Music | Sound Off

Bringing politics into Japanese clubs

by Chris Russell

Staff Writer

Things are kicking off everywhere, it seems — from Chile to Hong Kong, protesters, mostly young, have been taking to the streets to demonstrate against an array of injustices over the past few months. Japan, on the other hand, seems to have embraced inaction, and recent, comparatively low-key actions to highlight the threat of climate change seemingly attest to a certain apathy.

It’s a familiar trope about the country, but on Oct. 26 Tokyo-based DJ and producer Mars89 did his best to blast a hole in it. Alongside Mari Sakurai, Miru Shinoda and Onjuicy — armed with both pounding techno and euphoric jungle — he led hundreds of demonstrators on a tour of the capital’s Harajuku and Omotesando neighborhoods, with many participants spontaneously joining the strange procession as it passed. The protest brought together people under a long list of complaints, ranging from opposition to hate speech and delays to disaster relief, to tax evasion and government corruption. The whistles and flashing batons of the police only added to the rave-like vibe.

While this might not point to growing politicization on a wider scale, it is indicative of the way political and social issues have gained greater visibility in Tokyo’s underground dance music scene recently.

On that front, last month’s protest rave was by no means the only demonstration that has sought to harness the energy of club music to spotlight broader issues. Following comments last year by Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Mio Sugita that the state should not spend money on policies supporting same-sex couples, LGBTQ activists took over Hachiko Square in front of Shibuya Station months later to show their opposition, with DJs such as Poipoi and Hibi Bliss blasting out tracks like Lil Silva’s militantly carnivalesque “Seasons.” One friend described it as the best rave he went to all year.

While dance music has always had a political edge, be it in the form of Detroit’s Underground Resistance collective or the “Atomic Bomb Compilation” footwork albums released after the 2011 Fukushima meltdowns, its association with, and focus on, hedonism is stronger. Still, the politics can often be implicit, with marginalized groups finding sanctuary and community in the spaces that the music helps form.

Waifu, an LGBTQ-friendly party at Aoyama Hachi in Shibuya Ward, has sought to broaden the range of welcoming club nights beyond the gay — but not necessarily trans-friendly — venues found in Shinjuku’s Ni-chome district. The party has also adopted a clear anti-discrimination stance, coupled with measures to tackle sexual harassment in clubs.

In a country that continues to find itself way down the rankings of gender equality, the latter steps are no small matter. And increasingly they’re making their way into Tokyo’s mainstream clubs.

Earlier this year, a statement was drafted for a club night, ‘I-ss, to remind clubbers what is and isn’t appropriate behavior, in response to toxicity within the scene. It has since been adopted by some big venues.

To an extent, these trends mirror those of the dance music scene internationally, which has increasingly adopted strong stances on issues such as LGBTQ rights, anti-racism and economic inequality.

As the statement’s opening line says, “Is good music all you really need to enjoy a club night?”