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
Main artists: Fruity, Boogie Mann
Main artists: Paisley Parks
Kool Switch Works (Tokyo)
Main artists: Picnic Women, bbbbb
Booty Tune (Osaka)
Main artists: DJ Fulltono, D.J.G.O., Hayata6go
Nu Nulax Nulan (Osaka)
Main artists: satanicpornocultshop, ORRORINZ
Dubliminal Bounce (Hiroshima)
Main artists: CRZKNY, Skip Club Orchestra