Dance Lawyers Are Fighting Japan's Club Crackdown
A grassroots group of lawyers, DJs and journalists are fighting for their right to do the Harlem Shake.
You're in Roppongi, Tokyo's wondrously seedy nightlife district. Elbowing past throngs of girls painted like kabuki dolls and their slouching Nigerian boyfriends, you slip into a storied nightclub, where you start uncurling your limbs to the acid techno pulsing out of monolithic speakers. But as soon as you start busting out your best Robocop, a staffer taps you on the back. Politely but firmly, they direct your gaze to a wall where a "no dancing" sign is lit up by strobe lights. Stop dancing, you're commanded. Despite your innocent intentions, your wild twerking could end up shutting the whole place down.
This ridiculous scenario is fast becoming the norm in Japan, where "dancing licenses" are required by law if nightlife joints want the privilege of letting clubbers grind against each other. Even then, doors have to close at the ridiculous hour of midnight or 1AM. Obviously, few clubs comply with these rules; when I lived in Tokyo from 2003-2005, the city's after-dark scene ran parallel to that of any other global metropolis—wild, technicoloured, and most importantly, curfew-less. Until recently, this no-dancing law, called fueiho in Japanese, went largely ignored by both nightclub owners and the police as an outdated anomaly—just a silly wrinkle in the law books.
But according to James Hadfield from Time Out Japan, that all changed in 2010, when a university student died in a brawl outside a club in Osaka. His death was the final straw in a string of nightlife-related scandals, Hadfield explains, and the "Osaka police instituted a systematic crackdown, targeting any clubs that were flouting the fueiho law." Over the span of 18 months, dozens of venues were shut down, turning the hedonistic beach party scene into a creepy dead zone. Jesse Mann, a Brooklyn-based DJ who spins regularly in Japan, trekked over there earlier this month. "Even on a clear Sunday afternoon, almost every seat in every restaurant was free all the way down the beach," he told me over email. "There was no music to speak of... it was eerily quiet for an area so perfectly setup for daytime partying."
So why now?Hadfield's Time Out Japan piece explores why the police have decided to start enforcing the fueiho law after decades of inaction. The speculation points from fear mongering by the media about Japan's corrupted youth to plain bureaucratic stupidity. But even in Japan—where Kafka-esque absurdity can often be the norm—not being able to dance in a fucking nightclub is just too bizarre. As a result, all kinds of nightlife insiders have banded together under the shared goal of convincing the government to excise this outdated law. In the nine months since the Time Out Japan piece was published, these activist groups have swelled in numbers, and their efforts, in fits and starts, have made some promising headway.
The largest and most prominent organisation is called Let's Dance, a consortium of high-profile club owners, music journalists and DJs whose biggest effort to date has been a petition that they've been circulating online for more than a year. After collecting 155,879 signatures from their supporters, Let's Dance submitted it to the Diet, Japan's national parliament, in May. It's difficult to judge the splash the petition made within elite political circles, but Yuko Asanuma, an advocate for Let's Dance and a journalist who contributed to a recent book on the unfolding issue, insists that the petition was successful, "in a sense that they've managed to get attention and understanding of the problem from some of the politicians [who are now] actively trying to amend the law." Mike Sunda, a music writer for The Japan Times, thinks change is just around the corner. "With everything building towards [the] general election, I can't imagine there's been much chance for politicians to focus on anything else," he said. "Hopefully now we might see some progress."
Meanwhile, a group of lawyers in Let's Dance have splintered off into their own group, the awesomely-named Dance Lawyers. Obviously, their legal expertise is crucial to this effort, especially when smaller battles are continually cropping up between frustrated club owners and the courts. Club Noon, a legendary Osaka hotspot, was shuttered last year for violating the fueiho law; a four-day festival called Save the Club Noon was thrown in retaliation, and a documentary under the same name was successfully funded last month, reaching 4 million yen - 3 million more than the targeted amount.
The popularity of Save the Club Noon goes to show that while getting rid of the fueiho law is fundamentally a legalistic battle, raising awareness about the issue is equally important for the cause's success. The prevailing sentiment amongst the movement's leaders is that the reputation of nightlife itself needs a PR boost. And to do that, they'll need to convince everyone that clubbing isn't evil, and in fact, has important cultural value in addition to economic worth. A small NPO called "Kurabu to Karuchaa o Mamoru Kai" (literally translated as "Association for the Protection of Clubs and Culture"), with the hip-hop artist Zeebra at the helm, is setting out to do exactly that while using Zeebra's superstar status to attract the public's attention.
Protest groups are also turning to Berlin, a nightlife wonderland where mega-clubs bring in droves of tourists looking to let loose for a weekend. Leaders of Let's Dance have sought advice from the Berlin Club Commission, a coalition that acts as a buffer between politicians and club interests. And widely-read newspapers like the Asahi Shimbun have published features analysing how the 24-hour party-mecca managed to develop its thriving club culture. Asanuma, who is based in Berlin, says she believes this moment is the "biggest chance we've had in the last few decades to make this change happen," but it's particularly difficult to change clubbing's negative image in Japan because "most of the politicians grew up having no clubbing experience—unlike Berlin! [This makes] it difficult to prove why they are worth protecting."
For now, the movement against dance regulation is getting pulled in opposite directions. Since the petition was submitted in May, police have paid more unscheduled visits to Tokyo's biggest clubs, including Sound Museum Vision and Vanity Restaurant. These drop-ins have "smacked of retaliation," as Hadfield put it. "The police have warned that they aren't backing any move to change the law with regard to clubs," elaborated Takahiro Saito, a lawyer and one of the main figures in Let's Dance.
Japan's struggle against the "dancing police" is remarkably similar to New York City's own discontent with its cabaret law, which also prohibits unlicensed dancing. The cabaret law was enacted in 1926 with racist undertones: it was designed to "crack down on multiracial Harlem jazz clubs." Giuliani resurrected the law as part of his quality-of-life campaign starting in the mid-'90s, cracking down on raves and nightclubs with his iron fist. And while Bloomberg tried to propose a "nightlife license" to replace the cabaret law, bars and clubs protested against that too, claiming Bloomberg's alternative was even worse than the status-quo.
Whether or not Japan follows the tumultuous path trod by New York's nightlife history, the savviest critic of the protest movement is not a politician or stodgy grandma, but the theoretically-inclined, queer-identifying and Japan-based DJ Terre Thaemlitz (aka DJ Sprinkles), who released a mix CD titled Where the Dance Floors Stand Still in April. Thaemlitz argues that the current campaign against "no dancing" laws is both dangerous and backwards, "because their objective is simply to exclude acts of dancing from government regulation." Fueiho laws actually apply to both Japan's nightlife and its brothels, strip clubs and love hotels; Thaemlitz argues that by distancing themselves from the sordid sex industry, Let's Dance is is also distancing themselves from "the issues that have the most impact on people living in poverty." Perhaps the right to dance isn't so simple after all.
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