Japan’s juke scene gears up to go foot to foot with Chicago

by Arni Kristjansson

Special To The Japan Times

I am at Battle Train Tokyo, the first official footwork dance tournament in Japan. It’s being held at Kata, a gallery in the capital’s Ebisu district. Sixteen dancers have signed up in the hope of becoming Japan’s footwork champion, which comes with a ¥50,000 cash prize and a small championship belt that wraps around the winner’s leg.

Footwork is a lightning-fast style of dancing that goes hand in hand with an equally frenetic genre of electronic music called juke, the most recent variety of Chicago house. As the dancers warm up and a crowd gathers, the DJ starts dropping tunes from overseas juke favorites such as DJ Rashad, RP Boo and Traxman. A lot of the people who are pivotal to Japan’s scene are here tonight

“Juke isn’t really club music, although it’s dance music,” says Kent Alexander, 26, who is one quarter of juke group Paisley Parks. He adds that while dance culture hasn’t been a strong element of club music in Japan, he sees juke and footwork as an opportunity to bring dance and club culture together. “I’d like to strengthen (juke’s) position as a part of dance culture.”

The scene has taken fairly large leaps in the two years since I last spoke with Tatsuya Masuda, 38, who is better known as DJ April. Back then only a handful of people were pushing juke music and culture here. Two compilations came out in the past year — “Japanese Juke&Footworks” and “Japanese Juke&Fwk2,” the latter of which comprises four CDs and features 60 artists — and six local labels are now in charge of putting out domestic and foreign juke acts. More importantly, though, efforts here have been recognized by the homeland and links between Chicago and Japan have been formed. One of the contestants at Battle Train Tokyo tonight is 25-year-old Takuya Harashima, who has been welcomed into HaVoC, a Chicago-based footwork crew.

U.S. juke act Traxman toured Japan in October, and another big milestone will come this weekend with the arrival of Chicago artist RP Boo, the originator of the juke sound. He will play shows in Osaka and Tokyo to promote his album “Legacy.”

Joining RP Boo on tour will be Osaka-based trackmaker Koichi Furutono, 35, who goes by the moniker DJ Fulltono.

“To put it simply, he’s the man who can deliver what footwork really is,” Furutono says. “There are a lot of other amazing artists, but they mix various elements into the music. RP Boo is all about footwork.”

Masuda agrees and says there are no words to describe an RP Boo show, the dancing and sound just go hand in hand. But he notes that juke’s biggest achievement here thus far has been getting recognized as its own genre. “Before that, dubstep fans were listening to juke as an extension of dubstep, and jungle fans as an extension of jungle,” he says. “In these two years, though, juke has become its own thing.”

Despite the fact that a lot of club music is made on computers, the club scene in general is struggling to adapt to a digital world in which online popularity doesn’t always result in ticket sales. The main people involved with the juke scene all agree that bringing marquee acts from overseas isn’t enough.

“It doesn’t matter where the music is from,” Masuda says. “It’s not healthy to think about Chicago’s juke as ‘the best,’ or U.K. dubstep as ‘the best.’ I think we as Japanese should abandon that way of thinking that says Western music is cool — Western music and Eastern music are cool.”

Masuda stresses that the pursuit of equality is important. He says in order for Japan’s scene to survive, the artists must be able to compete with their peers overseas.

He uses the Japanese release of Chicago-based DJ Rashad’s “Double Cup” album to illustrate his point. When it came out in Japan last month, Osaka’s DJ Fulltono released a free mix CD to accompany it. The purpose behind that move was strategic: Rashad fans would hear Fulltono’s mix and judge it as good as — if not better than — his Chicago counterpart.

Competition is a welcome part of the scene, and it’s in full effect at Battle Train Tokyo. During the competition, the dancers get in each others’ faces and the audience doesn’t shy away from rewarding talent with more applause.

Surrounded by some of the main footwork dancers and producers in the scene, Masuda suddenly makes a bold declaration: “Japanese people don’t like parties!”

He gets a roar of approval from the dancers and producers who overhear him. I ask him to explain what he means.

“There are a lot of people who listen to the genre of club music — but not at a club,” he says, explaining that while they are enthusiastic about listening to electronic music on iPods while commuting, and watching DJs via video-streaming services such as Ustream or YouTube, they aren’t actually turning up at the clubs to see them.

“(In the 1990s), I used to go to clubs with a change of clothes and a towel and when the night was over I changed clothes and went home,” he says. “That’s unimaginable now, but clubs used to be that way.”

Masuda says that he has seen club attendance steadily drop for a decade, giving way to a rise in the popularity of music festivals where fans found the same liberating carefree attitudes that they used to get from going out for a night of clubbing.

New festivals in Japan are still popping up. EDM (electronic dance music) festival Ultra was announced earlier this month and joins a calendar filled with Japanese versions of European events such as Big Beach, Sonar and Outlook. To reverse this trend against going clubbing, the juke scene is trying to be more inclusive. One way it’s trying to accomplish this is to direct the focus away from the DJ and put it back on the dance floor. The approach is antithetical to the image of the club, especially in Japan where dancing while facing the DJ booth (or just watching) is commonplace.

“We call it ‘mirumono,’ ” says dancer Ryoya Okamoto, 25, who goes by the name Weezy. “It’s something to watch while you’re there to get the full experience.”

Alexander hopes to find new fans by expanding Battle Train Tokyo. “We have to get more people involved, if not the numbers will just drop,” he says. “Like we should be bringing in the guys that play those dance video games in the arcades! There are a lot of possibilities.”

In fact, the competition at tonight’s Battle Train Tokyo includes some beginners. Some come from backgrounds in musicals, others are breakdancers — one guy ends up nearly naked by the time he has finished.

With all the dancing going on, though, the elephant in the room is Japan’s current fueihō law, which includes anti-dancing regulations that have been used by the police to shut clubs down.

The organization Let’s Dance is currently working on a second signature drive and liaising with Parliamentarians to change the law. The group’s first effort collected around 150,000 signatures earlier this year and was submitted to the Diet in May. A group of 60 Diet members formed the Caucus for the Promotion of Dance Culture, which is currently examining the fueihō law.

“Everyone can see that punishing someone for dancing is wrong,” Furutono says. “That is exactly why we need to popularize dancing and get juke and footwork to be picked up by the media. I want to get a broad range of people to understand the contradictions in the law.”

Furutono will get what he wishes for this weekend. National broadcaster NHK has filmed a documentary in which two members of pop mega-group Exile explore the world of footwork. The program airs on BS Premium on Saturday.

As the first Battle Train Tokyo comes to a close, Harashima ends up besting female footwork dancer Haruko for the grand prize.

For those not brave enough to dance, Masuda has a simple message. “I tell people that you don’t need to dance to come to a juke event,” he says. “There’s always going to be someone who you can talk to, like how clubs used to be. If we can deliver that, then I think we’ll succeed.”

RP Boo plays with DJ Fulltono at Club Circus in Osaka on Nov. 22 (9 p.m. start; ¥2,500 in advance; 06-6241-3822); and Loft in Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo, on Nov. 23 (11:30 p.m.; ¥3,000 in adv.; 03-5272-0382). Battle Train Tokyo Express will take place at Kata (inside Liquidroom) in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, on Dec. 18. (6 p.m. start; free admission).

Juke labels in Japan

Shinkaron (Tokyo)

Main artists: Fruity, Boogie Mann

www.shinkaron.info

Ƃh○§† (Yokohama)

Main artists: Paisley Parks

www.ghost045.bandcamp.com

Kool Switch Works (Tokyo)

Main artists: Picnic Women, bbbbb

www.koolswitchworks.bandcamp.com

Booty Tune (Osaka)

Main artists: DJ Fulltono, D.J.G.O., Hayata6go

www.bootytune.com

Nu Nulax Nulan (Osaka)

Main artists: satanicpornocultshop, ORRORINZ

www.nunulaxnulan.biz

Dubliminal Bounce (Hiroshima)

Main artists: CRZKNY, Skip Club Orchestra

www.dubliminal-bounce.bandcamp.com

  • dreamlogicc

    This is great! as a DJ in Chicago who had a radio show ( on WNUR ) I picked up early on Japan’s brilliant juke artists and played their tracks in my weekly mixes… I also had Kent from Paisley Parks on WNUR in early 2012 :)

  • gile

    It looks like the writer of this article has no idea of Japan’s long street/club dance culture since early 80s or even 70s, though… Japan has one of the biggest and best street dance scenes in terms of its population and level.

    • Del_G

      What makes you say that? Not sure you need to go into a history of Japanese street dancing. That’s more something you’d do for a dissertation (which, if you check the writer’s bio, he could be writing as he’s doing a PhD in Japanese club culture), not a specific feature article.

      • gile

        In article it says “dance culture hasn’t been a strong element of club music in Japan”. This sounds very strange statement to me because if you look at the population of club/street dancers, Japan has one of the biggest dancers community. Yet, this article gives you an impression that club dancing is a new phenomenon in Japan which is clearly not true. Chicago footworking/juking is a part of street dance culture. Japan had house dance community since early 90s before “footworking” gets introduced a few years ago. It was introduced via some house dancers like Shuho along with the “Footworkingz” documentary movie. So, you can not talk about “footworking” without talking about history of street dance culture in Japan.

      • Del_G

        The writer is paraphrasing what one of the sources said. It seems to be consistent, in a previous article on juke two years ago one of the DJs said while there was a dance community, it wasn’t big. I don’t know how many people where involved in that community in the 90s, but if it was 1,000 then that’s still pretty small in proportion to the population. Having said that, I’m just trying to figure out what the DJs meant because they are the ones that think this way and they’re the ones that are in the actual scene. Personally, I don’t think you have to go into a history of street dance culture in Japan every time you have an article like this. When there’s a feature on earthquakes you don’t have to recap every devastating quake that has hit the country through the centuries. I think something like that is better dealt with in a book. I’m curious about that documentary, though. Cheers!

      • halcyontone

        totally. the death of any of these *relatively* unknown cultural movements (shout out to you gile / Del G for knowing about it before anyone else, we need yr help) is pre-emptively guaranteed by cynicism / lack of enthusiasm… If people start acting like purists / elitists, trying to school everyone about the history, you turn people off. so you were here first, congrats, now help others get into it. if you like this stuff, don’t have a pissing contest with people who you don’t think are tru heads, just share with them and us, mayne!

      • gile

        Also i just want to point out that JUST LIKE ANY OTHER COUNTRIES, to see so-called “dancers” in clubs, you need to go to certain parties where dancers gather. You are not gonna see them by going to a random club. So whoever said “dance culture hasn’t been a strong element of club music in Japan” probably has not been to those spots, then.

      • halcyontone

        yeah probably not, so your point is that you know about these and they don’t? can you help the rest of us out and share names so we can enjoy it too?

  • halcyontone

    you’ve probably just lost touch with art or rhythm. when was the last time you danced?