Antidancing law out of step with Japan’s youth culture

by Eriko Arita

Staff Writer

Many in Japan’s large and lively dance community centered on hip-hop, house and other styles are becoming increasingly upset at what appears to be a police crackdown on an essential part of their lives.

Since 2010, with more and more clubs being shut down on the grounds they don’t conform with all the small print involved in their licenses, many are now thinking the authorities nationwide are trying to turn back the clock to some real or imagined era of strict societal control.

Among those disillusioned with this turn of events is Ryo Isobe, a freelance writer specializing in club music whose book titled “Odotte wa Ikenai Kuni, Nihon (Japan: the Country Where You Must Not Dance)” was published last month.

In the book, Isobe explains that the chief weapon being used by the nation’s control freaks is a piece of legislation called the “Fuzoku Eigyo-to no Kisei Oyobi Gyomu no Tekiseika-to ni Kansuru Horitsu (Entertainment Business Control and Improvement Law)” that prohibits clubs with a floor space less than 66 sq. meters from allowing customers to dance. To make things even worse, a 1984 addition to 1948′s law governing popular entertainment (including sex businesses) banned dancing after 12 midnight.

“It is very difficult for clubs in big cities to find somewhere affordable with a 66-sq.-meter floor allowing them to get the license,” Isobe said in a recent interview with The Japan Times. “It is also unreasonable to prohibit late-night dancing in a society where many restaurants stay open around the clock.”

Nightclubs where DJs spin music such as hip-hop and electronica first appeared in Japan in the 1980s, and their popularity soon took off, Isobe said. He also explained that a form of the music remixed by DJs developed a new genre termed “club music” — though the clubs were generally small and had no dance license because they were registered as bars or restaurants.

Isobe, who’s now a 34-year-old veteran of the scene, said that since the 1990s he’s spent most of his free time at clubs in the central Tokyo entertainment districts of Shinjuku and Shibuya.

But he said he’s known about the clubs’ license problems since the 2000s when the staff at one club he was at suddenly cut off the music and told the customers to sit down. “They had noticed that police were standing outside of the entrance,” he explained — adding that the music started again after the police left.

However, Isobe said that such harassment only occurred “once in a while,” and that police generally overlooked the unlicensed clubs.

Then things changed. In December 2010, police raided two clubs in the so-called Amerika Mura (American Village) district of southern Osaka, where there were around 20 clubs — many of them not licensed for music and dancing. Since then, Isobe said, it has become worse as the owners of several clubs there have been arrested.

In view of this sudden string of swoops, Isobe officially asked Osaka Prefectural Police why they had moved to shut down the clubs at that time.

In his book, he details the police response as follows: “Residents who live near the clubs had reported loud music from the clubs late at night and into the morning. In addition to that problem, young people who drank at the clubs had had fights, damage has been caused, and some club customers had had belongings stolen. We have constantly been going to the clubs even before December 2010 to cope with the problems, and the owners have been warned to obtain the correct license and prevent noise late at night. Despite our repeated warnings and instructions, the situation never improved and even worsened as the number of clubs increased.”

Police also mentioned an incident in January 2010 when a fight broke out at a club in Amerika Mura and one person died as a result. However, Isobe pointed out that the fight between club customers had happened on the street, not in the club, according to media reports.

He also maintained that, “Although some clubs in the district have been responsible for noise late at night, that doesn’t explain why police should crack down on all Amerika Mura’s 20-odd clubs.”

But the recent police purge against such clubs has not been confined to southern Osaka. Indeed, the crackdowns spread to Kyoto and Fukuoka in 2011, and this year Tokyo has been hit, too. Altogether, according to a July 10 report in the Nagano Prefecture-based Shinano Mainichi Shimbun, there were 10 such police strikes nationwide in 2010, rising (in the latest data available) to 21 in 2011. How many of the affected clubs were actually put out of business is not known, though anecdotal evidence suggests many were.

In his book, Isobe relates various speculations to explain the sudden crackdown. He cites Mobu Norio, a writer based in Osaka who wrote in the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper that Osaka Gov. Toru Hashimoto, who was formerly the mayor, was aiming to have casinos in Osaka and he wanted to clearly separate entertainment and residential areas.

Meanwhile, a club owner (who isn’t named in the book) suggested the authorities want to closely control clubs because hip-hop dance became an official school subject in April this year.

Isobe also noted that since 2004 the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG)had been cracking down on unlicensed sex-business clubs in the notorious Kabukicho area of the central Shinjuku district in what it dubbed “a purification mission.” He maintains that the same minds behind such “purification” are also likely pushing the stricter control on dancing clubs.

“The entertainment businesses and the authorities used to co-exist in a power balance in which police sometimes warned unlicensed clubs and they would change their operations so the police overlooked them. But since the Kabukicho ‘purification mission,’ the authorities have stopped overlooking.”

However, the forced closure of sex-related clubs in Kabukicho has simply driven the business underground and worsened the conditions for women selling sex services, Isobe said.

He also noted that a man named Kaoru Funamoto, who led the Kabukicho “purification mission” as top of the TMG’s security section under hawkish Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, has moved to Osaka to lead the crackdown on clubs there.

This year, though, clubbers started fighting back. In May, a group of them got together with DJs and lawyers and started by launching petitions to get the legal prohibitions relating to dancing removed. The movement they started, called Let’s Dance, aims to collect 100,000 signatures and present the petition to the Diet for consideration.

Isobe said Let’s Dance — which is supported by numerous celebrities including Ryuichi Sakamoto — is making progress toward its goal. However, he said it was also vital to create an association of dancing clubs to speak with one voice and lobby policymakers.

“The connections between the clubs are weak. But they should cooperate with each other, lobby politicians and avoid attracting criticism by checking the ID of customers to make sure that they are adults (which in Japan means being at least 20) and ensuring there are no drugs on their premises,” Isobe said.

Even so, there are many who wonder if such initiatives will suffice to satisfy those elements in society who are temperamentally inclined to control every aspect of life — and particularly the lives of fun-seeking young people.