Hugh McCafferty, gauges the international community’s reaction to the current clamp-down on dancing in Fukuoka.
As most regular clubbers will know, venues in Fukuoka have recently started imposing a most unusual ban. In a city famed throughout Japan for its nightlife, to which people from all over Kyushu flock at the weekend, late night revellers are now routinely asked the unthinkable: to stop dancing. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the reaction from some has been one of total disbelief. “I was flabbergasted, flummoxed, whatever adjective you want to use.” Johnny Price explains. “I went to a club with some friends a while back. We went in, heard the music and started to dance. Suddenly, I get a tap on my shoulder and I’m being asked to stop dancing. I was like, ‘What is this? Footloose? Where’s the joke at?” Originally from Chicago, Price first came to Fukuoka in 1994 and spent the next three years DJing in venues around the city. He has recently returned to the city and notes that the change has been remarkable. “I’ve never been in a town that prohibited dancing,” he reflects bemusedly.
Ina Linge-Granger and her fellow exchange students at the Fukuoka University of Economics are more indignant: “I have come across it, but I refuse to go to a place where I can’t dance. We are all generally very annoyed with that rule.” The rule to which she refers is part of the fuuzoku eigyou torishimari hou or Law Regulating Businesses Affecting Public Morals. First drafted in 1948, and amended several times thereafter, this law regulates, among other things, the opening hours of “entertainment businesses” (the category into which clubs officially fall).
Article 13 states that such businesses cannot open from midnight to sunrise, unless the local public safety committee grants an extension (which only stretches as far as 1 am). This might come as a surprise to anybody who, until recently at least, has ever gone clubbing in Japan. If dancing is illegal after 1 am, why have venues routinely stayed open far beyond that? A prominent club-owner in the Oyafuko-dori area, who wishes to remain anonymous, explains: “This license only allows you to open until 1 am. Due to these restrictions, clubs and dance bars all over Japan have decided to do business under the bar/restaurant license which allows you to open all hours but doesn’t allow entertainment, including dancing and DJs.
“Up until now everyone who owns or runs a place has known this but it has been an acceptable risk due to lax police enforcement of this law. But for whatever reason, they have recently started enforcing this particular law against clubs in a big way. Most clubs have had no choice but to comply by adding tables and chairs to their dance floors, covering up DJ booths, turning up the lights and stopping people dancing. The other choice is to allow dancing and close at one.”
Although critical of the early hours that licensed clubs must keep, Johnny Price looks less kindly on the contribution owners have made to the current situation. “They’re pushing it. When I was here in the 90s, a few places stayed open after hours. They were successful and nobody said anything, but then everyone started jumping on the bandwagon. The reason that clubs are getting in trouble is that they’re being greedy – the cops are just trying to do their job.” These comments may explain club-owners’ motivation to open later than permitted but it remains unclear as to why the authorities effectively allowed them to do so for so long by not enforcing the law consistently.
Whatever the rationale behind previous laxness, the last few months have seen a sudden, sharp increase in enforcement. The turning point, it would seem, was the arrest of Kazuya Oda, owner of Kieth Flack, in November for allowing unlicensed dancing at his club. Soon after, ‘no dancing’ signs started to appear at venues around the city that had previously operated under regular bar or restaurant licenses. Kieth Flack has since resumed business, with a full dancing license, and is sticking strictly to regulations. Other clubs in the area have followed suit.
Despite the abrupt implementation of restrictions, some of the biggest nightlife fixtures in the city remain packed at the weekend. Moses Yamane, who has owned The Dark Room for the best part of 17 years, wryly admits his disappointment that the turmoil hasn’t benefited his bar. “To be honest, I thought it would work to our advantage with all the clubs getting pressured but it hasn’t really helped to the extent I’d hoped for.” People may still be out, but the night time atmosphere has definitely taken a hit, he notes. “It has sort of soured the mood a little bit. It’s just not as fun. I’ve gone out to clubs a couple of times and I’ve just stood there – it’s weird.”
Yamane recognises the need for regulation. The point he raises, however, is that the law, in its current form, seems to go about it in an unnecessarily indirect way. “I understand the police don’t want customers coming out on to the street and drunk-fighting at 8 or 9 in the morning, with kids going to school and people trying to get to work, but they should deal with it directly. There’s a really weak connection between people dancing in a club and fighting on the street.”
With zealous enforcement of regulations in businesses throughout the city, it’s interesting to note that dancing is permitted just about anywhere else – on the street, in karaoke parlours, even at establishments, like dance schools, that make a direct profit from it. “It’s something we joke about,” Yamane says, “’If I wanted to have dancing, instead ofThe Dark Room (Urban Rock Bar), why don’t we just have The Dark Room Dance School?’ I don’t know if the police would buy it, but it’s the law.”
It’s unlikely, then, that the point of fuuzoku eigyou legislation is to curb the physical act of dancing. However, as one exasperated bar manager, who doesn’t want to be named, puts it, “The cops have to enforce the law but it seems the ‘no dancing’ aspect is the only thing they can play on.” He believes that regulations, as they stand, do not reflect the kind of businesses that have emerged in Japan over the last decade or two. “Our business, and a lot of other bars in Fukuoka, should be in a category that doesn’t exist now in the law. A normal bar can open at five o’clock in the afternoon but with our bar, most of our customers come at one o’clock in the morning. So what I would call a ‘DJ bar’ should be part of a third category – not a club, not a dining bar, but something else.”
With dancing restrictions likely to remain in place for the time being, what do you make of the situation? How does the law here compare to that of other countries? Is it time for a change to licensing regulations or do they serve their purpose in keeping the streets trouble-free at night?
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