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The Samaritan of Kabukichō: Nippon Kakekomidera Head Gen Hidemori

Located in Tokyo’s red-light district of Kabukichō, the Nippon Kakekomidera is a refuge for the overwhelmed. The office welcomes visitors with a wide range of problems; many come out of total desperation and even on the verge of suicide. We interview Gen Hidemori, who heads the organization, about his efforts to help people suffering in the darkest corners of society.

Gen Hidemori

Gen HidemoriEthnic Korean, born in Osaka in 1956. Dedicated his life to volunteering after being diagnosed with leukemia-inducing human T-cell lymphotropic virus in 2000. Established the NPO Social Minority Association, the forerunner to Nippon Kakekomidera, in Kabukichō in 2002. After receiving support from the Nippon Foundation, established the Nippon Kakekomidera in 2012. Received Japanese citizenship in 2013. Established the Re-challenge Support Association in 2014. In 2011, Watanabe Ken produced and starred in a television drama based on his life.

Gen Hidemori, founder and head of Nippon Kakekomidera, was inspired to create a modern version of refuge temples that during the Edo period (1603–1868) provided sanctuary to wives suffering at the hands of their husbands. These Buddhist nunneries, or kakekomidera—literally “temples to flee into”—were one of the few state-recognized institutions women in Japan’s feudal age could turn to for shelter. Unlike its predecessors, however, Gen opens the doors of his organization to all who are in dire straits, regardless of age, gender, income, or social status. Visitors to the office located in Tokyo’s infamous Kabukichō red-light district seek respite from domestic violence, pressing debt, and trouble with organized crime groups. Gen says he even sees gang members looking to make a clean break from the criminal underworld.

Putting Past Sins to Good Use

INTERVIEWER  What does the Nippon Kakekomidera do?

GEN HIDEMORI  Basically, we work with people to find solutions to the problems they face. Many people turn to us because they feel unable for one reason or another to go to the police or government agencies. Since opening our doors in 2002 we’ve provided consultation for close to 30,000 people.

INTERVIEWER  How do you help?

GEN  For example, if a woman who is obviously suffering domestic violence comes to us, our first priority is to ensure her safety. After that we try to get the abusive husband into the office, where we firmly impress on him the consequences of his actions, using tough language when necessary. We take any step we legally can to protect the wife, including relying on police, lawyers, government organizations, and private support groups. We will even help her to find work if the situation drags on.

Some couples are able to work their troubles out after having time apart, while for others the only solution is divorce. Each situation is different. When yakuza are involved, meanwhile, I sometimes go to a group’s head office to talk things over.

INTERVIEWER  This year marks the fourteenth anniversary of the Kakekomidera. What changes have you seen in this time?

GEN  At the start we mainly helped women in Kabukichō exploited by the sex industry. Now, however, people contact us from around the country, and we’re trying to branch out nationally. In July 2012 we opened our first office in Sendai’s downtown area of Kokubunchō, the largest shopping and entertainment district in northern Japan.

The types of people who come to us have also expanded. We not only help people on the bottommost rung of society, but also employees of top companies, civil servants, doctors, lawyers, and entertainers. They all come to us with their backs to the wall.

INTERVIEWER  What would a lawyer come to you about?

GEN  In one instance a legal advisor to a right-wing group had been forced for several years to provide free counsel. He had to hide that he worked for the group and was treated as little more than a servant. His wife was the one who came to us. We advised her to go to the police, but she said her husband had to protect his reputation and it was out of the question. Watching him suffer day in and day out, though, eventually became too much to bear. She eventually told the group she had been to see our organization and impressed on them that it was in their best interest to bring things to an end quietly.

After a little while the group cancelled their contract with the lawyer. The wife thanked us and said her husband was finally able to sleep peacefully at night.

INTERVIEWER  What is your approach?

GEN  It’s important not to set out to fix everything. You have to understand that people have a hand in their problems. There is an urge to tidy everything up, but ours is a support role. You have to leave things a little gray and let people gradually work out issues on their own.

INTERVIEWER  Why do so many people turn to you for help?

GEN  It’s because I was an outlaw. I used to be a real hood, and as a result I know how to get thugs to back away and let them keep their reputation intact. I guess you can say it takes a snake to know a snake.

Still Hope for Japan

A second-generation ethnic Korean, Gen bounced among four separate men and women who helped raise him. He began running afoul of the law in junior high school and repeatedly spent time in juvenile detention for such offenses as squeezing money from people and sniffing paint thinner. After finishing his compulsory education he jumped from job to job, holding close to 30 positions over the years, including auto mechanic, sushi chef, scaffold erector, and carpenter. At 25 he started a company that supplied day laborers to construction sites. He used the kickbacks from laborers’ paychecks to fund a string of other businesses that brought in as much as ¥2 billion a year.

His high-handed business practices, however, led to lawsuits and the eventual bankruptcy of several of his companies. His loansharking and private investigation firms resulted in countless run-ins with yakuza over money—he reckons he came close to being killed five times—along with multiple arrests and jail time. While he never joined an organized crime gang, his lifestyle was almost identical.

INTERVIEWER  What made you change from a life of crime to one of helping people?

GEN  In 2000, when I was 44 years old, I was diagnosed with human T-cell lymphotropic virus, which is known to cause leukemia. It turned my life upside down. There was no treatment for HTLV at the time and I was told I would have less than a year to live if I got sick. It was like being handed a death sentence.

I couldn’t accept the idea of burning in hell alone, so I figured if I was going to die I would take down my five worst enemies. I was on the verge of carrying out my plan when I came to my senses. I already had a reputation as a monster for my ruthless pursuit of money and the thought of going out as a murderer made me realize the hollowness of my existence.

INTERVIEWER  Did you decide then to help people?

GEN  I didn’t have anything specific in mind. I just felt that taking up the cause of others would give my life meaning. In the end, I chose to help the downtrodden women working in Kabukichō, Japan’s most depraved district.

During the first six months I received a steady stream of phone calls from people calling me a fraud or telling me to give their money back. This didn’t come as a surprise, however, considering how much trouble I had caused over the years.

I’d made up my mind to help people, so I just had to grin and bear it. I slept in the office for two to three hours each day and the rest of the time I poured into solving people’s problems. I worked day and night like a man possessed, 365 days a year. Clients and I would put our heads together and work out a plan for their lives once they were free. If a person spent all his time bemoaning their situation I’d tell him he was better off sticking his head through a noose. I had no interest in going about it with kiddy gloves on. I would do whatever it took to help, even if it was a little underhanded.

INTERVIEWER  Has anything changed since you first began?

GEN  The number of people willing to volunteer has surprised me. Despite asking 5,000 yen as a way to cover office overhead costs, there was a steady stream of housewives, students, businessmen, and others wanting to volunteer.

I couldn’t understand at first why people would be willing to pay to help others. Up to then I had seen money as the be-all and end-all of society, but the volunteers who came to the Kakekomidera were all wholesome and good people. It was a real shock to me. It reaffirmed my faith in Japan.

A meeting with Nippon Kakekomidera staff.

  • [2016.09.16]
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