My mother at her shop, Fumi Yosoten in Tokyo's Kabukicho district. (Photo courtesy of Yohji Yamamoto)

A childhood of endless fights: Yohji Yamamoto (3)

Depravity, desire, calculation - studying the underworld


Today, Kabukicho, in Shinjuku, Tokyo, is a modern downtown district with glittering neon lights, but it was very different right after the war. When it rained, the streets turned to mud. And there were still fields rank with weeds in many places.

A black market formed in the area and people came from all over to buy food, clothing and other daily necessities. It was bustling with activity thanks to the reconstruction effort.

My mother opened her dressmaking shop, Fumi Yosoten, just across the street from Shinjuku Koma Theater, which was built in 1956 and closed at the end of 2008. It was right in the middle of Kabukicho. My mother and I would sleep in a small, tatami-covered room next to the workspace. My job every day was to massage my mother's legs and back after a long day's work.

"You'd live easier if you just remarried," I often thought as a child, regarding my mother's situation.
Kabukicho was a rough neighborhood. Drunkards who were unwilling to pay their debts were beaten half to death by yakuza gangsters on the streets, and prostitutes would bare their skin and grab the sleeves of American soldiers. Such scenes were commonplace.

I grew up looking at the depravities, desires and self-interested calculations of the adults wriggling through dark, crowded streets. Along with the yakuza and the sex industry, another hallmark of Kabukicho was its many ethnic Koreans and burakumin - members of Japan's feudal "untouchable" caste who continue to face discrimination.

As soon as I began attending Okubo Elementary School, I started getting into fights. Every day the toughs from the neighborhood would gang up and attack me.

I hated to lose, and I would watch to see what kind of tricks they would pull each day. To get stronger, I began to practice judo at the dojo in the Yodobashi Police Station (now Shinjuku Police Station).

But when it comes to fights, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. One time I was punched straight in the face by a gang leader and was knocked out cold. I lay unconscious on the elementary school grounds for several hours. This kind of thing happened nearly every day, I was almost always covered in bruises.

But I never said anything about it to my mother. She seemed so busy with her work and I did not want to give her anything else to worry about.

My best friend was Aoki, the son of a clothing store's owner in Kabukicho. We would go up to the second floor of the store and pretend we were playing in the Waseda-Keio University baseball game. For some reason, I was always Keio and Aoki was always Waseda. Since then, I have loved the impression left by the sound of the word Keio and the university's logo.

"The kings of the land, Keio!"

"Waseda! Waseda!"

I still miss those Waseda-Keio games that Aoki and I would passionately recreate in that small tatami room.

The alleys were also our playground. One day, while I was playing catch with Aoki, I threw a ball and hit a black car that was parked nearby. The polished shine of the car's body was marred by a white mark where the ball hit.

I had the misfortune of hitting the yakuza boss' car. All of a sudden, the driver grabbed me by the chest and punched me right in the face. Since then, I have always hated thugs who bow and scrape to their superiors but are violent with children.

The G.I.s were so much better. There was one time when I was swinging a wooden sword around outside my mother's shop, I hit a young American soldier - who was probably fishing around for a prostitute - in the head. I turned around in a panic to see the soldier squatting with his head in his hands, his face bright red with pain.

I was ready to catch a beating from him. But to my surprise, the soldier gave me an embarrassed smile and walked away without a word.

"Huh, the American soldiers are much nicer than the Japanese yakuza," I thought.

The period right after Japan's defeat was a time of chaos. As the economic recovery progressed, Kabukicho rapidly transformed into a massive entertainment district, jostling with bars, movie theaters and brothels.

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