JIN-384 -- Reflections On the Nikkei's Rankings of Most Livable Tokyo Quarters for Foreigners

The J@pan Inc. Newsletter
Commentary on the Week's Business, Technology and Cultural News
Issue No. 384
Wednesday September 13, 2006 TOKYO
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@@ VIEWPOINT: Reflections On the Nikkei's Rankings of Most
Livable Tokyo Quarters for Foreigners

1. The High End: Azabu-Hiroo
2. The IT Connection: Kasai
3. The Low End: Asakusa and Shibamata
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@@ VIEWPOINT: Reflections On the Nikkei's Rankings of Most
Livable Tokyo Quarters for Foreigners

1. The High End: Azabu-Hiroo

Last month the "Nikkei Shimbun," a respected financial daily,
conducted a survey to determine the most livable Tokyo quarters
for foreigners. Curiously, the newspaper surveyed Japanese.
So the result is more an index of exoticism than a barometer
of foreigners' preferences in neighborhoods.

Azabu-Hiroo, an area chock-a-block with embassies and stores
purveying imported sundries, was named the most livable
Tokyo quarter for foreigners, by, as explained above,
Japanese. The quarter does include many supermarkets and
condos for expats and signboards in English--the sort of
infrastructure that makes life in Japan easier for
Japanese-illiterate foreigners.

Second and third, by a considerable difference, were
Roppongi and Aoyama, both in Minato Ward. The ward mayor
cites foreigners' emphasis on proximity of home to work
place as one reason for their choice of the two districts
under his jurisdiction, and indeed Roppongi Hills is a
paean to the Le Corbusier ideas that were the complex's
inspiration. However, the jewel in its crown, the Hills Mori
Tower, quickly became the place for Japanese IT venture
capitalists, drawing such Internet luminaries as Nikoji
Mikita of Rakuten and Takafumi Horie of Livedoor. These
entrepreneurs, young, moneyed, and brash, came to be called
the "hiruzu zoku," or "hill tribe."

From the perspective of the Minato Ward government, the
newspaper reports, cosmopolitanism also has a downside.
In the autumn of 2004 the ward implemented an ordinance
encouraging shops to join their local merchants'
association. These associations promote improvements to
lighting, sidewalks and other infrastructure, and hold
promotional events. However, many foreign-capitalized
bars and restaurants have not joined an association. And
negotiations are difficult because many have head offices

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2. The IT Connection: Kasai

Not all foreigners can afford to live in Azabu, Hiroo and
Roppongi.. Foreigners not on a cushy corporate package
have been known to get their laughs from the apartment
listings in local newspapers and elsewhere. Therein you
can find a one-bedroom apartment in Hiroo Towers for
551,000 yen and a five-bedroom apartment in Roppongi Hills
for 4,350,000 yen. (A colleague rents a one-room apartment
in an old building in Nishi-Azabu for 120,00 a month;
bargains can be found..)

For this reason, foreign enclaves are emerging elsewhere,
like Kasai in Edogawa Ward, in eastern Tokyo.

The Japanese respondents ranked Kasai 22nd in livable places
for foreigners. However, from 2000 it has been the
neighborhood of choice for Indians. Parks resound with the
voices of Indian children, and their parents work out at
the local gym. A child support program for Indian
and other parents has been established. In neighboring
Koto Ward Japan's first Indian school was founded.

The influx of Indians was spurred by a bilateral initiative
to promote IT that facilitated the acquisition of visas by
Indian engineers. They have congregated in Edogawa Ward
because of its proximity to the city center and cheap
prices. The number of Indians in the ward has leapt
tenfold to 900 in the past ten years.

3. The Low End: Asakusa and Shibamata

The Japanese respondents think the least livable places for
foreigners are Sugamo, Toshima Ward; Asakusa, Taito Ward.;
and Shibamata, Katsushika Ward. The first is indelibly
associated with Sugamo Prison, which incarcerated those who
fell afoul of the wartime Japanese government, and during
the occupation, former members of that government waiting
trial before the International Military Tribunal for the
Far East. Asakusa and Shibamata are part of the Shitamachi,
the low-lying areas in eastern Tokyo popularly regarded as
the repository of traditional artisans and folkways.
Traditions like public bathhouses and shrine festivals are
perhaps obstacles to foreigners' settling in the
Shitamachi. Truly Azabu and Hiroo with their
English-language signs and Citibank ATMs are more congenial

Shibamata is best known as the home of Tora-san, the
loveable hero of "Otoko wa Tsurai Yo ("It's Tough Being a
Man"), the world's longest film series. The films are
considered rich embodiments of the Shitamachi ethos and
ways. I've seen my share of the 48 movies, and, come to
think of it, I can't recall ever seeing a foreign face.

-- Burritt Sabin

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