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Tokyo's Shin-Okubo ethnic enclave still evolving

It was the huge popularity of "Yon-sama" (actor Bae Yong-joon) -- male lead in the weepy South Korean TV drama "Winter Sonata" televised here in 2003 -- that's said to have really put Tokyo's Shin-Okubo district on the map. Just one train stop from the capital's largest commuter rail station at Shinjuku, the area abounds with Korean-operated restaurants, snack counters, food markets, boutiques and various services.
The emergence of K-POP, reports Yukan Fuji (March 6) launched a second wave of shoppers and curiosity-seekers to Shin-Okubo, and the area's popularity has been sustained recently by groups like the all-female group TWICE and BTS (aka the Bangtan Boys).
Now, however, waves of more recent foreign arrivals have been moving into the area, and while not threatening to supplant the Koreans, they have been attracting new waves of visitors. The most conspicuous can be found at work along the so-called "Islam Alley" (Isuramu yokocho). The foreigners who work therein do not appear to speak much Japanese and avoid being photographed. "No photos!" Yukan Fuji's reporter was warned by three burly foreign males with menacing expressions and speaking in broken English. He beat a hasty retreat.
Undeterred, he went to a another shop selling ingredients for halal foods. Its 52-year-old owner, a Nepalese, explained his reasons for locating his business in Okubo.
"There are lots of foreigners here, and numerous food and beverage shops serving Islamic foods. I supposed a store catering to them would do well here."
Across the alley is a restaurant specializing in Vietnamese Pho noodles. Mrs Nguyen, the owner's wife, told the reporter, "There are lots of Asian eateries here, and we thought Vietnamese food would appeal both to Japanese and Koreans." 
Yoshiko Inaba, who lectures in design engineering at the Hosei University graduate school, noted how the Okubo area has been changing since 1983, when then-Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone launched a project to attract 100,000 foreign students to Japan. "From around the time of the 'bubble economy' (in 1986), the Okubo area attracted many Japanese-language schools with growing numbers of students," she observed. "Also, many foreign hostesses lived in this area, which is adjacent to the Kabukicho drinking district."
Kim Dong-ju, chef at the Haleluja Korean-style family restaurant that's operated in Okubo since 1978, was quoted as saying, "I think the neighborhood's diversity is a good thing, as it gives us a chance to become familiar with different cultures."
A second-generation Korean who was born and raised in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward, Kim took over the restaurant from its first-generation founder.
The reporter seemed surprised when Kim informed him that restaurant operators in the district, whether Korean or otherwise, have either no time or no inclination to form personal relationships with one another.
"In the case of Koreans, nobody these days ever talks about organizing our community," he relates. "There were suggestions to do so in the past, but it didn't happen. You simply don't hear people here propose to one another, 'Let's join together and make mutual efforts to promote and grow our businesses.'"
Over the years, Kim's noticed, new shops have come and gone in sync with the waxing and waning of Okubo's popularity.
In its more diverse form, Okubo may no longer exclusively stand out as a "Korean Town," but the way it regularly updates itself with new economic activity says something about its economic vitality.


© Japan Today
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