Japan Amends Restrictive Dance Laws After 67 Years

Ryuichi Sakamoto

In mid-June, Japanese politicians amended a controversial law on the books for 67 years. The statute, officially termed "the Entertainment Business Control Law," forbade dancing after midnight in clubs, bars and most venues. The arcane and sporadically enforced regulation had recently come under scrutiny, as the police had been more vigilant about applying it.

The law dated back to the post-war era of Japan and was drafted by the American occupation forces. At that time dance halls were often fronts for prostitution and the law was aimed at clamping down on the practice. It was rarely observed during Japan’s booming "bubble" economy of the ‘80s, which saw nightlife grow tremendously in the country. But the death of a student in an Osaka club in 2010 helped initiate a new wave of enforcement.

By 2012, "no dancing" signs started appearing at many of the well-known clubs in Tokyo’s Roppongi and Shinjuku districts, as well as Shinsaibashi in Osaka, significantly impacting nightlife business throughout the country.

The June amendment is considered by some to be only a partial victory; the re-written statute states that dance clubs must maintain lighting above 10 lux, about the level of brightness of a cinema with the lights on.

Kotaro Manabe, an event producer and ex-manager of the dance music label Wakyo, says the new law doesn’t go far enough. "While club owners now get the right to stay open until morning, they are bound by another restrictive ordinance,” he tells Billboard. “They have to keep the venue at a constant level of brightness. This will kill the club atmosphere!"

Musicians, DJs and club owners were united in the process; in 2013, Academy-award winning composer Ryuichi Sakamoto launched the Let's Dance Petition Committee, which collected over 150,000 signatures in support of changing the law. Other high-profile Japanese entertainment figures worked behind the scenes as well, including legendary Japanese hip-hop artist Zeebra and well-known electronic music producer DJ Watusi, both undertaking huge lobbying efforts.

Shuya Okino, owner of the celebrated Tokyo club The Room and leader of the band Kyoto Jazz Massive tells Billboard, "People in the nightlife industry negotiated with a group of bipartisan parliamentarians from the Liberty party and the Communist Party. Usually differences in policy between the Liberty Party and the Democratic Party, or the Communist Party, simply result in government in-fighting, so this case is very rare in that the law got changed."

Okino himself, along with international DJs who regularly perform in Japan sent a letter to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe urging the law be amended. Signatories included DJ Spinna, Theo Parrish, Jeff Mills, Joe Claussell and Gilles Peterson and Laurent Garnier, among others.

Okino believe the awarding of the 2020 Summer Olympics to Japan was a not-insignificant contributor to the changing of the statute. "The Olympics coming is the biggest reason for the change. The government … promised to improve the economy by streamlining regulations for many fields of business - - nightlife entertainment is very important to satisfy foreign visitors,” Manabe says adding: "the Olympics provided a tailwind for club people and made it easier for them to deal with the politicians."

Kaz Michijima, director general of the music industry body PROMIC, believes the new law will invigorate the entertainment business. "The changes mean the nightlife industry will grow. Those of us working in the sector see the hotel business as what we call an ‘inbound business,’ that is bringing international spending to Japan. With this new law I think the nightlife business can now be another inbound business."

Club owners and event organizers are approaching the new situation with guarded optimism. Nick Clarke, director of party promoter Eggworm, refers to the disaster of March 11, 2011 as a turning point. "It is one thing for it to be legal to operate such a business, it is quite the another in actually finding a venue.  The industry was suffering a lot anyway pre 3/11 and I think the Tsunami and what happened since just made it all a little worse."

Okino stresses the struggle for laws that allow clubs to operate is not over. "The police promised to have public meetings in each prefecture, and get comments on their websites, for one year in order to determine a standard to enforce the new law. So we should not stop lobbying and we need to continue the citizen’s movement to make the situation better for clubs."