OSAKA - Around two dozen people shuffle about the dark interior of Alzar, a recently opened nightclub on the eighth floor of a building in Osaka’s Chuo Ward that also features a capsule hotel and sauna. Most hover near the concrete wall, watching a European DJ play house music. A group orders Champagne, taking swigs straight from the bottle before one of them stumbles out onto the dancefloor to a chorus of laughs.
It’s a small crowd for a Friday night. Alzar only opened last month, but Katsuhiro Nakano, CEO of Alzar’s parent company, New Japan, sees this place as a new opportunity for the city’s many electronic music artists and fans.
“I think for the majority of people in Osaka, clubs still seem scary,” he says. “You have to deal with nanpa (guys trying to pick up girls) and it’s just annoying. I want to change their minds.”
Alzar arrives at an interesting time for Osaka. The biggest story in the Japanese club scene this decade has been the increased enforcement of the adult entertainment business law (fueihō), which was introduced in 1948 with the purpose of regulating the sex industry — this included a rule that venues must meet size restrictions if they want to allow customers to dance. Authorities generally didn’t act on the “no dancing” part of the law until around 2010 when they found they could use the loophole to answer complaints about rowdy customers. Crackdowns increased, prompting comparisons in the Western media to the pious town of the 1984 film “Footloose” where dancing was forbidden.
Osaka was hit hard by the renewed drive and many clubs shuttered as a result. The biggest case of the era played out in the heart of Kansai, as Umeda-based space Noon saw its owner arrested for allowing people to dance after midnight. It became a flashpoint for the debate, complete with a documentary film titled “Save the Club Noon.”
A number of grass-roots groups sprung up in opposition to the fueihō law, including an organization called Let’s Dance that received support from big names in the industry such as Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yoshihide Otomo. Its efforts were successful and on June 23, 2016, the law was revised, though critics say it remains far from perfect.
The underground’s retreat
One year later, Osaka’s club scene seems to be on the rebound but polarized: On one end, commercial clubs that specialize in EDM and American Top 40 that attract tourists and young locals are doing well, while on the other end underground acts seem to have retreated to doing tiny events at small bars. What’s missing is a middle ground where the two can meet.
The legacy of the anti-dancing crackdowns in Osaka, for now at least, was a significant scrubbing out of spaces where aspiring local artists could make the jump from gigs with friends to beginning to build a commercial fan base. Nakano says he hopes Alzar can occupy that space, while other venues — such as the relatively new Circus or the longer-running Joule — may also play a part. Yet the city has a way to go before it recaptures its glory days.
“I hate to talk about it as a golden era, but it was a good time,” says Tim Fieldes, who has DJed and organized parties in Osaka since 2006. He is speaking to The Japan Times while sitting with another independent organizer and DJ, Kipp Hendricks, in a comfy bar above club Circus. “There has definitely been a fall in the amount of people going to parties,” Hendricks adds.
While they both lament the loss of a vibrant club scene, both men point out that the impact on smaller events has been minimal. Like in Tokyo, the police weren’t able to bust up every party held at a venue that could fit less than 100 people in it, so some parties were able to continue.
In 2011, one such event was Innit. It was founded by Masayuki Kubo and Seiho Hayakawa to help foster an exciting young scene of electronic artists, many of whom have gone on to considerable mainstream success (which was the reason the event stopped holding regular events in 2014).
“That party really brought a lot of people together. What they were all able to achieve was an explosive community that grew really fast,” Hendricks says. “But from there, once everyone became friends and got to know one another, they started to think, ‘Hey I could start my own party too.’ And that’s great, but now we have so many little parties. There aren’t enough people to go.”
Innit started out at a small basement venue called Nuuoh, but eventually moved to the larger Grand Cafe. But police pressure closed Grand Cafe — along with the similarly sized Onzieme (“They were the powerhouses of the Osaka club scene,” Fieldes notes) and a handful of others. Hendricks says because of the lack of bigger spaces, many artists have become content with small parties and the scene has “compartmentalized” — fine if music remains your hobby and not your career.
‘It’s more about being drunk’
A trip to Giraffe on a Thursday is soundtracked by DJs playing 30 seconds of American pop songs to a crowd of around several hundred. At the Chuo Ward club, a group of Americans huddle together and clap their hands together as a Bruno Mars song starts. A man wearing his work clothes thrusts a shot of tequila at me — nobody wants to cheers to a Chainsmokers track alone, right? It’s the chaotic kind of fun that 20-somethings love.
Giraffe is operated by TryHard Entertainment, a company that manages nine clubs in Osaka, ranging from big commercial EDM spaces (Owl, Bambi) to spots selling a more sophisticated image (Baron, Cheval), but which largely play the same music. TryHard puts on the yearly Music Circus festival in the Kansai region, and also operates mega-clubs in other major Japanese cities (save Tokyo).
“They open a new club almost every year. They keep growing, growing, growing,” Alzar’s Nakano says. And they are savvy, taking advantage of the city’s tourism boom — the Mainichi reported that a Kansai Airports poll found Osaka had the most foreign visitors over the first three months of 2017 — by offering special deals to tourists, such as nightclub-hopper passes and lower entry fees.
“It’s more about … being young and being drunk. And that’s totally cool,” Hendricks says.
“But it’s a party scene, not a music scene,” Fieldes adds. “There’s a difference.”
‘Osaka needs a bridge’
Nakano hopes Alzar will fall squarely in the middle of the two scenes. He took over as CEO at New Japan eight years ago, from his father (his grandfather founded it 68 years ago). Before that he lived in London.
“Every Friday, most clubs, especially in the East End, played drum ‘n’ bass, and I really loved it,” he recalls. “I went to places like The End and Fabric.”
He says his time there instilled in him a love of nightlife, but he didn’t act on it until two years ago. The New Japan building opened a rooftop bar in 2012 that was modeled after European watering holes and it proved a big success, especially with tourists.
“There’s a membership for this building, and the eighth floor was just for (members),” New Japan Managing Director Yoshie Nakano (Katsuhiro’s sister) says while sitting in one of the building’s VIP rooms, surrounded by a decor of stuffed antelope heads and “Downton Abbey”-worthy furniture.
“People have been members for like 30 years. As the members were getting older,” she pauses to choose her words respectfully, “we had to do something with the whole floor, as numbers were decreasing. We thought maybe making this place into a nightclub could bring in different types of customers to the building.”
Geared toward a younger audience, Katsuhiro Nakano modeled it after European clubs — he mentions Berghain in Berlin — to be dark and “rough” (hence so much concrete). Alzar opened on May 5 to around 250 punters — solid, though Nakano notes it can hold 450 total. He says thus far promotion has been the trickiest aspect.
“At the moment, we have a guideline of inviting artists from abroad on Fridays,” he says. “On Saturdays we hold a party with Kansai DJs. We want to make the Osaka scene more visible.”
“Alzar is a club run by guys who like clubs, but they’re businessmen and they’re not going to take any risks on it,” Fieldes says. “But that’s what Osaka’s nightlife scene needs, a place that can serve as a bridge between the underground and mainstream. Fueihō gutted this layer, and Alzar offers something approaching hope to getting it back. It’s weird to have a place opening up that you can be positive about.”
‘Clubs are coming back’
Ultimately, places need people, and one of the other concerns brought on by the fueihō law was that younger folks just wouldn’t be drawn to nightlife anymore. Why would anyone put up with the headaches coupled with clubbing — high admission prices, having to stay up until first train and the risk of everything getting shut down — when they can opt for cheaper entertainment (karaoke), dating apps (Tinder) and new ways to discover music (YouTube)? Clubs have it tougher than they did a decade ago when you consider the dour economic prospects that face university students these days.
“I started being in the club scene about six years ago when David Guetta and Zedd were big, electro-house was mainstream,” says 25-year-old DJ Kakeru Mizuta. “I went to events and parties organized by a group called NWC, I made a lot of friends through the events they put on. That’s a big reason why I started to commit to the club scene.”
These EDM-leaning experiences inspired Mizuta to start DJing under the name Kakepon. Other friends also started playing, and small venues (“super tiny”) let them organize their own shows, where Mizuta recalls playing to around 10 people. This evolved into Noise Fanatics, an organizing group and party that put on shows at places like Circus.
“When I started clubbing, there were not many clubs in Osaka. It was more difficult to find a place every weekend where we could go have fun,” he says. “But after the law changed, more people started going — only a little, but more.”
He also points to the emergence of daytime parties as attracting teenaged punters out to events, and sees things moving in a positive direction.
Though the new laws governing clubs are a bit confusing — concern has gone from dancing to lighting — the main battle the country’s club scenes face is one that pop, video games and films are also trying to solve: How do you convince people you’re worth their time? Mizuta delivers a pitch.
“Clubs are where you can hang out with your friends and that’s just like the social function of the original clubs … as a social club,” he says. “That’s coming back.”