The Ikebukuro Jianghu

From the Series: Decameron Relived

Illustration from a ca. 1492 edition of Il Decameron published in Venice.

Akiko was studying Chinese and had asked her friends to explain the Jianghu to her, but they admitted it was hard to grasp. At first, she thought it meant the Chinese mafia but soon learned it meant so much more. She worked part time in a few Chinese-owned bars along the northwest side of Ikebukuro train station in Tokyo, wanting to practice her Chinese. One of her professors had warned her against working in that part of town, citing the Chinese mafia as a big problem. But Akiko decided the weird old man had probably watched too many yakuza films. She thought it sounded a little far-fetched but admitted that she had seen several people who looked like gangsters come into bars in Ikebukuro. She could never really tell, and besides, she was often curious about people that she found frightening.

It was on one of these occasions that she first learned the word Jianghu. An enormous Chinese man with tattoos poking out from the sleeves of his polo shirt sat in the back of her bar. He chain-smoked as his friends ordered him drinks, never getting up from his seat and constantly glancing over at her. As the night progressed and he continued to stare, she turned to the one of her Chinese friends, nicknamed Coco, who worked in the bar and asked whether she knew the man over in the corner.

“Have I met him before?”

“Probably,” her friend responded. “He has a lot of friends in Ikebukuro.”

“He looks like mafia,” she whispered.

“Well he’s not really. That’s Big Cat. He’s just a well-liked guest in the Ikebukuro Jianghu.”


“Jianghu. Not heard of it?”

“No . . . ”

“It’s difficult to translate. We are all Jianghu, you are too now, I guess. It is a kind of relationship, a kind of person, and a kind of world. More and more of us find ourselves in the Jianghu these days.”

She nodded briefly and tried to ignore the tattooed man in the corner by going out the back to bring in some new bottles for the bar. By the time she returned, the large man had come up to the bar, leaning over the counter with a mischievous grin.

“I hear you are learning Chinese!”

“Mhm,” she nodded.

“And that you just learned about ‘the Jianghu.’”

“Eh?” she threw an accusatory look over at Coco, who shrugged.

The large man then sagely grinned, “People often ask, ‘where is the Jianghu?’ Well I say ‘The Jianghu is within your heart.’ The bigger your heart, the bigger the Jianghu. Where there are people, there is Jianghu. But the Jianghu is not open to everyone.”

“It’s hard to translate . . . ” Akiko’s friend said, adding a half-joke, ”Akiko’s heart is big, she comes here to work just so she can get to know weirdos like you, Big Cat.”

“Don’t let it get too big,” said Big Cat. “You might let a ghost into your life,” he remarked with a grin and wandered off.

At the end of her shift Akiko asked her friend to write the characters for Jianghu down on her hand and double checked how to pronounce it. Looking at the characters, Jianghu literally means “rivers and lakes” which only made what everyone was saying more confusing. She practiced the syllables in different ways walking to the train station, “jiang . . . hu . . . jiang . . . hu,” trying to remember them and capture some of their meaning through their pronunciation.

Akiko looked up Jianghu on her phone while riding the train home that night. Originally Jianghu referred to traveling folk who used the waterways beyond China’s major cities. They were a society beyond society, made up of artisans, bandits, magicians, and martial artists. She quite liked the word and found that a search for Jianghu online revealed Chinese martial arts TV shows where women can fly, and gritty arthouse films about accidentally falling into the criminal underworld. She learned a new Chinese saying, “cast into the Jianghu, one must make compromises,” and read an article by a professor about how the Jianghu proves that some words cannot be translated. She started collecting images of the Jianghu on her phone, and posted a few of her favorites to her friends on WeChat, jokingly asking “Is this Jianghu? Is this Jianghu?”

* * *

Weeks later Coco invited her out to meet some of her friends at a Chinese hotpot place near where they worked. It was on the eighth floor of a narrow building tucked behind several others. When she entered, she saw that her friend had invited Big Cat to come along too. He waived her over to sit down as he ordered for everyone. The others were some of the bar staff, as well as a young musician she had once seen perform there.

Big Cat gestured to the others and said, “Hey, hey, she is learning about the Jianghu.”

“Haha, eat with us and you will know!” the musician boasted, and started quoting classical Chinese poems that contained the word Jianghu. Akiko couldn’t understand, she had only learned Chinese for a couple of years after all, but she listened, nodding politely and allowed Big Cat to constantly fill her cup for rounds of drinking games.

As the night progressed, Akiko and the others became increasingly drunk, and Big Cat’s face turned into a glowing red ball. Smiling and sweaty, he puffed, “Now we have had our fun, let me tell you all something!”

The others all jokingly said, “Yes master!”

Big Cat’s face turned serious, “We keep all joking about the Jianghu, but the Jianghu tells us how we should treat each other. It is the rules outside of the rules. The society for outsiders. We welcome almost anyone, but we sometimes attract those we do not want. This is the problem with the Ikebukuro Jianghu.”

“Do you mean the mafia?” Coco asked, looking at Akiko as if she knew what she were thinking.

“No, no,” he said while pulling out and lighting a cigarette. He paused. “Did you know that many parts of Ikebukuro are haunted?”

Everyone waited.

“Well, for example, you see the big building over there?” He pointed to the tallest building in Ikebukuro. “That building was built over the old Sugamo prison. In the basement there is a big McDonalds. The McDonalds is built where they executed war criminals after the war. . . . It is haunted.”

The musician laughed and repeated under his breath in disbelief, “Haunted McDonalds . . . ”

Big Cat waved his hand to get his trailing smoke out of Akiko’s face and nodded, “But, that is not the real issue. The real issue is that the Jianghu produces a lot of hungry ghosts. People who, in trying to get ahead in life, end up coming back craving what they could not attain. They are in the Jianghu, but they do not understand it.”

Pausing to tap the ash off his cigarette he looked towards Akiko.

“They don’t look like ghosts in the movies, they just look like regular people, staring into the distance. Mouth agape. Hungry. You can only tell who they are because most people don’t see them.”

Akiko said, “Yes, Japanese Buddhism also has hungry gho—”

Big Cat interrupted with another wave of his cigarette, “As outsiders themselves, they are attracted to outsiders. So most people don’t see them. When you understand a little of the Jianghu, you will though. Be respectful, as they are part of the Jianghu, but don’t offer them a drink if they try to come into the bar.”

Akiko nodded awkwardly, curious to learn more but also hoping he would stop talking about it for now.

The musician interrupted and started to tell a ridiculous ghost story. He claimed that when he was ten years old, the milk deliveries to his apartment block kept going missing. Everyone, including his parents, blamed him, and they ended up marching him to the police station in the hope of scaring him out of his petty theft. But the milk kept going missing for several weeks. In the end his friends heard that an old granny who loved milk had died in the building, but her family had not conducted the funeral properly. His conclusion, “She must have become a hungry ghost and stole all the milk.”

“You dumb idiot,” a couple of the others blurted, and the musician laughed along with them. Coco raised her glass, “Let’s all cheers to being idiots!” and the drinking continued for an hour or so more.

Everyone was making plans to go to a local karaoke booth after drinks, and they invited Akiko, but her last train was about to leave and she found constantly jumping back and forth between Japanese and Chinese tiring. So, she bid them farewell.

On the way, she thought about the Jianghu a little more. It felt ripe with opportunity and danger, offering moments where you were most likely to meet frightening people and wonderous things, even a ghost. At the same time however, it was clearly the realm of everyday people. A world within the world that was very commonplace.

As Akiko walked back to the station that night, weaving through the streets of Ikebukuro, she looked at passers-by, wondering if they were real people, or whether they were hungry ghosts. At one point as she entered the northern entrance to the station, she saw an old man staring into the distance, mouth agape as people weaved around him. As she looked, his gaze slowly turned to her. Their eyes met, very briefly. She gave an awkward bow and he responded with a strained smile. She quickly looked away heeding Big Cat’s warning. She felt embarrassed, he was probably just a nice old man. But she thought that old men could be as much of a nuisance as ghosts.

Photo by Jamie Coates.


Ikebukuro station is surrounded by several areas that have distinct identities. In particular, the western and eastern sides of the station, separated by major train lines such as the Yamanote line, have often been pitted against each other in popular discourse (see Coates 2018). The northwest of Ikebukuro is known for its “edgy” nightlife, with love hotels, girls bars, and an area unofficially dubbed as Chinatown. In contrast, Ikebukuro’s east is a hub for young consumers, including stores for a variety of youth cultures and events celebrating Japanese popular culture. Although the station connects these two sides, W.E. road, a small subterranean passage that cuts underneath the train tracks on the northern side of the station, is one of the few alternative passages between Ikebukuro’s two regions. Originally Zо̄shigayazuidо̄, the passage was redubbed W.E. (West-East) Road in the 1980s, with an intentional pun to mimic we in English. The passage has since grown to become a symbol of the at-times fraught connection between the many identities of Ikebukuro. As a site between places, where strangers pass each other under the constant bustle of the train tracks, it is very much a transitory and liminal space. Moreover, its capacity to connect, while still remaining liminal, resonates with the contradictory socialities of many young mobile people I met in Tokyo. The image I took here, originally blurred to hide the identities of passers-by, seemed to capture something of this mood as well: a single figure in the foreground, ghostly transparent, with a larger group walking together in the background. The image reminds me of one of my favorite essays: Georg Simmel’s (1950 [1908]) “The Stranger,” with its emphasis on how figures of mobility reveal dynamics beyond questions of migration, helping us understand how mobility, intimacy, estrangement and belonging are at the core of how we construct what we may have in common with each other.

This image and story also relate to reflections about my own research that have emerged during the Covid-19 pandemic. What fascinates me most about human mobility is the way it amplifies the desire for cultural scripts among people navigating new dynamics of intimacy and estrangement. Finding oneself among people you have only just met throws up questions about who you are, what you might have in common them, and who might become a potential new friend, adversary, or lover. These questions intersect with experiences of the city, particularly when a city like Tokyo, with its diverse heterotopia, presents all kinds of novel spaces for socializing. The short fictional story I have written draws inspiration from conversations I took part in during my fieldwork in Ikebukuro among young people predominantly from mainland China. These people were liminal in terms of their life stage as much as they were posited as outsiders in Japan. Mostly under the age of forty-five and at the cusp of making many big life decisions, they were “in-between” in many ways. The protagonist is inspired by the many young cosmopolitan Japanese women I met who worked alongside Chinese people in Ikebukuro, combined with some of my own experiences as an anthropologist conducting fieldwork. I borrowed the voice of a young Japanese person to emphasize that this milieu includes a range of people seeking new connections, and to avoid the staid trope of the anthropologist as protagonist.

My short story and image draw inspiration from evenings where conversations wandered into all kinds of gossip, including the topic of Tokyo as a city haunted by ghosts. I combined these conversations with a separate topic related to the term jianghu in Chinese, which has become increasingly popular in Chinese media cultures in recent years, from films to computer games and memes. As a term for an alternative sociality that constitutes both a heterotopic space and an ethical code, it was popular to make reference to jianghu among my interlocutors, particularly when they wanted to paint a romantic gloss on issues of exclusion and marginalization in Tokyo. The use of jianghu in these conversations did not make the explicit connection to ghosts that I do here, but fantastical elements such as ghosts are common within stories set within jianghu spaces. Moreover, the final tale I mention above, where hungry ghosts wander the streets looking for bars and people to follow, was part of a long nights’ drinking where both topics came up. Their explanation of this kind of haunting struck me as particularly evocative of the fear and excitement that surrounds meeting strangers in a big city such as Tokyo.

During the lockdown, and continued Covid-19 measures across the globe, these stories and reflections among my interlocutors became all the more relevant to me. Today the desire to break from social distancing and see our loved ones is coupled with concerns about the threat we pose to each other. Most strikingly, the threat of “strangers” in the city, particularly Chinese “strangers,” has sadly re-emerged as a prevalent part of hate speech in media discourse and everyday conversations. The trope of ghosts and strangers in the city, related to a Chinese keyword that represents our ethical responsibility to each other even when conventional rules do not apply, thus seemed apt material for a playful story written during Covid-19 lockdown measures.


Coates, Jaime. 2018. “Ikebukuro In-between: Mobility and the Formation of the Yamanote’s Heterotopic Borderland.” Japan Forum 30, no. 2: 163–85.

Simmel, Georg. 1950. “The Stranger.” In The Sociology of Georg Simmel, edited by Kurt H. Wolff, 402–8. London: Free Press. Originally published in 1908.