Early on New Year’s Eve you head out to see a benefit concert by the Showa-era trio Tokyo Taishuu Kayou Gakudan, Tokyo Popular Song Ensemble, in a park in the day-labourers’ district of San’ya, and you’re late so you jump in a taxi, and on your way the woman driver cackles as she gives you the etymology of the street name, Kotsu Dori, she says, It’s another way to read the kanji character for bones, isn’t it, hahaha, kotsu, they used to stack the bones of those people along here after, you know, after they did ’em in, hahaha.

As if the night isn’t already chilly enough. Street of Bones: where the Edo authorities lined up the severed heads from the execution grounds near Minami Senju. This is just south of the crossroads of Namidabashi – Bridge of Tears – the departure point for the condemned to say their goodbyes.

sanya tama hime

Yep, the feng shui here is not prime. The cab turns into the street for Tama Hime Shrine and its attached park, and you roll through the darkness past the grim bunkhouse dorms that call themselves business hotels, up to the fenced-off patch of sand that is the park. There are policemen on the corners, a half-dozen men in blue huddle at the edge of a building, as if in a war zone. They are in full riot gear, with helmets and shields.

You walk in search of the concert, looking in at the shrine with its inner sanctum of golden silence. A couple of down-at-heel men wander around. There seems to be almost no one else.

sanya band from rear

San’ya is not an address so much as an atmosphere, an environment, a social circumstance. A population of some 7,000 day-labourers bedded down here in the 1980s, and many thousands more through the Olympic decade of the ’60s. There have been riots involving rightists and leftists, gangsters, cops and workers. Pretty much all subdued now. The workforce has shrunk, moved out and died off. But the policemen remain vigilant. They cannot afford to be friendly. They cannot even be civil. When you ask one politely if he knows where the concert might be, he looks straight through you and says nothing.

Then you hear an accordion. What a relief. Following the direction of the sound you reach a thick grey blanket hung from some scaffolding. Behind the blanket is a sort of tent. Men keep warm around a few empty oil cans in which firewood blazes. The warmth is very good; it is a treat, part of an effort called ettou, or passing the winter, organised by the labour support group. For six days until January 6, the men get some activities and entertainment, and fire and food, which is carefully prepared at the back of the stage. A volunteer washes a big tub of rice beside a shrine for deceased organisers and supporters.

sanya shrine to fallensanya washing ricesanya plated

The band is part of the ettou effort, a trio comprising the two Takashima brothers on voice and accordion, and bassist Takatori. The tune they start with – and most of those that follow – is a Showa-era popular song. The accordion lilts, the vocal is both full throated and crackly, like a 78-rpm record. The bass thuds sparsely. More than just a musical ensemble, they are like historians, introducing some tunes by their relationship to the city, such as a song about arriving at Ueno from the north country, to find work. Or another entitled simply, “Ah, Asakusa”.

The small audience of men claps respectfully not only between songs but between verses and choruses. The band members bow deeply at the end, as if the privilege is theirs.

sanya band loud and clear
sanya band bow