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Dance Lawyers Are Fighting Japan's Club Crackdown
- Michelle Lhooq

In Vice (UK), August 1 2013. (Scroll down for previously unpublished original Q&A.)



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 Robo-cop, 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, techni-colored, 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this no-dancing law, called fueiho in Japanese, went largely ignored by both nightclub owners and the police as an outdated anomaly―just a silly wrinkle in the law books.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 organization 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 yen3 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 megaclubs 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 analyzing 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 unlicenced 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.

Previously unpublished original Q&A

1) What is the current state of the movement to fight the restrictive laws? I understand that Let's Dance submitted a petition to the Diet - what happened after that? Are other organizations rallying around the cause?

I'm not sure if anything has happened yet. There are already politicians in favor of the petition, so it's not like it was submitted to an entirely hostile diet, but I don't know if the issue has gone to the floor yet. Like in most countries, the government doesn't react very fast, and the Club Noon case is still in process, so I think it will still be a while before there's a real break in the issue. I might be wrong, though... definitely keep checking with others.

2) You released a protest mix earlier this year. What effect did that have? What other involvement do you have with this 'movement' to change Japan's nightlife laws?

I'm uncomfortable when people call it a "protest" CD, or refer to its release as a form of activism. It's a commercial CD that would be distributed the exact same had I given it a different title. It is a real misrepresentation of political organizing when things like a CD release, or art performance, or gallery show, are portrayed as potentially radical political acts. They simply are not. No matter what music and art industries say.

The Where Dancefloors Stand Still CD has managed to generate some conversation on the problem of Japan's fuzoku laws in the Western press - and again, the press might like to frame that as "political organizing," but it's not. It's discussion. And discussion is good, but let's keep things in perspective.

I personally have stayed away from the Let's Dance crowd, because their objective is simply to exclude acts of dancing from government regulation. In doing so, I fear it is advancing conservative Neo-Liberal cultural agendas by facilitating a clean fissure between regulations on sex work and regulations on dancing. After all is said and done, and middle class kids have politically claimed their "right to dance," the remaining laws from which the dance regulations have been extricated will likely be reaffirmed when the fueihou laws regulating sex work and other things are rewritten so as to exclude dancing. That is a dangerous thing. It is a backward thing. It is not dissimilar to Obamacare making true socialized medicine in the US more of an impossibility than ever, because one of the concessions made in order to pass Obamacare was to legally ensure private health insurance companies forever remain a part of the US health care system - that people have the "choice" between US socialized health insurance or a commercial carrier. The pro-dance movement in Japan seems to be making similar concessions that recrystalize the most damaging aspects of Japan's Morality Codes, all for middle class kids to have the "choice" to dance. I say they are recrystalizing the "most damaging" aspects of the codes, because the remaining restrictions on sex work and other things the dance movement continually distance themselves from are the issues that have the most impact on people living in poverty.

I mean, you can look at the photos on the Let's Dance facebook page and quickly realize, amongst all the suits, this is a Neo-Liberal movement. It is doing more to sell the "morality" of dancing ("We're not bad guys! We just want to dance, yeah!"), rather than concretely resisting the moral codes themselves.

3) What do you think needs to happen for these laws to get repealed or modified? (Or do you think the goal should be something else?)

At the moment, my feeling is that the law will be revised in the Neo-Liberal model proposed by Let's Dance, which is a removal or serious weakening of legal restrictions on dancing. That is mostly a licensing issues, and basically means dance clubs would no longer have to obtain special dancehall permits. That seems totally possible to me.

Sadly, I believe it will be done without the dance movement having established any alliances to impoverished persons and communities most affected by fueiho codes. It seems those people shall remain isolated and unhelped. The "dance movement" has made it pretty clear this is not an issue to be complicated by those whose moralities come with actual political consequence. The dance movement is about saying dancing is not a moral issue. And because of this, when the restrictions on dance are lifted or reduced, and everyone is celebrating, I will not find much to celebrate.

If you ask me what I think the goal should be, well, of course, it is not a goal to be legislated by a Neo-Liberal state. The goal is the abolishment of moral codes, the decriminalization of sex work, and the construction of safe social environments for that work - and it strikes me that this last point can only happen through the destruction of patriarchy. Do I believe it is an achievable goal? No. I'm a nihilist. But if one is sincerely committed to reduction in violence, and divestments of dominations, there is an obvious need for continual social resistance despite no promise of personal reward. To the contrary, it means bringing discomfort to one's own life, and destabilizing one's own perceptions. Japan's dance movement places too much emphasis on comfort and stability. Pretty much the only discomfort they ever discuss publicly is the inconvenience of not being able to get their party on. That insistence upon comfort and pleasure, to the exclusion of all else that really matters, is what makes most club life useless as a site of social organizing. The exceptions are notable. For example, the Stonewall Riot didn't explode out of a middle-class, straight club. Any Japanese equivalent is not going to explode out of a middle-class, straight club movement over here, either.

4) Who else should I talk to in researching this story? Any and all recommendations/tips would be greatly appreciated.

Takahiro Saitou and Izumi Yoshida are two really smart lawyers working on Club Noon's defense, and also have connections to Let's Dance.