The Samaritan of Kabukichō: Nippon Kakekomidera Head Gen HidemoriSociety
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.
Ex-Gangsters on Staff
In April 2015 the Nippon Kakekomidera kicked off a new project, the Shusshosha Izakaya, to support former inmates in rebuilding their lives by providing positions at a privately run restaurant. The first shop the group opened, Kakekomi Gyōza in Shinjuku, is a Japanese-style pub featuring fried dumplings along with other fare.
The shop is located in Kabukichō and produced by the Re-challenge Support Association, an organization Gen established to support ex-prisoners in rejoining society that is headed by former top public prosecutor Hotta Tsutomu. The restaurant provides jobs to people who struggle to find housing and employment due to having served time behind bars.
INTERVIEWER Why did you start the restaurant?
GEN Over the years I came in contact not only with victims of crime but perpetrators as well. Logic dictates that to reduce the former you have to decrease the number of people breaking the law. Recidivism accounts for 60 percent of criminal cases, so preventing people from backsliding is vital.
A major hitch for former inmates trying to make their way back into society is finding work. The data says that once back on the streets, ex-prisoners are four times more likely to return to crime if they are unemployed.
Ex-cons tend to work in places like construction sites and farms, where they have little contact with regular citizens. To get along in society, however, they need to learn how to communicate. That’s where the idea for the izakaya came from. I felt that interacting with customers would build their confidence to get along with average people. At the same time, I thought the sight of someone doing their best to rejoin society would reduce the stigma and fears surrounding former convicts.
When we opened some people raised concerns, such as employees having access to knives or stealing from the register, but the endeavor has been a huge success. It has helped a lot of people, which is what we set out to do, and has become a popular restaurant in the process.
Anyone Can Start Over
In February 2016 Gen opened a second Japanese-style pub in Kabukichō, Kakekomi Sakaba Gen. The endeavor is a step up in terms of support from the first restaurant, which allows only three employees with prison records to join its 10-person staff and excludes anyone guilty of a felony. The new venture, with support from the Re-challenge Support Association, does away with these rules and employs former gangsters, methamphetamine users, and those guilty of violent crimes.
INTERVIEWER What areas do you pay attention to when working with employees?
We try not to leave them on their own for long stretches or have them handle large sums of money. Staff members in charge keep a close eye on employees’ daily schedules to make sure they don’t slip into old habits. It takes a lot of time and effort, but if employees are confident in their lives they also do well at their jobs. I keep telling them that all people can start over, no matter what their past. It’s important that they believe this.
INTERVIEWER What have you noticed in listening to the concerns of so many different people over the last fourteen years?
GEN I can’t help but feel that indifference is on the rise. Take as a prime example the growing number of people who die alone. When Mother Teresa visited Japan in 1981 she was impressed by the nation’s prosperity, but spoke about how it had bred apathy toward others, especially the poor and the disadvantaged. She shared the idea that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.
I don’t feel the situation has changed compared to thirty years ago. In truth, it’s getting worse. Indifference has become common in even the most basic human relationship, that between parent and child. There are too many mothers and fathers who don’t know how their child spends time, whom they hang out with, or what they eat. If they’re that unconcerned about their own kid they certainly aren’t going to care about strangers. It makes me feel that social morals are worsening.
INTERVIEWER What changes would you like to see in society?
GEN You have to change the structure of society down to its core. In Japan economic inequality is only going to grow. As the well-off age and work to secure their way of life, people on the lower rungs of society who are struggling to get by on what little they have are going to be left with even less.
My hope is that people will learn to be less self-involved and to sympathize even a tiny bit with others. If people would use or donate just a fraction of the money they have saved up it would dramatically change society. I’d like to see some of the 30 trillion yen said to be squirreled away in mattresses and dresser drawers used to improve the condition of others. If such an idea took root Japan would be a different place.
The biggest lesson for me over the last fourteen years has been that you can’t live for money. Relationships are what make us human. Our connections with one another are the most valuable thing we have.