Tokyo Police Give Shoeshines the Boot

It’s tough time for shoeshines–not the people getting the shoeshines, fewer every year, but the old school street vendors who give them.

Yurakucho(有楽町) home of the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Japan, was a very different place in its early days. On one side was the Dai-ichi Seimei Building, MacArthur’s GHQ and the formal seat of Occupation power. The other side was the hotbed of a bustling informal economy–the black markets. Under the tracks, touts and tailors, barbers and black marketeers all vied for the business of dollar-rich Allied soldiers, sailors and reporters.

While the palace side gradually became a series of sterile canyons as bankers and insurance men returned in the 1950s, for decades Yurakucho under the tracks remained a lively, fascinating warren of izakaya (Japanese pubs), yakitori joints and shops selling ticky-tack Japanese souvenirs.

Over the past decade, Mitsubishi Estate has done a remarkable job of turning the dull, official side of Yurakucho into an attractive, tree-lined quartier of boutiques and bistros with a certain Parisian élan. And that’s all good.

But why are local authorities determined to stamp out the last vestiges of our postwar heritage?

Please read the full shoeshines’ tale by John Harris and Nathalie-Kyoko Stucky on the Number One Shinbun Online.

Before the beginning of the US occupation, the Japanese people were not wearing leather shoes, but rather wooden “geta”, and the area in the Chiyoda ward, was the headquarters of the McArthur administration, with the Dai ichi Seimei Building as his main office. The Foreign Correspondents Club was founded in November 1945, and its office has ever since been located very close to Douglas McArthur’s Dai ichi Seimei Bld.

So probably it is fair to say that the shoeshine workers appeared in the Yurakucho area when many Americans and foreigners started to gather and work around the area. We portrayed the last shoeshines as we found them being harassed and kicked out from their long time territory.

The Yamanote Line opened in 1885, and connected all the main neighborhoods of Tokyo, from Ginza, Yurakucho to Shinjuku and Ikebukuro.

The shoe shines said that the Yurakucho JR station granted permissions to the post-World War II Japanese people who didn’t have a job, to exercise the new profession of shoeshine under their train tracks.

According to the police, it is forbidden to make business in the street, like selling ramen noodles, as the yatai (street food stands) do. A 道路使用許可/douro shiyou kyoka, permission to use the road is normally requested. 露店販売/rotten hanbai, selling in stalls is usually not permitted. During the Meiji period, (1868-1912), Japan was actively westernizing and therefore the shoeshine laborers might have existed before the US occupation.

The yatai, or yashi small street businesses were taken care by the yakuza, Japanese mafia, especially after the war. The Chiyoda ward and Ginza area is the territory of the Sumiyoshi-kai, Kobayashi-ikka, according to some sources. The Sumiyoshi-kai is the second largest organized crime group in Japan.

An ex-yakuza boss who is now retired, said that in his younger days, when he saw a shoeshine in the street, he would throw a 1000 yen bill at him and say: “ome- mo ganbare yo”/ “Good luck to you, man!” as a word of support. He also said that having your shoes shined used to be a “status symbol” in the old days. Probably some rich and stylish elderly people miss the old days when they could “show off” their wealth in the corner of the street, by having their shoes shined.

Nowadays, workers in the street are “not appreciated” by the general public. In modern Tokyo, who would pay 800 to 900 yen to get your shoes shined? Young people do not even wear leather shoes anymore. Cheaper services are offered officially in places such as the “Mister Minit” or at indoor shops.

Local police and the Shoeshines' mini van, near Yurakucho JR station (photo: Albert Siegel)

It is a reality that many street laborers used to offer public services in the open air were protected by stronger gang members, who themselves had agreements with the police, in the past. With the new anti-gang laws, which came into force in October last year, even the streets might start to be “cleaned up” by the police.

It has been 4 to 5 years before the three shoeshines of Yurakucho station began to receive threats from the police, which they didn’t have before. The police “harass” them more often. Effectively, in 2007 the Botaihou /暴力対策法 (Anti-organized crime laws) came into force. In October of 2011, the Tokyo Organized Crime Exclusionary Ordinances went into effect, which encouraged an even stronger crackdown on what are perceived to be yakuza connected businesses.  The yakuza are usually broadly divided into two groups, tekiya (merchants, street sellers) and bakuto (gamblers). The shoeshine men are probably seen as tekiya, or merchants backed by bakuto.

Officially, they come and tell them to stop working because they are parking their mini-van in a public space. However, the real reason seems to be the alleged massive complaints they receive from “the general public.”

“Many people who used to do run street businesses are affected by these changes in the Japanese society,” the ex-yakuza boss said.

The last shoeshine, waiting for more clients near the Yurakucho JR station. On the van window, it reads: Chiba Special Shoeshine (photo: Albert Siegel)

Many thanks to Albert Siegel, a photo reporter in Tokyo, and John R. Harris, editor of the Number One Shinbun, who also contributed to this article.


One Response to “Tokyo Police Give Shoeshines the Boot”
  1. Shine On says:

    As of 2011, there’s always the two shoeshine guys at the Marunouchi north exit of Tokyo Station, right adjacent to the kpan there. Only 700 yen, 800 for special care jobs.

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