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In The Back of Glittering City—Koganecho Progresses Revitalization by Art

After clearing up all traces of its dark era with full of criminalities, an old district of a glittering port city in Japan is now taking a path to success of revitalization with young artists.

Photo of Katsuyoshi Ueno
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In Yokohama, the beautiful port city located next to Tokyo, there is a district called Koganecho which had been known as one of the darkest red-lights district in Japan. Drug, yakuza (Japanese traditional organized crime syndicates) and prostitution—the history of Koganecho had been full of criminalities. Even the film director, Akira Kurosawa chose this place to depict the evils of heroin in his 1963 thriller, "High and Low."

In January 2005, Yokohama City decided put an end to the dark history of Koganecho, by carrying out a drastic cleanup called “Operation Bye-bye”. All the doors of the brothels were shuttered. Prostitutes and yakuzas disappeared. The authorities thought they successfully erased all traces of Koganecho's dark era. But then they faced a new problem with the ghost town: What they can draw on the oldish empty canvas?

Koganecho's solution is art.

The Japan Times: “Koganecho transformed—from sleaze to teas” by Jon Mitchell

"The wide variety of groups involved (in the area's rejuvenation) — the police, the residents, the city authorities — had such a diverse range of ideas, that art really was the only way to link them together. So we decided to create a town where artists could come to live and work."

Cat's Forehead? Journal: “Cleaning up the streets with art - The Koganecho Bazaar 2011”

"Once illegal pubs have been converted into galleries with artists in residence, architects have been brought in to design the areas under the tracks and turn them into cafes or select shops carrying fashion and accessories, and young artists have appeared all over the area to hold exhibitions and other activities."

As in the latter article, “Koganecho Bazaar”, an annual art event launched in 2008 is now in its 4th year. Many artists are still actively working there as well. I think it is possible to say Koganecho is taking a path to success of revitalization at the moment.

- Koganecho Bazaar 2011

- Yokohama International Triennale of Contemporary Art

My thoughts on Koganecho and the surrounding old town area

I have visited Yokohama City many times, been around both the old town area and the bay area as shown in the map (5th pic).

In the contrast of the prominent bay area, the whole old town area has been suffering from economic decline for many years. In the old town area. a lot of department stores and movie theaters which had been faces of the city were closed. Many visitors from Tokyo just spend their time in the beautiful and clean bay area with luxury brand stores and high-class restaurants.

However, the new art movement in Yokohama City, especially Yokohama International Triennale of Contemporary Art brought new visitors to the city and created a big opportunity for Koganecho’s efforts towards revitalization.

Here are three key elements in revitalization of Koganecho:

1) Official Support for Art

Yokohama City has been eager to invite art projects. They have renovated historical buildings and warehouses in the bay area and let young planners to use them as public spaces for art. Since the art market is not fully commercialized in Japan, there is always room for start-up events to tie up with larger ones.

2) Curiosity and Flexibility of Young Generation

As you may know, Japanese artists are usually very shy, but they are still curious. Once they recognized Yokohama City as a new place for art, then they would eye for an undiscovered place like Koganecho. In addition, since many young artists and planners work in the both two areas now, it isn’t so difficult to cooperate each other beyond the border between the bay area and the old town.

3) Transportation Problem

There is no convenient access to the old town, because Japan’s National Route 1 and the railway functionally separated the two areas. From the bay area to the old town, it takes 30 minutes to walk. Almost all of Japanese people in urban area don’t prefer to walk such a long distance.

During this year’s Koganecho Bazaar and Yokohama International Triennale of Contemporary Art, free shuttle buses helped visitors to go back and forth between the old town and the bay area. But it is a temporary solution. I think Yokohama City needs to carry out a fundamental change on the transportation system in the old town. Probably a cycle road along the river that runs from Koganecho to the bay area could be a good solution. A lot of Japanese people now prefer to use bikes, especially after the March 11th disaster

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Photo of Ashley

Your inspiration brought to mind the projects artistic duo Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn (also known as Haas & Hahn) have initiated in the slums (favelas) of Brazil. The colorful mural installations not only serve to brighten the dim, depressing living conditions of the favelas —they also employ large groups of locals as painters and educate them in the process, techniques, etc.

Their latest project, Santa Marta has clearly transformed the neighborhood, visually.

It would be great to know how the painters have fared since the project has stalled (they're looking for financial support in the hopes of painting the entire hill) and how / if the neighborhood has otherwise been energized by the project.