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Japan's Weird Anti-Dancing Law Never Stopped People from Partying

Japan recently repealed a law that banned dancing after midnight, but punters and club owners have already spent the past three years ignoring it.

Circus, a nightclub in Osaka

I'm standing between two stacks of speakers in an Osaka nightclub. Claus Voigtmann has flown in from London to give those speakers a workout, pounding house and techno through their cones. At 2 AM on Halloween, the costumes are goofy, the makeup is smeared and I'm getting more free drinks than usual.

Flickering in and out of view between flashes of the strobe, hundreds of people move their arms and legs around—some more in time than others—to the music, eyes closed, hair falling forward. It's a universal ritual, transcendence through dancing. It's also one of the more beautiful parts of our human experience.

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So it's strange to think that Japanese law enforcement has considered this late-night activity a crime for the last three years. Starting in the spring of 2011, police began enforcing an outdated law to restrict night clubs from operating past midnight. If club owners decided to keep on going after this time, it wasn't long before they were raided and their owners arrested, which made it kind of tricky for many clubs to turn any decent profits.

Then, finally, on October 24, following years of grassroots organizing and legal proceedings, the Japanese government announced its intention to ratify new reforms to the law during the government's November session. The law now states that clubs can operate all night with an awkward provision that they up the lighting to prevent any illegal activity.

The law—called the fueho law, or formally the "Law on Control and Improvement of Amusement Businesses"—is intended to regulate and restrict the sex industry ("amusement businesses" is the Japanese euphemism for prostitution). The law, revised over 30 times since its implementation in 1948, has come to regulate not only businesses directly associated with the sex industry, but those that operate late at night. However, the law was vague and arbitrarily enforced, so many businesses weren't particularly concerned about it, or aware of its implications. If they did look into it, they'd learn that it includes restrictions on Japanese cabarets, dance halls, night clubs and other establishments that "damage the healthy development of boys."

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At first, the crackdown began in Osaka's Ame-mura neighborhood. A hub of nightlife for decades, tensions between residents and clubbers were coming to a peak in 2011.

"Drunk club patrons were making too much noise and littering around the neighborhood," recalls Saito Takahiro, the Tokyo lawyer spearheading the new reforms. "People living there were increasingly complaining." And then a man was killed in a fight outside a club, which prompted the police to break out their fueho trump card.

Toyokazu Yoshioka

Toyokazu Yoshioka was managing the three-story club Triangle in Ame-mura during the spring of 2011. "The police came, about 50 of them," he says. "We didn't think we were doing anything wrong. We really didn't think they would actually come. At the time, other clubs had been raided, but we thought maybe the other clubs were affiliated with drugs or Yakuza. We weren't doing anything like that, so we were surprised when they raided us. They didn't formally arrest us, but they took us to the police station for six hours—me, all the part time staff, even the DJ."

Triangle's owner was later arrested and forced to abandon the business. It's since been sold to other investors.

The police expanded their scope of the law's enforcement, moving operations north to Osaka's Umeda neighborhood. There, they made an example of Club Noon, a treasured institution in the Osaka music scene. Noon's owner, Kanemitsu Masatoshi, and manager, Yamamoto Yohei, were arrested. They're still entangled in legal proceedings that are only now beginning to be resolved.

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The arrests at Noon would become a pinnacle moment in the fueho story. Talking to Noon's (now former) owner Kanemitsu, it becomes clear the large role that the club has played within the Osaka music community. "In the 1990s, we began accommodating a range of events," he says. "House, hip hop, reggae, rock, and then jazz as well. Starting 20 years ago, we developed like that—it was creatively free."

Yamamoto Yohei

Noon's demise prompted an outpouring of support from the local community. Ninety artists came together to organize "Save the Club Noon", a four day event turned documentary that has helped raise money to assist in paying the club's legal fees. The venue is now directed by manager Yamamoto Yohei, who operates it as a cafe and occasional early-evening event space.

With police in Osaka proactively working to restrict clubs around the city, police in other regions soon followed suit. In the months following the spring of 2011, clubs in Tokyo, Kyoto and Fukuoka also faced police raids. While Osaka would remain the ground zero of the fueho law in terms of severity and economic impact, it began to threaten the future of clubs throughout the country.

Claus Voigtmann in Circus

A national movement, "Let's Dance," was organized to petition for changes to the fueho law. The campaign questioned why clubs like Noon were, by law, considered detrimental to the moral integrity of Japan's youth, and advocated for reforms to the all-night dance restrictions.

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In Tokyo, lawyer Saito Takahiro began taking the necessary steps to change the law. While many other lawyers in Osaka were involved with the case, Saito would be responsible for interfacing with Japan's Diet (the country's group of legislators), submitting formal petitions of the Let's Dance campaign and making sure that the grassroots campaigning and local legal proceedings were being made part of the national discourse.

For the next two years, the legality of clubs entered a grey area. The initial police raids of 2011 stopped, but clubs were still technically prohibited from operating past midnight. The financial burden of closing so early proved difficult, so many smaller clubs found clever ways to gradually extend their hours, first to 1 AM, then to 2 AM, and so on. By 2013, it seemed like the police had moved on, but the club owners were still far more cautious than they had been before the raids.

Yoshihiro Okino

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, clubs in the Osaka region were regularly at capacity. Promoters could afford to take more risk with their events, bringing out internationally celebrated artists. House DJ Yoshihiro Okino, who produces with his brother under the name Kyoto Jazz Massive, was presenting monthly parties at Noon before the raids. "We'd have anywhere from 150 to 350 people coming out to events," he recalls. "Artists like Gilles Peterson, Jazzanova and Bugz in the Attic would play."

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However, with many clubs now shuttered and the remainder operating at unreliable hours, the crowds had stopped coming. What would otherwise be a 300 to 500 person event would now be budgeted for 100 people. Music events were moving to smaller, more underground spaces. Okino continued putting on events, this time on a smaller scale. "After the fueho law was enforced, we tried working within the scope of the law to continue doing parties in a small 'bar-style' format," he says.

Meanwhile, Toyokazu—the former manager at Triangle—opted to start a new space. He found a vacancy in an old building two blocks north of his old workplace and started a new club, Circus.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the fears of police and the financial risk involved in running a club, Circus is currently the only club in the city regularly programming decent underground music. Local legends like DJ Krush and Ken Ishii, and internationally recognised producers like Machinedrum, Falty DL, Pinch, Oneohtrix Point Never, have all played here. At 200 capacity, every weekend is an opportunity to see world-class artists in a small, intimate space.

A loyal following of music lovers has developed around the club, and its DIY nature means the police remain relatively unaware of the club's activities—or are just preoccupied with more pressing issues than stopping people from dancing after midnight. This is the Osaka that I've been a part of. And while I've been paying attention to the fueho legislation, I've also been dancing the whole time.

The exterior of Club Noon

Talking to the club owners and DJs, there's both optimism and skepticism about how clubs will develop following the Diet's approval of the new fueho reform. Noon intends to resume programming all night events. Toyokazu will continue running Circus and hopes to expand to other regions.

There's anticipation that bigger businesses will begin investing in clubs, changing the environment from a primarily music-based experience to a big box consumption one. "I worry particularly about smaller clubs," says Okino. "I wonder if the government changes will lead to larger and larger clubs. My culture is based on small venues and good music. If we play on big sound systems, it's going to sound great. But if we play in clubs with cheap and small sound systems, I'm still going to be fine."

Back at Circus on Halloween, just a week after the fueho reforms were announced, it's difficult to detect much change in the attitude of the patrons. It's still the same dark room of sweaty bodies that it was in prior months. For the last three years, people never really stopped dancing. They moved to smaller rooms, but the parties found a way to continue.