By OLIVER BENTLEY
Photo by Anonymous, from "Iconic Tokyo, Part 3"
This paper argues through the lens of Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life that Golden Gai – a small area consisting of six narrow, bar-filled alleyways – can be seen as a subversive space against the often economically-exclusive spaces of Shinjuku. It borrows from personal experience and theoretical concepts of ‘strategy,’ ‘tactic,’ and ‘written space’ in order to analyze power relations between Golden Gai and its surrounding space of Shinjuku. Certeau defines strategy as “the calculus force-relationships which become possible when a subject of will and power (a proprietor, an enterprise, a city, a scientific institution) can be isolated from an environment…. to capitalize on its advantages, prepare its expansions, and secure independence.”
In other words, a strategic space is one that possesses the power to be independent from the encroachment of other spaces’ interests; it can force its own interests onto its surrounding spaces, instead of being forcefully incorporated into other spatial norms. ‘Tactic,’ then, refers to that which opposes ‘strategic,’ i.e. more powerful, spaces and their interests, and “has no base where it can capitalize on its advantages.” A tactical space cannot force its interests onto surrounding spaces, but it can resist the influence of the more powerful ‘strategic spaces.’ Finally, Certeau understands ‘space’ as “a practiced place. Thus the street geometrically defined by urban planning is transformed into a space by walkers.” A place is a geometric and/or geographic entity that is turned into a space via the actions of people. Certeau likens spatialization of places to the writing of text, insofar as it produces and assigns new meaning. In this way, people write the metaphorical text of the city via the actions they perform therein. Through a lens of Michel de Certeau’s concepts of strategy, tactic, and space, Golden-Gai can be seen as a tactical space because it rejects strategic Shinuku’s norm of class-determined spatial writing. This tactic is primarily represented in Golden-Gai’s spatial norm of prioritizing individuals’ mutual hobbies and interests over economic class in determining who gets to write its space.
Golden Gai is located to the north-east of the commercially saturated periphery of Shinjuku Station and to the immediate east of the yakuza-dominated area of Kabuki-cho. This paper understands these two areas as strategic spaces, because their space and norms have expanded significantly in recent history, thus pointing to their power to incorporate other spaces instead of vice-versa. This expansion is reflected, for instance, in the development of the Shinjuku skyline. In the strategic space of Shinjuku, economic class often determines who gets to write particular spaces. Office buildings are restricted to particular classes, with wealthier firms occupying higher floors. Thus, different economic classes write the spaces of different floors. The entertainment industry in these areas tends to be similarly divided along lines of class; certain spaces are exclusive to particular economic classes because of their otherwise prohibitively high costs.
This class-based disparity in spatial access is represented, for instance, in the stark price difference between hostess bars and chain izakayas in Shinjuku. Individuals belonging to the upper classes enjoy the privilege of being able to pay the expensive fees necessary to visit hostess clubs and write the clubs’ spaces. Meanwhile, less economically privileged individuals are confined to writing the space of cheaper forms of entertainment, such as that of chain izakaya. In this way, class often determines who gets to write Shinjuku’s spaces, both in its business and entertainment spaces.
Golden Gai, as a tactical space, rejects this norm of class-determined spatial division seen in strategic Shinjuku. Instead, its owners assist in providing a place where people from most economic classes can gather to write their own equally represented spatial text; Golden Gai is a sort of public mural, allowing almost anyone to spatialize – to write meaning to – its ‘place’ of six narrow alleyways of bars. One primary way in which owners do this is by producing spaces centered on particular interests or hobbies instead of relative levels of wealth, as is often the case in the surrounding strategic space of Shinjuku. For instance, Bar H.O.D. exclusively plays punk rock in order to attract punk rock fans.
Similarly, Bar Plastic Model decorates itself with 1980s memorabilia for the purpose of attracting individuals with nostalgia for or interest in 1980s music, plastic models, and movies. In this way, the owner’s thematic choices encourage spatializing, or the writing of text, along lines of particular interests, instead of economic class. Although certain hobbies or interests might be associated with particular classes, Golden Gai’s uniformly priced bars are at least accessible to most classes and primarily premised upon mutual interests, instead of wealth. In this way, Golden Gai can be seen as a tactical space because it rejects the class-based segregation seen in its surrounding strategic spaces.
Customers of course play a significant role in producing Golden Gai’s tactical, interest and hobby-informed spaces; their actions write the spaces of the bars. In this argument, I will borrow from personal experience. Several months ago, a friend and I visited a 1990s-themed bar in Golden Gai. Shortly after we arrived, a middle-aged man named Ken-san sitting next to me struck up conversation with us. He later reveled that he received law degrees from the University of Tokyo and Harvard University, and currently operates his own law firm in Tokyo. These factors pointed to his high economic position. Our interaction with Ken-san reflected Golden-Gai’s tactical rejection of Shinjuku’s spatial exclusion of particular classes.
Despite the dramatically different economic classes of Ken-san and I, we both wrote the space of the bar out of a mutual interest in 1990’s pop culture. In a second visit, we sat next to a doctor, and a former bike gang member (bōsōzoku). We all shared a common interest in the bar’s theme of 1990s’ pop culture. Thus, in opposition to East Shinjuku and Kabuki-cho’s often class-based restriction of who gets to write the text of the city, Golden Gai allows individuals sharing mutual interests, instead of mutual economic class, to write its space. In this way, Golden Gai can be seen as tactical because it rejects the norm of class-determined spatial writing seen in strategic Shinjuku. The specific themes of bars in Golden Gai encourages interest determined, instead of economically determined, access to spatial writing.
In conclusion, it is clear that through a lens of Michel de Certeau’s concepts of strategy, tactic, and space, Golden-Gai can be seen as a tactical space because it rejects strategic Shinuku’s norm of class-determined spatial writing. This tactic is primarily represented in Golden-Gai’s spatial norm of prioritizing individual’s mutual intersts over economic class in determining who gets to write its space. The similarly and affordably priced bars of Golden Gai encourage individuals to gather out of mutual interest, and allows their spatial writing to be, relative to strategic Shinjuku, unfettered by economic considerations. The case of Golden-Gai affirms the possibility of rejecting hegemony, even if only on a small scale of six alleyways, and begs us to ask, can tactical spaces ever replace the status quo strategic spaces?
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Certeau, Michel De., and Steven Rendall. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
Garcia, David. “From Tactical Media to the Neo-pragmatists of the Web.” Leonard Electronic Almanac 20, no. 1 (2014): 124-135. Accessed July 16, 2015. https://www.academia.edu/7031360/From_Tactical_Media_to_the_Neo_Pragmatists_of_the_Web
“Bar Plastic Model｜omise ni tsuite.” Bar Plastic Model｜shinjuku goruden gai no tekunoporisu. Accessed July 11, 2015. http://www.plastic-model.net/about/index.html.
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This article was originally submitted to a course called "(in)visible Tokyo" at the University of Tokyo