Imagine a town where playing rock music is under a curfew and police crack down on unlicensed late-night dancing. Are you thinking of the town from the film “Footloose”? Or are you thinking of Fukuoka? Kumamoto? Yokohama?

This unbelievable scenario is the result of a 1984 addition to the 1948 Fūzoku Eigyō Torishimari Hō (Entertainment Business Control Law), which was originally designed to regulate hostess bars, cabaret clubs and gambling establishments.

Over the past year, however, police have been increasingly enforcing sections of the law and creating a climate of worry and fear among operators of live-music venue and nightclubs across the country.

In Tokyo, with its almost ridiculous profusion of venues, this is a less noticeable problem. However, in smaller cities with fewer venues, the unease cuts deeper. A recent example is the closure of Fukuoka venue Kieth Flack and the arrest of its owner for the alleged crime of nonlicensed dancing by its customers. This has rattled the music scene in Kyushu, and Fumito Hashiguchi of Kumamoto-based disco-punk band Cynicalsmileisyourfavorite goes as far as describing the live-music scene there as being “on the edge of crisis.”

Even Japan’s third-largest city, Osaka, has not escaped the crackdown, with its America Mura neighborhood reportedly being hit hardest.

“Some venues ask us to say (our event) is for charity if the police come around after midnight,” explains Osaka-based musician and event organizer Kevin Daly. “Last month at (nightclub) Pure in Shinsaibashi, the door staff told customers ‘No dancing’ as they went in.”

Of the eight types of licenses that establishments need to perform different activities under the law, the one that allows late-night drinking is the only one that many venues have. In order to permit dancing and eating after a certain hour (which seems to vary from district to district), another license is required. That one comes with a size requirement of a space that is at least 66 sq. meters. That may be good for ballrooms, but it’s not so good for a great many small live-music venues that exist in high-rent Japan. As a result, dancing is technically illegal in most of these venues.

Jun Kawamoto, manager of Kumamoto club Navaro, says that in the past an understanding existed between venues and the police over late-night dancing restrictions.

“With the operation of a club, there is a (separate) event organizer, and the event organizer rents the club and holds their event there,” Kawamoto explains in a pamphlet currently being distributed around Kumamoto. “In that case, the club operator is just renting the space so is not responsible for dancing by patrons.”

I have to believe that police were happy to accept this escape clause because they, too, realized how ridiculous it would look if they barged into venues and arrested people for (I can’t believe I’m writing this) the crime of nonlicensed dancing.

So, why keep the law on the books? Here we start to realize the convenience of keeping regulations on the books far past their due date. In this case, police can use the Entertainment Business Control Law as a convenient stick with which to beat down a section of society they feel threatens social harmony.

“I think the reason the enforcement of this law became more strict last year is that the situation around the clubs was becoming way out of hand,” Kawamoto says. “I suspect it was the fact that a small group of people were going too far that led to the stricter enforcement of the law.”

Often enforcement of the laws comes because of complaints from locals. Police use them as an easy tool to target other suspected criminal behavior such as drug use, fighting, sexual harassment and underage drinking.

Anyone who has been to a club or gig here and compares it with a similar event overseas realizes how debatable these so-called problems really are in Japan. And to the extent that they are, surely law enforcement should be fighting them with different tools. If drugs are a worry, go after the dealers. Don’t close clubs and arrest people for (I still can’t believe I’m writing this) the crime of nonlicensed dancing.

In Tokyo, the occasional shuttering of a club is little more than an annoyance. But in places like Kumamoto, the threat of closure forces small businesses such as Navaro to tread so lightly that the atmosphere is poisoned. That means no new jobs, no expansion and — most importantly — no local culture. With that in mind, is it any wonder that young people are abandoning the countryside in huge numbers? In tight economic times, the law is a band-aid cure to the aforementioned problems at best, and could be actively destructive to the regional economy at worst.

The Entertainment Business Control Law was drafted in an age when dancing as a social activity was the preserve of ballrooms and dancehalls — the idea of the small indie club in a basement somewhere could never have even occurred to the bureaucrats who drew up these clauses.

The law has also seen numerous alterations over the past 60 years. For example, in 1998 an amendment was added that exempted dance studios from the ban. If the government insists that late-night dancing is an activity that must be subject to scrutiny, it should at least abolish the size restrictions that prevent smaller venues from even applying for the relevant license.

The Japanese live-music economy is already crippled by early hours and train schedules. The last thing it needs is the threat of random police raids enforcing outdated laws that do nothing more than scare away fans and turn nightclubs into mausoleums.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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