendent Tanaka. “I’ve been ringing for ages.”

“Roppongi,” he answered. “I didn’t hear the phone ringing.”

“I bet you didn’t,” said Tanaka. “What the hell are you doing there? Don’t you see enough foreigners when you’re on duty?”

“It’s Friday evening so I was just ….”

Tanaka cut him off. “Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed yourself, because you’ve got work to do now. Get yourself off to Minami-Senju. And I mean now, not after another drink!”

“Minami-Senju?” groaned Toyoda, “What’s going on up there?”

“Suspicious death,” said Tanaka. “A dead foreigner, so that means we are involved.”

“Homicide?” asked Toyoda.

“How the hell should I know?” growled Tanaka. All I know is that we have a dead foreigner on our hands. Don’t ask any more questions; just get up there as fast as you can. Oh, and by the way, don’t even think about driving up there in that flashy Mercedes of yours! I’ve no intention of covering for you again.”

“It’s not a Mercedes, it’s a Porsche,” said Toyoda, cringing at the reminder of his latest, and most serious cockup, a reckless act of stupidity that could have cost him his career. Tanaka had covered up for him, but that meant he owed his boss something. And Tanaka would wait for the right moment before calling in his debt. Meanwhile, Toyoda had to jump every time Tanaka barked. And Tanaka had just barked.

“I’ll get a squad car from Azabu police station,” said Toyoda, “I wouldn’t risk taking my own car up to Senju. It would probably get stolen.”

He rang off and looked at the time before putting the phone back in his pocket. It had just turned seven o’clock; the evening had hardly begun but for him it had already ended—in tatters. He cursed his luck as he climbed the stairs back to the pub.

As he pushed the door open and entered, one of the foreigners dropped his pants and mooned him. The others cheered and howled with laughter. It was a sickening sight. The mooner was grossly overweight and carried a great part of his weight on his buttocks. Most Japanese would have froze, turned and gone straight back down the steps. But Toyoda was made of sterner stuff. Besides, he had seen it all before. He walked straight past the mooner, shoved a short, fat bald foreigner to one side and forced his way through the crowd.

One of the foreigners was slouched back in a chair with his legs stretched out across the floor. On his way past, Toyoda tripped over the legs and fell into the foreigner, elbowing him in the chest as he did so. The man grunted and dropped his glass, sending beer cascading across the floor. Before the foreigner realized what was happening, Toyoda apologized: “Sorry mate, tripped over some bugger’s foot!” He patted the foreigner on the shoulder, winked and walked into the back of the bar, where Yelena was waiting for him. As he walked away the foreigners all fell silent and stared after him.

“What the fuck was that all about?” said one of the foreigners.

“A Japanese with a Geordie accent!” said another. “I’ve heard it all now.”

“You should have decked him,” said the first one who had spoken.

“I don’t think it would have worked,” said the other. “Look at the size of the bastard. He was just hoping you would try something, and then he would have decked you. Confident bastard; he’s got to be connected.”

Yelena was talking into her cell phone when Toyoda dropped into his seat. She flashed a perfunctory smile and went on talking. Toyoda picked up his cigarettes, put them in his shirt pocket and stood up. Yelena covered the mouthpiece with her hand, “Just a moment, I’m almost finished.”

“Take your time,” said Toyoda, “I have to go.”

Yelena spoke hurriedly into the phone and rang off. “What do you mean, you have to go?” she said sharply. “You promised to take me to that new German restaurant. I haven’t eaten since breakfast and I’m starving.”

He shrugged. “Sorry. Something has happened, and I have to go. I’ll get back as soon as I can,” he promised, then he left her at the table and pushed his way through the crowd again. This time the foreigners saw him coming and moved respectfully out of the way.

He stopped at the door and turned back towards the foreigners. He looked the mooner straight in the eye. “You want to be careful who you show your arse to around here, mate. There are a lot of fellows who might find it too much temptation. And you wouldn’t want to lead anyone on, would you?” He tapped his nose and left the pub. A raucous bout of laughter followed him out the door.

He turned towards the Roppongi Intersection and set off for Azabu police station. The street was bustling. Although it was still early, the African touts were out in force. One of them grabbed his arm and tried to drag him towards a club. Toyoda shook himself free.

Another of the Africans, a gigantic man in a floral shirt, baggy trousers and a beret laughed out loud. He shouted something in Yoruba to the other African, who responded in the same language and then laughed.

“What’s the joke, Sonny?” Toyoda stopped in front of the large African, who held out his hand. Toyoda took it.

“He’s new on the street. I told him that he’d just tried to hustle a cop.”

Toyoda smiled. “That’s nothing,” he said. “A guy up there,” Toyoda pointed to the pub he had just left, “flashed me as I walked through the door.”

The African laughed “You should have flashed him…..with your warrant card. That would have brought him back to reality.”

Toyoda shook his head. “No point in giving that kind of information out unless it is really necessary.”

The African nodded in agreement. Toyoda turned and waved his hand in the air as he walked away.

Roppongi is certainly not Japan, he thought, savoring the aroma of roast chicken wafting across the sidewalk from the illegally parked rotisserie van. The Chicken Man, as the African who owned the rotisserie was known, interrupted his conversation with one of the Turks from the kebab van parked next to him to greet Toyoda. Toyoda nodded, but did not stop. A ten minute walk along Gaien Higashi Dori, he thought, and you practically go through the United Nations.

Toyoda strode into Azabu police station and went straight up to the front desk. The uniform sitting there looked surprised when Toyoda walked in. “You’re back early,” he said. “What happened, I thought you had the night off?”

“So did I,” replied Toyoda, somehow managing not to sound bitter. “The old man called me, and now I am off to Senju. Have you got a car and a driver to take me up there?”

The uniform gave a twisted smile and shook his head. “On a Friday evening? You’ll be lucky to get one before midnight. Anyway, what’s wrong with your own car? I thought you had it parked out back.”

Toyoda leant over the desk and breathed into the younger man’s face.

The uniform jerked his head back, waved his hand in front of his nose, and pulled a face. “That’s enough! I get the picture. It’s a taxi or the subway. And if I were you and I were in a hurry, I wouldn’t even bother trying to get a taxi. You’ll only end up sitting at the crossroads for the next thirty minutes or so. You’d be there by then on the subway.”

Toyoda grabbed a magazine from the desk and turned towards the door. “See you later.”

Chapter 2

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Recently as I have been walking home from Tsukiji to Roppongi, a distance of about 6 kilometers, I have had a feeling of déjà vu. For a few days I wracked my brains, but could not figure out where the feeling was coming from. Then, this morning, as I opened my eyes, I experienced satori.

Tokyo presently resembles Berlin of the 1970s, when the city was divided in two. I lived in the West and worked in the East. The sun shone evenly on both sides of the city; so during the day there was very little difference—except for the advertizing billboards. In the West, the glitzy billboards advertised the latest in the line of automobiles such as Mercedes and Porsche, as well global brands like Coca Cola, Channel and Gucci; in the East, the giant austere billboards hosted huge photos of the Worker of the Month and text listing the achievements of the “Working Class Hero of the Deutsche Demokratic Republik.”

But when the sun went down, the difference between the two halves of the divided city was stark. The West lit up with neon while the East disappeared in darkness. In the words of the song by the singer-songwriter Paul Joses (Scottish-born but then resident of West Berlin), the red side of the Berlin Wall was like the Dark Side of the Moon.

Tokyo is by no stretch of the imagination like East Berlin of the 1970s—quite the contrary, it is still very much a vibrant and exciting city—but there are certain similarities. There are very few flashing neon lights and store fronts are dark and the interiors are on minimum lighting. But this is because everyone understands the need to save on electricity while the country is experiencing a crisis.

Towards the end of the day, many of the shelves in convenience stores are empty of milk, bakery products and the like. Large bottles of mineral water are just not available, beer is scarce and getting scarcer, and even cans of chu-hi are in short supply. The reason for the beer shortages, we are told, is that the major domestic brewers all have breweries in the Tohoku region. I have heard no excuses yet for the shortages of chu-hi.

Nevertheless, despite the dimming down (of the nighttime skyline, I mean), and the shortages of essentials like beer and chu-hi, Tokyo is not at all in crisis; nor was East Berlin in the 1970s. The difference between the two is that the situation in Tokyo is just a temporary phenomenon, while for East Berlin it was the norm, and Tokyo will light up again soon.

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Everybody in Japan has heard of Roppongi, the legendary entertainment quarter sandwiched, like a juicy filling, between Akasaka in the north and Azabu in the south. But not many people, apart from the regulars, really know much about the place.

To most Japanese, however, Roppongi is a dark and dangerous place, despite the glaring neon, inhabited and frequented by foreigners or denizens of the fringe underworld of sordid sex and crime. There are Nigerian touts that harass passers-by into following them into clubs where they will be ripped off; Chinese hookers offering a “massage”; furtive men from the middle east selling trips to heaven (or hell); transvestites and transsexuals preying on drunks whose powers of observation have been diminished by alcohol; gangsters openly exercising their rights to behave in any way they want to; and a doctor on a mission to help young girls in need of treatment or counseling for sexually transmitted diseases.

When Shogun Tokugawa Iesu made the village of Edo (present-day Tokyo) his capital, Roppongi was a rustic idyll of rolling hills covered with pine trees, which provided local farmers with all the firewood they needed. Although there is not much greenery left in the area, the hills are still there and some of their names bear testament to their rustic past. There are names such as Enoki-zaka (Chinese hackberry hill), Tanuki-zaka (racoon dog hill), Itachi-zaka (weasel hill), Nezumi-zaka (rat or mouse hill), Ueki-zaka (plant hill) and the fabulously-named Imoarai-zaka (potato washing hill).

Roppongi’s first claim to fame came about in 1626, when Shogun Hidetada chose it as the site for his wife’s cremation. After the cremation, the remains were carried to Zozoji Temple in Shiba (just below Tokyo Tower) in a spectacular procession consisting of all the nobles of Edo and their samurai retainers, all in ceremonial costume. Although the area appears to have prospered after the funeral, not much was recorded about it until around 1660, when name “Roppongi,” which means “six trees,” was first used.

There is much argument about how the name evolved. One legend is that Roppongi was after for six ancient ginko trees that used to dominate the landscape around the present Roppongi Crossing. Another says that Roppongi was named because six Daimyo whose estates were located in the hills of Roppongi had names that ended with the word for tree. Whatever the origin of the name, life must have been idyllic for the nobles in those days. From their villas they could look out across Tokyo Bay or enjoy splendid views of Mt. Fuji to the south. The whole area was lush green, and the air would have been pure, not the caustic, biting pollution that passes for fresh air nowadays.

Roppongi was still little more that a village when, in the 1790s, it was incorporated into the municipality of Edo. And it remained this way until after the Meiji Restoration (1868). The situation changed drastically after the Third Division of the Imperial Guard moved to new barracks in Roppongi. Soon after the soldiers arrived, new businesses opened up and Roppongi started growing. Naturally businesses that catered for the tastes of military men were particularly prominent in the area, and Roppongi soon acquired a reputation that has stood the test of time.

Like the rest of Tokyo, Roppongi has been plagued by fires over the centuries. The first major conflagration was recorded in 1668 and the last one in 1945, when the American B-29 bombers scorched Roppongi—as well as the rest of Tokyo—with their incendiary devices. Strangely enough, however, Roppongi was one of the few areas of Tokyo spared from the fires that accompanied the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.

When the war ended, there was very little left of Roppongi, and it had to rebuild itself from scratch. Again, it was the military that contributed to the growth of the area—this time the Americans. Roppongi housed a large portion of the American soldiers stationed in Tokyo, which greatly contributed to the rapid growth of Roppongi nightlife. Western-style bars and restaurants as well as houses of ill-repute catering to foreigners sprang up.

Roppongi took another great leap forward in 1964, when the Hibiya-sen opened up to improve transportation for the Tokyo Olympics. A number of discos and clubs opened up, attracting crowds of young Japanese and foreigners, mainly Westerners, of all ages. It reached its zenith in the 1980s with the ever-expanding bubble economy that fooled everyone into thinking that the money would keep flowing forever. Reality struck in 1989, however, when the bubble burst. Practically overnight, many of the discos and clubs disappeared.

Things started to look up again in the mid-1990s, and many of the foreign-themed establishments—English and Irish pubs; sports, shot and cigar bars; and salsa clubs—opened up. The variety of foreign restaurants also increased dramatically. Now just about every cuisine on earth is represented somewhere in Roppongi—even on the streets. Late at night the mobile food vendors appear offering a selection of goodies that include, doner kebabs, grilled chicken and Thai or Indian curries.

Two huge complexes—one finished and operational, the other to open later this year—are changing the face of Roppongi. The first, Roppongi Hills, which covers an area of 109,000 m², is practically a city in itself. Right in the center of the complex stands the 54-storey Mori Tower that houses restaurants and high-class shops on the first six floors and the Mori Art Center and Art Museum as well as an observation deck on the top six floors. The other floors are occupied by offices.The Grand Hyatt Tokyo occupies one corner of Roppongi Hills and TV Asahi occupies another. In between there are gardens, an arena, more luxury brand shops, restaurants, cafes, and the Virgin Cinemas complex. The other huge complex, Tokyo Midtown Project, is situated on the former site of the Japanese Defense Agency, less than 1 kilometer away from Roppongi Hills. The Midtown Tower, which soars up to 248 meters, will be the tallest building in Tokyo, and it will house offices and residences as well as the Ritz Carlton on the top floors.

Forty percent of the total area of Tokyo Midtown Project will consist of greenery and parks, and it will be home to the Suntory Museum of Art. There will also be restaurants representing a wide variation of global cuisine, cafes, luxury brand shops, and a 24-hour upscale food market.

Where Roppongi goes from here is anybody’s guess. One thing is, however, certain. Now that the new and glamorous complexes are here, the rest of Roppongi will eventually follow, and the old, dirty and seedy buildings will disappear and be replaced by something else. It is just a question of when.

© 2007 Charles R. Pringle

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