OSAKA – They were called discos in the 1970s and 1980s and have been known as clubs since around the downfall of the bubble economy in the early 1990s.
These are the places where people dance to music played by DJs — hangouts for youths and networking spots for up-and-coming artists.
They are now at a crisis point.
A number of clubs, notably in Osaka, have been forced out of business since last year after police took action against them, including arresting their operators, based on the 1948 entertainment business control law.
The law obliges club operators to obtain business licenses, but many do not, because doing so would require them to close at midnight — their busiest time.
Music and dance lovers are alarmed by the seemingly sudden stiffening of police attitude, as the authorities have long given a tacit nod to such premises operating without licenses. Patrons started collecting signatures nationwide in May to seek the exclusion of clubs from types of establishments controlled by the law in a campaign launched by celebrities, including musician Ryuichi Sakamoto.
In Osaka’s frontline youth culture district of Amerika Village, some clubs are hanging on, but they are far fewer in number than two years ago, and they are visibly less vibrant.
A man who lives in the area said he welcomes the trend.
“There used to be many complaints about noise at night, but now we don’t see that so often.”
A frequent clubgoer in her 20s said she is heartbroken that so many clubs in the area have closed down. “They are important places where I can enjoy my favorite music with my friends.”
The crackdown poses a more serious problem for people who have been making their living in the club industry.
“I’ve maintained good manners, but I’m not sure if I can continue making a living through music,” said a DJ in his 30s.
In 2007, police nationwide took action against only three clubs that were operating without licenses. Five clubs were targeted in 2008, eight in 2009, 10 in 2010 and 21 in 2011.
A senior official of the National Police Agency denied that the police are gunning for clubs.
“We have not given any instructions (to regional police) to crack down on clubs. Maybe the increase is the result of growing complaints about noise and the rumbling of buildings,” the official said.
Lawyer Takahiro Saito said the 1948 law has long been an anachronism.
“When the law was enacted, it was a widely accepted idea that dancing was injurious to public morals. That no longer fits the modern age.”
In fact, the education ministry made it mandatory beginning in April for first-year and second-year junior high school students to learn dancing, and suggested hip-hop as one genre to be taken up in class. Without social acceptance of such modern dance styles, this would not have been possible.
In the past, several types of establishments were excluded from restrictions under the entertainment business law as a result of lobbying. For example, billiards was recognized as a sport and pool halls fell outside of the law’s control in the 1950s. That’s why the nation’s pool halls can operate late at night or even round-the-clock.
Some people are wondering if they can do the same for dancing and clubs. The campaign launched in Kyoto by Sakamoto and other celebrities aims at collecting 100,000 signatures for submission to the Diet.
Club operators, for their part, are trying to do what they can to continue. Some have tightened ID checks to shut out minors and have started cleaning up their neighborhood.
A man who operates clubs in the Kansai region said he wants “the public to know that some club operators are carrying out their business with great aspirations.”
Novelist Seiko Ito said he owes the success of his career to his club experience as a young aspiring entertainer.
“A number of people became internationally known artists after their talent was discovered in clubs. They are a place for social interaction that has helped nurture cutting-edge cultures and helped people to connect,” Ito said.
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