DQ dog walk

(Excerpted from The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa by Yasunari Kawabata)

Asakusa is Tokyo’s heart…
Asakusa is a human market…

The words of that popular writer Soeda Azenbou: Asakusa is Asakusa for everyone. In Asakusa, everything is flung out in the raw. Desires dance naked. All races, all classes, all jumbled together forming a bottomless, endless current, flowing day and night, no beginning, no end. Asakusa is alive … The masses converge on it, constantly. Their Asakusa is a foundry in which all the old models are regularly melted down to be cast into new ones.

As part of this “foundry”, even the Aquarium is in the process of being recast in the latest model.

The Bug House and the Aquarium, left behind in the fourth district of Asakusa Park, seem memorials to the Asakusa of days gone by, and the dancers of the Casino Folies have to pass the fish swimming in the tanks of the Aquarium and go by way of the model of the Palace of the Dragon King to get to their dressing rooms. Just back from Paris, the master painter Foujita Tsuguharu has come to see the show, accompanied by his Parisienne wife Yukiko.

DQ flying purple fugu

If the so-called Japanese-Western Jazz Ensemble Revue, an incongruous muddle of different musical numbers, is a part of Asakusa, Model 1929, then maybe the Casino Folies, Tokyo’s one and only purveyor of the imported modern revue, is along with the Subway Restaurant Tower, a part of Model 1930.

Eroticism and nonsense and speed and comic-strip humour of current events and jazz songs and ladies’ legs…

But the seats on the third floor are not crowded enough for the conversation between the man and Yumiko to be overheard.

–So you’re saying that just because this old-fashioned big sister went crazy over a man, then the little sister wised up and turned into a new-fangled zube (Asakusaese for “bad girl”). Right?
–Is that how I seem to you?
–Stop putting on airs. It’s annoying. Park girls used to have a lot more guts.
–Absolutely. I’d like to be like that, too. The way I see it, when you fall in love with a man, and if it comes so you can really love him, then life would be wonderful. You’d understand if you took a good hard look at me. I’m not a woman. Looking at my sister, I vowed as a child that I’d never become a woman. Besides, men don’t have any guts, do they? Not one of them has ever made me a woman.

Isn’t it, isn’t it so? The Doton Ditch!
Town of rainbow lanterns, sleepless sparrows…

Drowning out the jazz band in its box, “Naniwa Kouta” blasts from the Casino Folies basement restaurant gramophone. On stage they are doing “A Platform in Shinjuku Station,” scene four of “The Boy Companion.”

Eroticism and nonsense and speed and comic-strip humour of current events and jazz songs and ladies’ legs…

–Look, most of the girls up there don’t wear stockings. Can’t they afford them? And if they could, would that mean they are doing something bad?
–You jump to conclusions. You were a young punk when you were a kid, right? But these dancers are just fourteen- or fifteen-year-old children. The oldest must be around twenty. You should see them when they leave after the show. If they were doing something bad on the side, would they walk into some grimy shop and have sweet red bean soup, wearing their kimonos, all cheap silk or muslin, worn to threads? So they don’t wear stockings, “going stockingless” it’s called, and show off their bare legs on purpose, you know. They don’t use white makeup on their arms and legs either. When it’s hot, you can see the red bumps – mosquito bites.

Yumiko then scrunches her shoulders as if she were cold. She takes a white satin scarf from her lap and buries her white cheeks in it, saying in hushed tones: When I’m with a man, I’m always sizing myself up – weighing the part of me that wants to become a woman against the part of me that is afraid to. Then I feel miserable and even more lonely.

–Come on. To make it with somebody these days you have to play innocent, say a lot of fool things, do everything in a roundabout way. It’s like what they just said on the stage: “I’m going off to a world where there’s food and fun,” and “Why not love me in a more materialistic way,” and…


1. Jazz Dance: “Titina”
2. Acrobatic Tango
3. Nonsense Sketch: “That Girl, That Girl!”
4. Dance: “La Paloma”
5. Comic Song…

There are eleven scenes in this variety show. And right, the dancers are in such a hurry to change their costumes in the darkness at the end of the stage that you can see their bare breasts.

And then –

6. Jazz Song “Ginza”

On this street, wide as a kimono sash,
Sailor pants and penciled eyebrows,
An Eton crop, now ain’t that chic?
Swinging a snake-wood walking stick…

Silk hat tipped to one side, black velvet vest, red ribbon bow tie, collars open whitely, thin walking stick tucked under the arm – of course, she’s a girl dressed as a man, and her legs are bare. Then she links arms with two girls in skirts that just about cover their bottoms to form a line while singing the “Modern Ginza song” in chorus as they dance, moving about as though really strolling the avenue.

Blackout – the next scene begins: “The Fukagawa Revelers’ Dance.” Braids swing out as two dapper youths in light blue happi coats caper.

–Yep, even an old-timer like me can understand this one. For the first time, the man takes an interest in the stage.
–That little one dances pretty good, doesn’t she?
–She should. Her grandmother or someone like that was a famous dance teacher.
The audience shouts out the names of their favourites.
–They’re really popular. Which one do you think is Ryuu?
–The little one. She’s named Umezono Ryuuko. Hate to disappoint you, but I hear she’s only fifteen. Saying this, Yumiko drops her face into her white scarf and hangs her head.
–Dances like this one – I can’t stand them. For someone like me who grew up downtown, they bring back all sorts of memories from when I was little. It’s not fair to make them dance like that with their hair all done up in braids. The men stare and get excited, and the women watch and feel strangely sad.
–So that’s why you came here in those braids.
–A braided wig is the best way for no one to know who I am. When I meet a man who is better behaved (not at all like you), then I become like a girl in braids. But okay, I’ll do what you want. But doesn’t this revue remind you of old theatres like the Nihon and Kinryuu? Kawai Sumiko throwing her name cards from the stage, middle-school students linked together like rosary beads and dragged away by the authorities, and … That was when the opera was really something.

Of course, I was upset about what happened to my sister. I was determined never, ever to be a woman. But come to think of it, even as a child I was probably jealous of her, too.

DQ tank and mask girl
–What? You think I’m one of those opera nuts? says the man, clearly surprised.
–How would I know? I’d just started grade school back then. That was more than ten years ago – five or six years after my big sister went crazy. Her lover was an Asakusa man. I hang out in the park because I want to meet him.
–And? So when you meet him you’ll avenge your sister?
–Just the opposite. My poor sister. I’m sure to fall for that man, too. I want to fall crazy in love with the man who made my big sister crazy. Of course, I was upset about what happened to my sister. I was determined never, ever to be a woman. But come to think of it, even as a child I was probably jealous of her, too. I used to try to be like her, practising being in love. So I want to meet him no matter what might happen.
–So whatever happened to the boat? Remember the boat? All these strange stories about your sister. They have nothing to do with me.
–Oh, but they do. I’ll tell you even stranger ones on the boat. Okay. It’s four or five days away, but let’s make it next Tuesday.

Saying this, Yumiko gives the man a scrap of paper.
–The boat’ll be at the place marked on the map on the back of this paper. Come at three o’clock. Okay?

Then, suddenly, without his even noticing, she has disappeared from the Aquarium.

DQ boke

Bad luck.

Be wary of new love.
Just let it be. Sorry
Will be entangled he or she.
This love makes others worry.

–It’s a fortune card from the Sensou Temple. Hey, that’s pretty clever. On the back of the card is a pencil-drawn map. On the stage is the finale:

(Something something) modern boy.
(Something something) modern girl.

Singing the refrain of “The Modern Song”, the girls dance off the stage. End of the show.

But Yumiko is nowhere to be seen. The man stays seated until the others leave. As the audience thins out, the walls, seats, floor of the theater being to reek. The stench of beggars wafts in.

Dear reader, I mean this literally. Since the revue first hung out its flags, beggars and vagrants have become patrons of the Aquarium. Beggars and bums watching the modern-style dancing of the powdered naked bodies. This bizarre scene of local colour is also Asakusa. Students, the “Ginza people”, and others like them have also little by little come into the picture.

Still, even now, every night without fail, you’ll probably spot some odd man, his face masked with beard, grime, and dust, dressed in rags, leaning against the pillar to the left of the pit, absorbed in the jazz dances. Outside, three men, five men, stand in the cold to stare at the dancers as they leave.

The one for whom you wait will never come.


Holding the fortune card in his right hand, the man clicks his tongue and glances behind him. At the theatre entrance with its rows of red banners is a bas-relief of a mermaid, plaster fish swimming above her.

–Looks like I don’t pull much weight here in Asakusa. Even that little girl didn’t take me seriously. Kindly giving me that map. And I took it.

It’s true. You don’t need a map to get to the riverbank. It would be simple to put Yumiko’s map into words, and it would go something like this: From the Niten Gate, the east entrance of Sensou Temple, you go straight on Niten Gate Street unti you run into the riverbank at the end. That’s the place.

Cross the streetcar tracks and bordering the river is Yamanoshuku-machi and, at the riverbank, the park is under construction. The Kototoi Bridge is on the left, and directly to the right, the iron bridge of the Tobu Line is being built. At the dock are twenty to thirty small boats, one of which is the Kurenai-maru – the name “Kurenai-maru” is carved and painted on the stern in red. There’s no need to go on and on with the directions. The riverbank is quite visible from the Niten Gate.

The fortune on the other side of the map reads:

The one for whom you wait will never come.

And so, the man intentionally comes to the river bank later than the Tuesday three o’clock date and … Startled, he withdraws into the shadows of the trees. There are indeed twenty or thiry boats, but only one has a pair of black silk ladies’ stockings hung long on on a pole to dry. What a contrast they are to the laundry on other boats – a brazen signal.

With the quick instinct of someone who has often just escaped danger, the man reads this as a warning sign.

–Okay. So she’s inviting me out onto the water. Well that’s just fine by me.
And, deadpan, he walks toward the reclaimed land where the park is being made and steps across the cut stone. A young boy in a floppy bell-shaped hat approaches him.
–Mister, you get here with the fortune card from the temple of the Holy Kannon?
–Who the hell are you?
–She’s waiting for you on the Kurenai-maru.
–You’re no boatman.
And the man hands him a five-yen note. He can tell a person’s motive by the way they accept money.

–It’s not much of a tip.
–Thanks, but I’ve been paid already. This way, please.

He lays a narrow plank from the concrete wharf to the Kurenai-maru. The man walks across.

Then – what the man sees – in the cramped cabin of the ship, sprawled on top of the bedding, Yumiko peacefully asleep.

Her short hair dishevelled, her forehead like a child’s; her eyelashes, her lips stand out from her face, each like a living thing in itself. Her deep red skirt has slipped above her knees. She is not wearing stockings. Those bare feet are perfectly parallel, soles like pink shell work, her face turned toward the ceiling. The charcoal fire in the clay stove softly illuminates her feet, her sleeping figure.

From The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa (1930) by Yasunari Kawabata, trans. Alisa Freedman, Univ. of Calif. Press (2005). The late-night discount store Don Quijote opened in Asakusa in mid-Dec 2013.

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