Earlier this month, several people were seen salsa dancing in frigid weather outside bustling Shibuya Station. They weren’t there to show off, but to protest what they say is an outdated law that is being used to indiscriminately crack down on their favorite dancing spots.
“I feel my joy for life is being threatened by this obsolete law,” said Risa Suzuki, a senior at Waseda University who is part of a group calling for the 64-year-old Entertainment Business Control and Improvement Law to be revised so nightclubs can operate unhampered.
While the government recently made dance part of the public education curriculum, the dance halls and nightclubs responsible for making it popular are being told to close by 1 a.m. or add more floor space under a code that was originally drafted to regulate Japan’s bustling sex and entertainment industries.
This has had the effect of curtailing their business or forcing closure.
Because the dance scene is now a completely different animal from what it was in 1948, a Kyoto-based group called Let’s Dance began a petition drive in May to revise the so-called “fueiho” law with the aim of collecting at least 100,000 signatures by the end of the month.
They reached the target on Dec. 27 and plan to pressure lawmakers to revise the law to exclude dance venues when the Diet convenes in January.
“I think Japanese authorities are two-faced. While they introduce dance in the school curriculum, they regulate salsa dancing with an obsolete law by saying it’s lascivious,” said Saiko Nakatani, 32, who came to sign the petition in Shibuya because she loves the club music.
Fueiho is an abbreviation of “fuzoku eigyo-to no kisei oyobi gyomu no tekiseika-to ni kansuru horitsu,” as the law is known in Japanese. It is used to broadly regulate a wide range of business.
Although the word fuzoku is often used to refer to the sex industry, the 1948 law covers everything from love hotels, strip clubs and brothels to restaurants, mah-jongg parlors and dance halls.
This is because the postwar authorities believed dance clubs posed a danger to public morals and fostered prostitution.
Thus any establishment that allows customers to dance must obtain a license — even if it’s a dance school.
The license imposes several requirements on dance establishments. The main room must have at least 66 sq. meters of unobstructed floor space and the venue must close by midnight if situated in a residential area or by 1 a.m. if in a commercial district.
Although the law has been revised dozens of times, the restrictions on dance clubs have only grown over the years.
The most recent revision, which added the operating hours and size requirements, was made in 1984 to keep youths out of discos and video arcades after teenagers were victimized in the 1982 Kabukicho Disco murder.
The high-profile case involved two 14-year-old junior high school girls who went for a drive with a man they met at a disco in Shinjuku. One ended up being murdered and the other wounded, supposedly by the same man, who escaped arrest.
Following the crackdown on discos in the 1980s, police eased off and focused on noise complaints and drug-linked crimes at clubs.
This all changed in 2010 with the massive raid on America Mura, a popular commercial district in Osaka where several dance and nightclub owners were arrested for not having licenses.
Takahiro Saito, a lawyer who supports the Let’s Dance petition campaign, says the problem lies in the fact that the law was drafted with a built-in assumption that all styles of dance, from ballroom to hip-hop, are excessively hedonistic activities that can harm public morals and corrupt youth.
Even formal dancing competitions or parties can be targeted with indecency or other allegations unless certified instructors are present.
“Even the police officers I’ve talked with said it would make their jobs easier if they had a clear definition of ‘dance’ to regulate,” Saito said.
Salsa clubs are one of the latest victims. Last July, Salsa Sudada, the capital’s oldest salsa club, closed after manager Katsuhiko Ikeda was arrested for operating without a license.
Salsa Sudada was a pioneer in Tokyo’s salsa scene, offering both lessons and dancing time. But it had been operating without a license since it opened in 1992 because it couldn’t afford to be as large as the law requires it to be.
Salsa Sudada’s closure galvanized salsa lovers and club owners in Tokyo, who view the fueiho law as an anachronistic ordinance that’s doing more harm than good.
“It’s the 21st century and salsa is an art form,” said Oscar Arias, 33, who regularly hosts dancing events that attract crowds of more than 100 people. “Local politicians should know that salsa is good for the economy, as well.”
Critics of the law argue that nightclubs are doing their part to boost the stagnant economy and estimate the industry generates about ¥1 billion a night.
They have also invigorated the music industry with their own brand of music and influenced pop music as well, they say.
But the public’s general image of clubs, especially their association with yakuza and other underworld elements, has sullied the image of law-abiding establishments.
“Club owners also have to make efforts to convey to society that clubs are problem-free and win their trust if they want to revise the law,” Saito said.