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A Restaurant Owner as Community Activist

Updated: Jan 26, 2023

Sanninto – literally “three-person lantern” is a cozy dining bar on Heiwa-Dori street in Nishi-Ogikubo. A perfect spot for a quiet drink or unwinding with a book, it doubles as a salon for activist residents challenging the local political machine. Its cuisine, which is described as “non-national,” is creative izakaya fare, with a fusion of European and Japanese flavors. The dimly lit first-floor bar is favored by local women grabbing a bite and a drink after work, dining alone, or chatting with a companion. Regulars include the newly elected liberal mayor of Suginami District.

From Feuerbach to Anti-Capitalist Restauranteur

Sanninto's owner is Tsuyoshi Mizukoshi. He is from Doshi Village, Yamanashi Prefecture, and he is a rebel always looking for a cause. This year (2022) marks seventeen years since Sanninto opened in this location. Mizukoshi’s unique pathway into independent gastronomy is inseparable from his politics. As a university student, he first came into contact with a professor from the New Associationist Movement, an anti-capitalist non-violent anarcho-Marxist movement born in Japan in the depths of the recession of the early 2000s. “The year I entered university, a fairly famous Marxist professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo left the University of Tokyo and came to Kokugakuin,” Mizukoshi explained, “and he eventually became my mentor. An alternative counter-action started, led by Kojin Karatani, Akira Asada, and Ryuichi Sakamoto associated with the New Associationist Movement. I dove in and ended up writing my graduation thesis on it. They said we weren't going to sell our labor power to the capital, so I was thinking, ‘what should I do?’ I was thinking of going to graduate school, but one time my teacher took me to graduate school at the University of Tokyo. Everybody was reading Feuerbach in German and I'm like, ‘Teacher, I can't keep up with this.’ And he said, ‘Right, you are not meant for graduate school.’ So, what am I going to do…? I wanted to create a space for counteraction, maybe a drinking spot. So, I made my own five-year plan, starting with peeling potatoes at a French restaurant. And at the age of twenty-seven, I opened the restaurant in 2005.”

“At first, I was alone, but in those five years, I looked for some people to work with, so I picked up one person from a coffee shop in Kabukicho, and then picked up a chef from Omotesando [the current head chef]. He was a part-timer at an Italian restaurant in Omotesando. I didn't want to start with an established chef. He was inexperienced, but he has a great sense of taste. So, thinking that this is the right person, I invited him, `You should definitely work with me.' Since his parents live in Hamamatsu, I went to his parents in Hamamatsu and I bowed to them and said, `I want your son to work with me. Please!’ And that was how we started as three guys.”

“As much as possible, I wanted communication with people. Books and music are connection points, I had this image in mind, but with food, there is this added primordial ‘my stomach is empty’ or ‘I am thirsty’ impulse you are satisfying, so I was drawn to opening a food and beverage business. I wanted to package this in a restaurant. I was thinking of selling CDs or books, but I thought with a restaurant I could put everything I had into it.” Mizukoshi’s connection to music and books is still very evident in the design of the restaurant, with alternative, artsy and lefty books lining the counter and a wide range of rock, jazz, and world music playing in the background.

Mizukoshi finds his varied interests melded in the name of the restaurant. “The basics of economics, as I studied them, are capital, nation, state, that trinity,” he said. “As for restaurants, there are the farmers, then us, and then the customers, three players are needed. With lots of things, three are needed, as in three people. So, I came up with the idea of three, and then there was the image of the lantern which I liked, so I glommed the image of the lantern onto these people and came up with the name.”

An Ever Changing Menu of Food and Ideas

The dishes served at Sanninto combine a fine-dining sensibility of craft and creativity with the comfort-food aesthetics of an izakaya. Some of the ingredients, such as venison and vegetables, are procured by Mizukoshi himself on his monthly visits to his hometown of Doshi Village. "I mainly go for the venison,” he explained. “When they shoot a deer, I go there. I only use a particular type of doe. It's completely different from Ezo deer [common in venison from Hokaido]. It's tender and doesn't smell at all.”

He also picks up some vegetables on these trips. “Recently, I was digging up new potatoes… near my parent's house in the village,” he said. “Well, everyone is like half-farmer, half-something else. Everyone works in the fields but also has a different source of income. I also can go to places other than our own fields and harvest some things..."

Although there are some old standards, the rest of the menu changes frequently at Sanninto. “People would get tired of it,” Mizukoshi said. “There are people who come several times a week.”

Some of the regular items are garlic potatoes, venison when he can get his hands on it, and fresh sashimi served up as a selection. On our last visit, we tried a diversity of dishes, all original and delicious: winter melon simmered with chicken; fried eggplant with soy sauce; ankimo (steamed monkfish liver) in ponzu sauce; fried root vegetables; country style pate; mashed taro and raw ham; fried brussels sprouts with soft-boiled egg and pepper sauce; nagaimo (Japanese mountain yams), kuwai (arrowhead bulbs) and lotus root with sansho (green Sichuan peppercorns; homemade tuna; watercress and kumquat salad; pumpkin gnocchi with mustard cream sauce; and for dessert, dried fig and raisin nut cakes. It was washed down with white wine and sake.

One of the great joys of eating and drinking upstairs was banging on a brass gong to get the attention of the stylish waiter (and all the other customers).

An Urban Third Place for Nishiogi Women (and Men)

Sanninto's customers mostly are in their late twenties to fifties. Half are regulars, and the other half are occasional or first-timers. There are overwhelmingly more women than men. “A lot of our customers are in their late twenties to thirties. It's an age where there are various changes even in private life; marriage and other things happen. There are many single people in Nishiogi itself, not just in our restaurant, so the turnover among customers is high…. In the past, seventeen years ago, there were many opportunities to say hello on the streets. With all the apartment buildings being built, the number of people who move here to stay in Nishiogi permanently is much less than it used to be. It's really fluid."

Customers at small establishments tend to age with the owners, reflecting the ties that owners make when they open. “I think that plus or minus ten from my age is where we get the most volume,” Mizukoshi said. “I’m forty-four now.”

The gender mix of customers seems to depend both on the staffing and the atmosphere of a restaurant. “We get a lot of women,” Mizukoshi said. “At first, I thought it would all be men, I am such a masculine personality." Mizukoshi at first imagined that this would be a bar where men would gather, but his partner at the time said that he “definitely wanted a place where women can come alone…. [As a result] It's really all women. Well, the regulars are about fifty-fifty men and women sitting at the counter. But overall, it's about seventy percent women."

Basically, single customers use the counter seats, and two or more people use the seats on the second floor. It is an easy place for women to enter, he said, and not too expensive or luxurious. Given the quiet and laid-back atmosphere of Sanninto, women may also feel they will not be harassed by men if they come in alone. “Surprisingly, there aren't many men who talk to a woman sitting alone straight away,” Mizukoshi said.

Crisis and Community

During seventeen years, they have faced many crises. The first was the Great Kanto Earthquake of 2011. “After the earthquake, I thought that the building would physically collapse because from the outside it looks like it might. It is really old,” he said. “It was around 2:40 in the afternoon right? We were still working during the daytime, so someone outside told me, `Mizukoshi-Kun, get out too!' So the store didn't collapse, but after that, until March, April, and May, really, there were no customers at all.”

After the earthquake, people were anxious about radiation and their own futures. The word on the street was “self-restraint,” “Nobody went out to eat. I thought we were going to go bankrupt,” Mizukoshi said.

“The next pinch was COVID. People stopped coming. It was terrible.” While customers did not come to the store due to the “self-restraint” imposed on restaurants by the city government, Mizukoshi responded by helping take care of the children of regular customers. When the first state of emergency was declared, many residents of Nishiogi had to do telework from home. However, children were at home because many nursery schools were also closed. It was a very difficult environment to work in, especially for women. Seeing that, Mizukoshi offered to provide the restaurant space to care for the children of such customers.

"Since no one was coming, I thought it would be a waste to leave the place empty," Mizukoshi said. "I heard that the nursery teachers were laid off. So, there was a nursery teacher, there were people who want to take care of them, and we had space. So, usually, there were three, four, five kids." Instead of lamenting what he couldn't do, Mizukoshi improvised.

Finding a Niche as an Outsider in the Community

Coming from outside Tokyo, Mizukoshi started his search for a location in more central urban neighborhoods.“Neighborhoods that have a subway have a different structure,” he said. “I also went to Yanesen [Yanaka, Nezu, Sendagi] and Bunkyo District, but it's hard to get a grasp of the town structure. On the surface, it is an easy-to-understand town structure with stations and their surroundings, but I don't know how people behave there. I felt more relaxed when I got out on the Chuo Line, Asagaya, Kunitachi, and Nishiogi. I narrowed it down to these three, then I just stood there at the station and saw what kind of people lived there, and what kind of bookstores were there in town. So, I realized that Kunitachi was a daytime culture, which wasn’t for me. Then it was down to Asagaya and Nishiogi. I felt the gap between me and Nishiogi was smaller, so I ended up choosing Nishiogi."

For someone with no connections to the neighborhood, it was not easy deciding to come here.

“When I first thought of coming here, people around me told me to forget about Nishiogi because it was difficult,” he said. “I wondered why. Back then there were few people like me from the provinces. Most of the [business] people had a close connection to the neighborhood, so if a stranger came in, it was difficult for them. It is a town where people keep an eye on each other. It is a neighborhood that people have a lot of interest in, so if someone comes in from the outside, they will often give up. It was only after I had been here awhile that I understood this tough environment. But I chose it after going around different places in the city.”

Despite this initial skepticism, Mizukoshi, who came to Nishiogikubo as a stranger, is now the chairman of the Heiwa-Dori Shopping Street (merchant’s association) and the organizer of the Nishiogi Appeal, one of the major alternative social movements that have arisen in the face of urban renewal threats (see more below).

Heading the Merchants Association

We asked Mizukoshi how a lefty intellectual like him came to take on the role of chairman of the shopping street merchants association (shōtengai), a position usually associated with the conservative shop owner class in Japan. "I wonder too why I'm doing this too,” he said with a laugh. “Actually, there are twenty-three merchant associations in Nishiogi right now. There are about ninety shops in mine, and in this area alone here there are four more. In all of Koenji there only are about ten. Nishiogi is so fragmented! The [main road north of the station] is divided into three, up to the Omekaido Highway. The road to Tokyo Women’s University is also divided into [several merchant associations].”

This fragmentation has resulted in political stagnation and a low level of activity, he said. Most importantly, the merchant’s associations (shōtengai) have not issued any statement regarding the controversial road expansion projects and planned urban renewal. “That’s an untouchable issue," Mizukoshi said. "This has a huge impact, I would say. There's a shopping street federation, but because of COVID, there's no meeting of that shopping street federation, so the only breakthrough. I could make, would be to take on the role of chairman of the merchant association.”

Each merchant association receives subsidies from the district government. So practically speaking, they will be reluctant to complain to the urban administration. "However, even when it's a matter of the survival of the shopping district itself, are you just going to sit by and not make any comments...?"

The importance of merchant associations (shōtengai) has diminished over the decades. “It seems that in the last twenty years, the merchant association has lost the role of attracting customers and making the stores more profitable,” Mizukoshi explained. “Now I think the function is more in terms of support, in the case of disasters, etc. Since there are many elderly businesspeople, it is difficult to create a new organization to support each other in case something happens. It's difficult, so I want there to be a horizontal connection within the organization that already exists. Another thing is the relationship between shopping districts and educational institutions is becoming weaker, like elementary schools and kindergartens. For example, if something happens to the children, the merchant association should take care of them, and since there was nothing interesting for the kids to do during the pandemic, I wanted to hold a small event for them in the shopping street. What do you want to do in the shopping street, or what can you do... So, I thought why not put up Tanabata decorations and get the kids to write some messages on strips of paper? That sort of thing."

“Because of the pandemic, we have not been able to hold any events for three years. I thought I should do it. Other than me, many of the members are older. Many of the recent chairpersons have been older guys in their seventies or eighties. Actually, they were more like retirees who had let their sons take over the business. But, already, I have been doing business here for seventeen years. Four or five years ago, I became one of the executives in the association. And I did the jobs I was assigned, so it really rotated around to me. This time during the election, I heard people complaining, ‘That guy will be organizing demos!’ But people said, ‘There’s really no other choice. He’s the only one left.’ So, I was chosen.”

In the past, the main force in the merchant associations were not restaurants or drinking spots, but retail shops, Mizukoshi explained. Now the changing composition of businesses has made it difficult to maintain the same organization as in the past. The role of restaurant owners has increased compared to the past. “The shopping street was basically about retail shops,” he said. “Originally, there were butchers, greengrocers, and futon shops. I don't know if it's because retail has become obsolete or if it's because online shopping has become the main thing, but now it's all about restaurants in Nishiogi. However, food and beverage businesses start work in the morning and you must work late at night, so you can't participate in shopping street activities. I can't force it on people, so I can't get everyone to participate.”

The merchant association serves as a type of self-governing structure, meaning that the association and residents will interact with each other and help each other in the event of a disaster. It also plays a role in conveying the opinions of residents to the district government. As the chairman of the organization, we asked if it was okay to participate in the form of a demonstration against redevelopment and road expansion. "They really don’t want that. But this is related to the whole of Nishiogi. If the road is widened, the redevelopment plans will affect everyone,” he said.

Founding Nishiogi Appeal

The origins of the “Nishiogi Appeal” lie with long-standing Tokyo government plans to broaden the “Kita Ginza Road” (Highway 116) heading north of Nishi-Ogikubo Station up to Omekaido Highway. Despite decades of delays, these long-moribund plans are now moving towards implementation, with dozens of shops along the street slotted to be demolished. Many residents fear a chain reaction of demolition and urban renewal around the JR station at the heart of the town. This would drastically affect the nature of the community, tipping it towards corporatization. Mizukoshi wants the people in the community to be concerned about the issues that affect all of them.

The ostensible reason for the plan for widening the roads north of the station is to make it easier for fire trucks and ambulances to come here in the case of an emergency, but Mizukoshi is skeptical of the government’s defense of its plans. “But in reality, we all know in the case of a big disaster, they will not be coming here at all. They will stay in the city center. We will have to take care of ourselves.”

At the start of the Nishiogi Appeal, the members were people directly affected by the road widening plan. These included the owners of an izakaya, a clothing store, a bookstore, a gallery, and a tobacco shop.

“Originally, the first people to get involved were five or six women whose shops were the target of the road expansion," Mizukoshi said. "They met up at the Shubo Takai, a local izakaya. They were told to come here for advice. I think it was in 2019. I didn't know about the road plan, so I thought, ‘Ah, is that the way things are going down here?’ We should do something to stop it. That is the beginning of ‘Nishiogi Appeal’ It's not even a group, but it's a gathering of individuals in Nishiogi to express our refusal to go along. We named it that way, and about three years ago, we started holding monthly meetings."

Mizukoshi himself has been involved in activities that could be called the predecessor of the Nishiogi Appeal. “Even before that, I had been doing demonstrations in Nishiogi on my own. After the earthquake in 2011.” His goal, it seems, has always been to organize the community. “We are a community, so what is lacking in the community, little by little, we're going to regain our creativity. Ultimately, it's about mutual aid in the community. I thought it would be nice if there was something like that, so first of all, I wanted to study up, so I started a reading circle as a place where a number of people could interact. We started having book clubs around 2006. So, yeah, sometimes we have a reading, sometimes not, and we discuss a certain topic. So, after 2011, we started with a small number of people, like, let's do a demonstration in a different form... Well, it's on the surface it was against nuclear power plants, but the point is, we are the citizens in a democracy, and we are the ones involved and you are involved too, so why don't you take it upon yourself? I started doing this at my place of business. That’s how it started.”

However, even at this time, most of the people doing business in Nishiogi did not participate, Mizukoshi said. As a business, they probably fear that participating in demonstrations, in other words, expressing their political will, might affect their business. “I don’t know,” Mizukoshi said. “For me, I do my own thing, and I haven’t seen any effects.”

Mizukoshi has been the organizer of this group from the beginning, and he has done all the groundwork preparations for the demonstration against the road widening. "Well, I have to deal with the security section of the police,” he said. “It's easier if you know each other, so the application will go smoothly. Anyone could go, but it is me each time.

The big event of the Nishiogi Appeal was a demonstration in June 2022 to protest the road widening plan. The route for a demonstration has to be approved by the police. “There are really limited options in Nishiogi,” Mizukoshi explained. “The route was altered several times, but once you have worked one out, it's likely that they'll say it's okay because I've been doing it for a while. Until then, it's really a pain. You will go negotiate three to four hours per session. ‘Let me walk here.’ ‘No, this one is no good.’… Officially, if you apply for a demonstration, you can walk there. However, it depends on police circumstances and local circumstances, and in Ogikubo, it's not the police making the final decision, but if the Public Safety Commission is above them. If they say it's no good, the police say ‘no.’ it's like a messaging game."

In the June 2022 demonstration, people from Koenji, who are similarly shaken by the redevelopment issue, were also participating. “They had the same threat of redevelopment as we originally had, but up until now, we have been doing this in our own way. I was doing things in Nishiogi. And "Shiruto no Ran" (Recycle shop owner and organizer of the demo in Koenji) was organizing his own action. Well, we're both doing counter-actions, so I think it's a sign that reality is pushing us to the point where we have to work together. So, a group from Koenji came to our meeting, saying ‘Let's work together,’ so we started working together in February of this year."

The organizers wanted to create a festive atmosphere for the demonstration. It included a mobile pub, a band, and a dragon dance, and felt like a street party.

"That (mobile pub) was created by the Koenji Group,” Mizukoshi said. “In April, they asked, 'Can I bring it?' And I said, ‘of course!’ The demos in Koenji are larger. They use a sound car. When the sound car comes out, um, you can only do it once a year. We're light, so we can do it every month. But that's why if you're a group in Koenji, you will want to come over, it’s a waste to just do a demo once a year, so they want to participate in Nishiogi.”

There was also a dragon dance. A real lion dance costume would be too expensive, he was told, so he made a dragon out of a Japanese carp streamer (koinobori) and a lion’s head. So, with a dancing dragon, a DJ booth, live performers, a gong, and a portable izakaya the demonstration was almost like a matsuri. Hundreds of people, including many from Nishiogi, turned out. The actions created new connections for the group. "Recently, Tateishi (Katsushika District Tateishi), and people from areas like Jingu Gaien, which are also facing redevelopment threats, have participated,” Mizukoshi said. “Since redevelopment is being done with the same logic, it feels like everyone should be united in this way.”

Helping Elect a Mayor

Urban renewal became a hot topic in the Suginami district mayoral election, which was held on June 19, 2022. In a major upset, Satoko Kishimoto, a liberal newcomer and opponent of the expansion plan, defeated the incumbent, Ryo Tanaka, who was Mayor of Suginami District for ten years from 2020 and had been promoting the road expansion.

Victory in the mayoral election seemed like a turning point in the struggle against the redevelopment plans. "We've been working since February, even before Satoko Kishimoto was discovered,” Mizukoshi said. “I always thought we would lose. Anyway, regardless of the election results, we are against redevelopment. So, I said, we have to protest, and everyone agreed. My idea was, ‘No matter who the district mayor is, please, don't touch Nishiogi!' Then we found a candidate.”

The 47-year-old Satoko Kishimoto was a dark horse candidate, Mizukoshi said. She had been living in Belgium for nearly two decades and is married to a Belgian man with whom she has two children. “I had barely heard of her. She was studying muncipalism, about regional autonomy in Spain or Italy…. People said, ‘No one knows that kind of person. You will definitely lose like this. You should stop.’”

Mizukoshi first met with Kishimoto at the Organization to Elect a Mayor of Suginami Who Cares for Residents. At that time, the candidate for the mayoral election was still undecided. But even some local businesses came out in favor of Kishimoto. "It's epoch-making that Yakitori Ebisu [a mainstream izakaya near the station] put up a poster for the mayoral election that we made during the mayoral election. They've never done it before." Everyone was surprised when Kishimoto won, Mizukoshi said, even her supporters. Up until that time, she had been living abroad and wasn’t even sure what she would do when she relocated to Japan. “No, really, the day before, we were talking about (Kishimoto) working part-time at our restaurant next week (laughs). She had a think tank job as a way to make a living, but she didn't want to do that. So, we thought, she can work part-time somewhere, and then do something about the rest. I said I'll take care of things, and you can stay at my house or an empty house.”

To everyone’s surprise, Kishimoto was elected mayor, and she didn’t need to work at the restaurant or a think tank.

We asked if Kishimoto's election as mayor would stop the road expansion plan? "No, no, no, that's not true. Will they stop now? Nuclear power plants, wars, and roads are still going on, so it’s going to keep going on."

Some people have already sold the land to the government, he said, so if the expansion is canceled, other problems will come out. The reality seems to be quite complex. "It's not that easy,” Mizukoshi said. “Really, do you call it town development, do you call it regional autonomy, who are the players? Really, I'm currently the chairman of the shopping district, and the opportunities to get involved in the administration are increasing.”

Mizukoshi said he had doubts about the previous administration's way of doing things, such as the government-led town development round-table conferences he participated in, which were moderated by external consultants. “And then I came to my senses, and there was a time when I made an angry comment that disturbed the situation and almost destroyed it. It was ridiculous,” Mizukoshi said. “They had us do something like a group session, and they would ask us to bring out the good things about Nishiogi, and they would come up with ordinary things, such as the individual shops doing their best, or having fun walking around. So, we are going to ask everyone to imagine the future of Nishiogi, but after doing that several times, they said that this is the future of Nishiogi, that they would widen the roads, and improve the area in front of the station... and it was decided that they would do it properly from this year. I said isn’t this really the wrong way to do things. If it is going to be like this in the future, I don’t want to come again. Well, the District Mayor has changed, and maybe things will really change in the future.”

Looking Forward

Mizukoshi is looking for signs from the new mayor. "Well, I'm looking at how the new district mayor, Kishimoto, will act,” he said. If I think about it, the town meetings that the government was holding could be held here. If we could gather the local residents and ask them what to do for Nishiogi. I have a few ideas, so I'm thinking about how to actually implement them, and I want to do some sort of town development that will allow the government to support the areas where we see a deficit. That's the future of Nishiogi Appeal."

Mizukoshi speaks with a sense of wry humor, but it is easy to sense the conviction underneath. The future of Nishiogi should not be made by someone else, but by the people who live there. Everyone who lives in this town wants a good future for the town. The lantern that Mizukoshi and others have lit forms a space for jointly discussing this future. (James Farrer January 23, 2023).

(Interview by James Farrer and Fumiko Kimura, July 13, 2022; Japanese editing by Fumiko Kimura; translation by James Farrer. Copyright James Farrer, all rights reserved)



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