Japanese escape woes in ‘Boogie Wonderland’

by Yoshino Matsui

Middle-aged disco lovers in Japan boogie to the sounds of a past era, when flares, platform shoes and gold medallions were cool and the economy was on the upswing.

The disco boom of the ’70s and ’80s is enjoying a revival of sorts among older club- goers seeking an alternative to the hip-hop, techno and trance that dominate the current nightclub scene.

“Disco is so nice,” said a 42-year-old disco-goer decked out in a white suit. “When I hear this kind of music, I can feel that my body remembers those days so well.”

The man, who runs a small building firm, was shaking his booty to the beat of “The Hustle,” a multimillion seller released in 1975 by Van McCoy & the Soul City Symphony.

Disco fever in Japan peaked in the late 1980s amid the intensity of euro-beat music and the gleaming decor at popular nightspot chains like Maharaja and King & Queen.

At that time, the economy was booming, and land and stock prices were soaring. The economy, 15 years later, is now dead in the water.

Tired of the seemingly endless recession, people in their late 30s and early 40s, who as young adults witnessed the glittery economic bubble, are said to be turning to the Bee Gees for help.

Overall CD sales are falling, but compilations of disco music have been selling surprisingly well recently, prompting some club operators to chase the disco dollar, to varying degrees of success.

In October, Club Byblos, a nightclub in Tokyo’s Azabu-Juban area, became Discotheque Byblos, changing its business and interior. The club, one of Tokyo’s largest, is now chasing clientele in their late 30s and older.

“Our new targets are adults who we think are greatly disadvantaged compared with young people when it comes to night life,” Byblos manager Toshiyuki Kume said.

There are plenty of hangouts for teens and young adults, but older people are limited to karaoke bars and “izakaya” pubs, Kume said.

As a regular nightclub, Byblos used to draw weekend crowds of around 1,000 people, most in their 20s, who came to dance until dawn.

But with its switch to disco and an older age group comes a switch in hours: Byblos now closes at midnight. The club is decorated with colorful 1980s-style neon signs and the DJs occasionally play slow songs.

Byblos has also set a minimum age of 25 for men and 20, the legal drinking age, for women, and refuses entry to under-dressed customers.

This strategy has not proved popular with Byblos’ regulars, however. Since going disco, Byblos has lost half of its customers. Most who come now are aged around 40.

“We don’t mind losing young customers,” claimed Kume, 34, adding the clientele is again rising. “People in our targeted age groups feel uncomfortable mixing with young people.”

Disco CDs meanwhile are selling well as Japan’s music industry languishes amid prolonged sluggish sales.

Universal Music K.K. was one of the quickest record companies to jump on the bandwagon, releasing its first compilation CD under the “Disco Fever” series title in August 2001.

“People in our company predicted sales would be weak and probably below 10,000,” said Keishiro Kato, 34, the CD’s producer.

The CD sold around 200,000 copies, giving it hit status for 2001. Universal put out four more “Disco Fever” titles by last September. Its sixth — “Super Non-Stop” — debuts Jan. 29.

A customer survey found that purchasers of the CDs have an average age of 38 1/2.

It is a thing of the past for a CD to sell more than 1 million copies in the weakening Western music category in the domestic market, Kato said, claiming sales of 100,000 copies can therefore be considered a big hit.

Overall CD sales at Japanese music firms probably fell 30 percent in 2002 from year-before levels, Kato said. Sales of Japanese music accounted for more than 90 percent of the total, he said.

“Teens used to be the major CD purchasers,” he said. “But they are now spending 20,000 yen to 30,000 yen every month to chat and send e-mail on cell phones, and when they want to get music, they rent CDs and make copies using personal computers.”

Japan’s disco revival reflects a rapid change in society that has “brought the traditional Japanese lifestyle, as often imagined by Americans and Europeans, to the brink of extinction,” said Takuro Morinaga, 45, an economist at UFJ Institute.

“The disco boom represents nostalgia for the days when Japan was a uniform society,” he said. “There is no longer a single music category or fashion supported by everybody.”