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The Making of a Tokyo Bar 'Mama' (Kogiku 1)

Just out of the South Exit of Nishi-Ogikubo Station, the former black market alleyway known as Willow Alley resembles a small corner of Tokyo’s old “shitamachi” commercial neighborhoods. It is a wooden longhouse (nagaya) filled with matchbox-size venues, nearly all of which were once snack bars , and before that, commercial sex venues. Still, even among the many small eateries that line the alleyway the extremely narrow entrance to the small eatery Kogiku is easy to miss. With a few customers – no more than five or six – the place is full.  Whereas some places now occupy a stall that would have fit two bars in the past, Kogiku retains the scale of the Showa period and some of its culture as well. There isn’t a menu. If you ask for something, the “Mama” will try to make it. If you ask, “Mama, can have a rice omelet?” you’ll probably get one. Or, “Mama, are there gyoza tonight?” Well, there might be or not be. It’s just like home; and like home, if you are a regular, “Mama” might even send you over to the nearby Seiyu Department to pick up some last-minute needed ingredients. The regulars are happy to oblige, as we have seen on several occasions.


The “Mama” of Kogiku is Yamai Nami. On the surface, Kogiku feels like one of the idealized culinary communities portrayed on a nostalgic Japanese television drama highlighting Tokyo’s food scene. But behind the good food and warm atmosphere created by the charming hostess is a story of the economic struggles of a single mother making a living in Japan’s precarious service economy.


Nami now lives in Saitama, a good two hours from Nishiogi, but she was born in old central Tokyo and speaks with a real Edo accent, according to those who can judge such things. Nami, now 50 years old, explains that her father died when she was young, and her mother raised the family working as a seamstress. Perhaps she learned the ethos of the independent female artisan from her mother. In any case, after she married young, and later herself divorced, she also found herself raising three children on her own. After years of doing eclectic odd jobs, she decided to open up her own small eatery.


“When I was 34, I opened up my first place called Kogiku in Kichijoji.  It was a small restaurant because I had three kids at the time in elementary school. Or, maybe the eldest was already in middle school? Anyway, it was around that time. Before that, I had done all kinds of jobs. I had worked as a bus guide [She pauses to do a very lively demonstration of her bus guide routine]. That’s seasonal work. In Spring and Fall, I would be working as a bus guide. But when I was out on trips I would be worried about my kids. So, I thought if I worked here [at a restaurant] the kids would be able to come in and see me when they needed to. If it were a “snack bar” [a hostess bar catering to male customers], they really wouldn’t be able to come in. So that wouldn’t have worked out. Someone recommended an open location to me, and I rented it. That way my kids [could] come in and see me, and I could also prepare dinner for them. So a small restaurant seemed like a good idea.”


“It was just a pit stop, a small yakitori place, only thirteen square meters or so, really small, but still twice the size of this place!” It was on the backside of Kichijoji’s Kintetsu Department Store (now behind Yodabashi Camera), on a busy narrow street that was a former red-light district and still is home to many sex service businesses. “In those years, there were a lot of cabarets and pink salons,” Nami said. “There still are, but there are also some restaurants. The place I was in is now a tea shop.”


Opening her first shop in that neighborhood, she inevitably ran into some trouble with ruthless real estate agents. “I was cheated,” she said. “Somehow the rent I was paying landed in the hands of another person. Even the deposit I paid ended up in the hands of this person.”


“I was cheated for a whole year. The landlord didn’t say anything for a whole year. When I went back to extend my lease, I found out the father had actually died, and the son had inherited the place. The whole time, someone got in with the real estate agent and had been taking my money. But, this is what I think I understand only now. At the time, I was only in my thirties and really didn’t understand anything.”

“So one day this guy who looks like a lawyer shows up and shows me this paper saying I have to get out on ‘this month, this day’. I was shocked. I told him, ‘I’ve paid the key money and paid the rent every month.’ But when I went to that landlord’s place, he said ‘I haven’t received anything.’ And when I showed him the paperwork, he said, ‘that is completely void.’”


“So I really couldn’t do anything about it. I really didn’t have time for worrying or crying. I had to feed my children. I asked some people to help clean out the shop. I had such a shock, I really couldn’t go to the shop myself. I had an acquaintance, a woman in the business association. She said, ‘you’re welcome to work here.’  I worked at a bento shop. Then I worked at an insurance agency. You can always find some sort of job. In insurance companies, if you pass the exam, then the person who referred you receives a bonus, and so I referred people. I would go there, punch my time card, then ride my bike to the bento shop to make deliveries. During the same time, I was also working as a ‘companion’ [a receptionist or hostess]. I was also working nights at that ‘mama’s’ snack bar, then after that working at other jobs. Really, I was doing all kinds of jobs. That’s the truth. I had to take care of my kids.”


“I had borrowed money from a company, and I really felt I had no choice but to pay it back. As for suing the people who cheated me, the papers weren’t strong enough to get a judgment. Not knowing any better, I had been introduced to them by a friend, and I just assumed, ‘I have to do it this way.’”


She described these long-ago traumas with the same upbeat tone she talked about everything. It was behind her. “I was really just a kid then. I really didn’t know anything about the world. I spent one year and three months in Kichijoji. Some of the customers from that time still come now.  Some of them have already passed away though. It’s already 20 years ago. For me, it feels like yesterday, but when I look in the mirror I think, ‘Oh, it wasn’t yesterday!” she said with her soft laugh. “When I look back now, I think these have been a good twenty years. “I’ve had a lot of experiences.”


On her first attempt at running a restaurant, Nami had pretty significant financial and emotional setbacks, but another chance soon arose.


“I figured I was just working in order to be able to eat. So working for others was fine. Working for myself was also fine, whatever brought me money. But I was working all over the place, and all of the jobs were unsteady. I talked to a friend who said, ‘someone is looking for someone to take over a shop, and it’s in Kichijoji.’”

“So it meant going back to Kichijoji, but that was good because I had customers there. So, I said, ‘okay, I’ll do it, and by the way, who is the owner?’ My friend replied, ‘it’s someone you know.’" When they met on the set date, it turned out to be the local gang boss.


“Yeah, he wasn’t an unknown face for me. When I first worked in Kichijoji, some of the young underlings would gather at the bar run by the girlfriend of the former gang boss. They would hang out there to keep an eye on things. So, they would come up to my place and say, ‘Mama, I’m hungry. Do you have rice?’ or ‘Please give me an onigiri’ or ‘Tea please,’ things like that. I wasn’t that much older than them but I felt they were like sons to me. So, I would say, ‘Just wait a minute, let me make you an onigiri.’  And they would say, ‘Mama, here is a thousand yen.’ And I would say, ‘hey, that’s too much.’ That kind of back and forth. So it’s not like I had never met the gang boss.”


“When I was hired to work in the shop owned by the gang boss, people around me seemed to think I was one of the boss’s women. But the boss didn’t have any special interest in me. I was just a business associate. But I figured I had better deal properly with his wife, so I called her “chief” and that’s how I tried to handle the situation.”


Nami’s bar functioned as a hostess bar, and many customers who had nothing do with the gangs also visited. So, did the gang boss and as well as his underlings. So, Nami said, she just tried to be ‘Mom’ to everyone, meaning she was in charge.


“The shop was run by the boss, so it couldn’t have a bad reputation. If ordinary customers stop coming, then the girls would have no income. That’s why I wanted to make the customers see that I was in control. But there is also the delicate dance of not hurting the feeling of the boss or the male psyche. So, [I had to avoid] things that might hurt them too much. Therefore, I thought the only way I can deal with this is to treat them like a mother would; I was really careful about that. You want to make sure the ordinary customers do not feel scared. You want to show them, ‘You guys, I’m here so you’ll be okay.’ But you can’t say that directly.”


No matter how much she played the role of bar house mother, you might suspect many ordinary customers had some reservations about drinking with the yakuza. But for some of them, this was exactly the attraction.


“Actually, you might be surprised, but many customers like yakuza-- the idea of rubbing shoulders drinking with a yakuza boss. That boss will say to everyone, ‘hey, come over here and drink with us!’ There are a lot of people like that. They like to feel that they were treated as special by the yakuza boss. I thought it was a lot of trouble,” she said laughing.


This small “snack bar” could only hold about 25 people, some sitting at tables and others at the counter, Nami said.  “I was working cooking the food and also accompanying them on golf trips where I was also cooking. These were my customers, so I felt I should cook something for them.”


The wife of the boss, however, kept a tight rein on expenses for food at the bar. “She came in and checked my receipts every day. I wasn’t trusted,” Nami said. But, she was paid properly, she said. And she also paid all the girls who worked at the bar appropriately. “Everyone month I handed them their pay in an envelope, ‘Here’s your pay!’ That’s a long while back, already more than fifteen years ago!”


Although she was paid properly and the work was steady and going smoothly, she began to worry how she could exit, “I began to think, ‘if I ever want to quit this, how will I ever be able to leave?”

A chance came when money started missing in the cash register. She never could figure out what was happening, but one day she found a bank deposit book in the cupboard of the bar. Thinking that a customer had left it there, she turned it into the bank. However, the deposit book apparently belonged to the boss’s wife.  I also told the wife that she should change the door locks because people were breaking into shops."


 “After that, the boss calls me up and says, ‘You! quit!’ When a gang boss asks you to quit, you just do it. So, I said, ‘Yes, I quit.’, I just packed up and left. I think the boss’s wife must have not been communicating things to him very clearly, and he got things all wrong. Some sort of fight happened. I really didn’t understand it all.”


“The next day, one of the young guys calls me and says, ‘the boss says that if you apologize, he will let you keep working. You’re an adorable woman to me, what will I do, Mama?’ I just thought, ‘he is the boss, when that man says, ‘quit’, there’s no other response, you just quit. I guess I could have said, ‘I will work until you find another Mama for the bar.’ My financial situation was difficult, but I really didn’t want to put up with that. A warrior doesn’t have a second chance. I could have just said, ‘Oh, I am sorry about that time,’ and apologized like that. But I really hadn’t done anything bad at all. So, what I actually said was, ‘if you think that someone can do it better than me, then show me…. That’s best for everyone, I’ll just watch from the sidelines.”


“Well, with this kind of personality, you might make enemies. It’s just something that happens naturally. But this was also a useful experience for me. Everything turned out okay, you could say. I was there about three years.”


Afterwards, to make ends meet, Nami worked at all sorts of jobs, including at an elder care facility. One of her regular customers ran an assisted living facility in Nishi-Ogikubo for elderly people, and offered her a job making lunch. So she took that job. “Then one day that customer came to me and said, ‘Nami-chan, I found a good shop place for you. Come take a look right now.’ He took me over here and we had a look. I told this customer, the boss of the care facility, ‘look, I can’t do this now, I don't have any money.’ He said, ‘don’t worry about it. You can pay me out of your wages.’ I could pay part of what I earned at work back to him. So, I said, ‘if we can do it that way, I’ll do it’. And while I was still working, I got a loan from him.”


When Nami opened up Kogiku in Nishiogi in 2005 it was like a homecoming for her. “I wanted to make it feel like it was a place where my customers could feel like they were coming back home,” she explained. “It didn’t feel any different from Kichijoji. In Kichioji I also wanted it to be like a place you could come home to. In Nishiogi I was already older. I wanted to do it as my Mom would. If someone says they want something, I would just say, ‘sure!’ and make it. Sometimes there’s what you need, and sometimes there isn’t. That kind of feeling.’


Nami picked up the recipes for the food she cooks at Kogiku from her many jobs over the years, her experience preparing food quickly for her children, and from the food at other restaurants when she was invited by customers.


“On the occasions when my customers asked me out to eat, I didn’t want to miss the chance. I could never afford to go out on my own, so at the restaurants, I had to figure what was in that dish, so that I could cook that for my customers. ‘That’s the ingredient they are using. Right. Okay!’ I was really serious about it.”


Nami’s father had a really refined palate, her mother told her. “You’ve inherited that from him,” her mother told her. “My mother was poor, but when I think about it now, she did not want us to be ashamed as we grew up, so she tried her best to find a way to expose us to all kinds of things. Now [I’ve been around too many places], I could say ‘oh well, that wasn’t really a steak.’  But if you have not eaten these things, and you go out in the world it will be a detriment for you, you will feel like you are less than other people, so she found a way to have us eat all kinds of things. So maybe that’s also part of it for me. My mother always thought her cooking was bad. My kids always say grandma’s cooking was good. ‘Kimi-chan’ – her name was Kumiko – ‘Kami-chan's miso soup was really good,’ that’s what the grandchildren say. I feel like crying, I never had a chance to tell her that. She passed away thirteen years ago. It was just a year or so after I started here.’”


Back then most of the places around Kogiku were small “snack bars” run by women serving male customers, of which very few, including the bar Beni, survive. They generally had doors with no windows. “There were a lot of places like that, Nami said. “You really didn’t know what was going on inside. Now, most of the women are in their eighties. Back then most of them were in their seventies. There were maybe five on this street, and then there were places that served Japanese food. There were some that didn't even have a name.”


It wasn’t easy for Nami at first. “Thirteen years ago, I was quite disliked. All kinds of things were said about me. People would say, ‘She is a yakuza girl. Don't go there.’ And they would call up to the real estate agent and say, ‘The yakuza are hanging out there every day, it’s scary,’ stuff like that.”


Now Nami is one of the respected long-term residents on the street. For some years, she was one of the main organizers of the women’s mikoshi, in which the women who worked in the nightlife business association carried their own shrine to the main Omiya Hachiman Shrine in Ogikubo. In the chaos of the immediate post-war period, Nami said, this group was originally formed as a type of self-policing and self-help association. Consisting of people working in the small bars along the railway, its members consisted largely of people who came to the area from other other parts of Japan or as refugees from Japanese colonies abroad. They were outsiders in the neighborhood. In the post-war period, this business association involved over 180 bar and club owners. Most employed three or four young women as hostesses in the “water trade” (sex-related nightlife business). At first, this group of young women participated as a colorful accompaniment to other shrine parades,  in which the shrines were largely carried by men, but according to one veteran bar owner, about twenty years ago they decided they could create a much more lively parade on their own and collected money to buy their own portable shrine, one which was formerly used in the children's parade. The young women carrying their own shrine were clearly a lively spectacle in the neighborhood matsuri. Now, unfortunately, the association has less than a dozen members, and most of the women who participate are no longer members of the association, but friends and customers. The decline in participation in such events is not unique to the woman’s mikoshi, however, but a problem of all traditional neighborhood street associations. “It used to be seen as something you had to do,” she said. “Now it is just an individual choice.”


It doesn’t take long to realize that Nami-san is an erudite person. She can speak at length on the history of the alleyway, which she has picked up from neighbors and customers over the years.  She is particularly interested in the history of the traditional nagaya (literally long house) in which her restaurant is located. It was originally a longer space with shops opening on both ends, but they were split down the middle to create two shops, one on Willow Alley, and one on the other side closer to the train tracks in what is usually called Ebisu Alley. It is an old building.


“Has the shape been preserved? No, not completely. The building is made of wood. The floor is packed earth. I had to lay down the flooring myself, just like the walls. It is not concrete, but wood. One day it is definitely going to rot. As for the foundation, I don’t know how long it can last, it’s all dirt underneath.”


When she first came into Willow Alley, the mice would visit often. “One day one of the guys sitting in the furthest seat said, ‘Mama are you keeping a squirrel as a pet?’ I said, ‘no that’s a mouse.’ They would run along the electric lines. But they are gone now.”


A cheerful and handsome bartender in a kimono, afraid of neither mice nor men (nor gangsters), Nami looks like a character right out of Showa period drama. But her up-and-down career was shaped more by the harsh realities of the economically precarious life of a single mother in the Heisei period. Piecing together a number of part-time service jobs and continually facing financial realities, has not been easy for Nami-san, especially trying to run a successful small business while raising three children on her own. She still holds other odd jobs on top of her work at Kogiku to make ends meet. It is certainly not the simple life of the “culinary artisan,” or even the stable small business, as so often depicted in television food shows. The economic uncertainties never let up. But Nami-san doesn’t show it.

Because her story is so interesting, we broke it into two parts, in the next installment we will talk about how she creates a home-away-from-home in her interactions with customers. (James Farrer, March 22, 2019)


(Interview by James Farrer and Fumiko Kimura Oct. 14, 2018, Japanese editing and transcription by Fumiko Kimura, English text and translation by James Farrer, English copyediting by Briana Bagliani, copyright by James Farrer, all rights reserved)

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(Video produced by Kogiku regulars to celebrate the 13th anniversary of the opening of her place in Nishiogi. Includes images of Nami as a child and her previous places of employment.)

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