April 13, 2018
Up until recently, you could walk down a busy Japanese street in the early hours and find many people dancing the night away. If these same people then set foot in a nightclub, what they were doing would have been seen illegal and could have resulted in jail time. Why? To find out we have to venture a number of decades into the past.
The ban on dancing in nightclubs, bars and any other public venues has been in place in Japan since the American occupation of the country during the years after WWII. The law made sense at the time, ‘dance halls’ were often a front for prostitution, which was rampant across the poverty-stricken nation. But seventy years on, why was the law still in place?
In truth, it wasn’t in all but name. During the 1970s, 80s and 90s, Japan thrived. With a high standard of living and vibrant nightlife, officials largely turned a blind eye to what some had described as an obsolete and oppressive ruling. Why could you dance into the evening but not once the clock reached midnight? The dance scene took off across the country during these years with many teens and twentysomethings inspired by western culture, fuelling numerous club openings across the major cities like Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka.
Unfortunately the fun couldn’t last. A spate of high profile drug busts, some of which involved celebrities, as well as a hugely publicised 2010 club brawl led to a crackdown from police after a 22-year-old died. A litany of arrests followed with clubs being raided if they flouted the law. Japan’s War on Dance had begun.
Police began arresting DJs and club patrons, submitting them for drug tests, clamping down on the nightclub scene. With fierce resistance from those in and around the music industry, as well as lawyers and politicians, the law was revamped in 2015 with some nightclubs allowed to have dancing after midnight but only if the lights were left on, giving off a similar vibe to a cinema when a film plays. Those that remained darker still had to stop at midnight with illuminated ‘No Dancing’ signs calling attention to the need for visitors to bring a halt to proceedings. The solution? To head outside and continue dancing in the streets!
Thankfully the law was completely abolished by Japanese politicians in 2016, with many noting Tokyo couldn't simply turn off the lights at midnight when the Olympics arrived in 2020. We just hope that the first song they danced to was the classic eighties number, Footloose! Kevin Bacon is sure to be pleased next time he visits Japan.
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By Henry Fosdike