Back to square one in war on dancing

by James Hadfield

Contributing Writer

It has been nearly two years since Japan revised an archaic law banning late-night dancing, but don’t expect any celebrations to mark the occasion. Over the past few months, the Metropolitan Police Department has quietly renewed its campaign against unauthorized boogying, because Lord knows there’s nothing more dangerous than an out-of-control dancer.

In January, police raided Aoyama Hachi, a small club on the outskirts of the Shibuya neighborhood, for violating the adult entertainment business law, popularly known as fūeihō. The venue had been throwing late-night parties for more than 20 years without a nightclub license; it has since reopened, but events must now finish by midnight, which as any serious clubber can tell you is a couple of hours before most parties really get started.

If this all sounds familiar, that’s because it has only been a few years since Japanese police waged their last crusade against nightlife, prompting a successful grass-roots campaign to get the law amended. Since June 2016, licensed nightclubs have been legally allowed to stay open until dawn, but dancing itself is still apparently an activity that needs regulating.

As Buzzfeed Japan writer Ryosuke Kamba reports, police have recently paid visits to around a dozen nightspots in the Shibuya and Roppongi areas in order to determine whether they were letting patrons trip the light fantastic. Rather incongruously, the places targeted included Geronimo — a rowdy expat bar better known for its “Shot Hall of Fame” than its sound system — but most of them were DJ bars and small-sized clubs that form part of the dance music ecosystem.

Many of these venues will only get a handful of customers on an average night, but they perform an important role within the scene, offering an informal setting where clubbers can mingle, and DJs can try things that would never fly in a club with significant overheads.

There are a few reasons why they don’t just apply for a nightclub license. Sometimes size is an issue: The revised fūeihō requires that nightclubs have more than 33 square meters of uninterrupted floor space. The most common problem, though, is location.

The law clearly states that nightclubs (and, by extension, late-night dancing) will only be permitted in certain designated areas, which are determined by regional police. And in Tokyo, at least, the zoning shows little regard for the realities of the city’s nightlife. You could theoretically apply to open a nightclub next to the historical Koishikawa Korakuen garden, or in an obscure corner of Katsushika Ward, but not in the specific section of Shibuya where Aoyama Hachi is located.

So we’re back to the dark days of the early 2010s, where venues have to post notices advising customers that “excessive dancing will be prohibited,” and police can march up to anyone swaying to the music and demand to know if they are harboring more sinister intentions. It’s a silly place to be, and a drab, depressing one too.