There’s a fever sweeping Japan, inspiring city officials and police to crack down on the shady black market for a highly regulated industry linked to the sex industry, gambling, and even human trafficking.
You see, since about 1948, it’s been more-or-less illegal to dance after 11 p.m. And now the police, 60 years after the fact, are starting to crack down.
America certainly has outdated laws. Occasionally, in the live-free-or-die state of New Hampshire where I spent a good lot of my life, some Libertarian muckraker would call the cops on himself for, say, buffing someone’s nails without a manicurist’s license. The cops came, threatened to give him a summons, he refused to stop and got hauled off to jail.
Depending on your view, Japan either has a natural aversion to civil disobedience, or simply doesn’t share America’s predilection for getting arrested to fight for their God-given right to an unlicensed manicure. As a result, old laws tend to go unchallenged.
Which is why there was a dance-related arrest here in Fukuoka.
Japanese police tend to enforce its blue laws, or “Fuzoku” laws, penned to cover the sex industry but including a lot of “adult entertainment” operations, when it serves the weakly defined greater social good.
Having loose definitions of the laws give police some leeway, but also prevent the clubs from going totally underground. Whereas now, the police and the sex industry work around the loopholes in the laws to co-exist, stricter enforcement paves the way to sleazier and more serious issues such as human trafficking.
Since the same hazy laws apply to dance clubs, if police suspect a club of regularly having drugs on the premises, or serving alcohol to minors, or if even neighbors are just complaining about the noise too much – they can go in after 11 p.m., look for dancing and shut the place down.
Which is precisely what happened in Fukuoka, at a club named Kieth Flack. Despite the country twang of the name, it was host to all sorts of live acts, from punk to hip-hop to DJ sets. (In proper Japanese form, the name is a misspelled derivation of the two British doctors whom, in 1906, penned a medical journal entry titled “The form and nature of the muscular connections between the primary divisions of the vertebrate heart,” where they outlined the function of the Keith-Flack node in the heart. Let’s dance!).
But it wasn’t just a graduation-night house-party bust where patrons were sent home; the owner of the club, “Mr. Oda,” was arrested, “because the business had allowed the guests to dance without permission.”
Recreation and Amusement
By 1946, Japan was still smoldering and relying on $1 million worth of food aid a day. The public was wary of the maelström of reported rapes by occupation forces, which some historians number between thousands and tens of thousands in Okinawa alone.
Prostitution facilities were created by Japan’s disgustingly euphemistic “Recreation and Amusement Association” to distract soldiers from Japan’s women. While these facilities “worked” to cut the number of rapes, they also spread venereal disease through occupation soldiers and the US government ordered them closed in 1946.
A short time later, in 1948, Japan passed the Fuzoku Eigyo Torishamari Ho, or “Entertainment Business Control Laws” or literally, “Enterprises Affecting Public Morals” laws, to regulate areas that catered to “entertainment” in droll reference to the sex industry.
The laws regulated hostess clubs, gray-area prostitution and pornographic images, but also “dance sales,” cafes, bars and restaurants serving food after 10 p.m. Also, “games that could arouse the passions for gambling.”
The problem with these regulations is that they were designed for an era of Benny Goodman and Perry Como, not to mention extreme poverty and fear of an occupier that had been quite literally demonized over the course of the war.
They’ve been updated in a slapdash manner throughout Japan’s economic and cultural expansion over the next six decades, but fundamentally the laws passed for Victrolas are still being applied to the era of dance clubs, established with the mindset that going clubbing is about as depraved as hiring a sex worker.
The law requires 66 square meters (710 square feet) of open space for a venue to allow dancing. Furthermore, “objects such as partitions larger than 1m, tables, decorations, shall not be placed such that they obstruct the view into the room for patrons.” That’s about the size of five parking spaces, sans bar, tables, speakers, or light posts. If that seems small, you haven’t been to Japan – it’s the size of 40 tatami mats, while a typical Japanese loft apartment would be about 13; a typical Japanese 5-room house is only about 1/3rd larger.
Despite those limits, the license still doesn’t guarantee unfettered operation. If police or local authorities decide any of the places covered by fuzoku laws are crossing a line, they can just go in and shut it down.
Smaller clubs don’t qualify for the license and can’t apply, and if they did, it wouldn’t offer any protection anyway. So venues in Japan get a simple liquor license and hope the cops don’t show up just as some head-bobbing scoundrel busts into the Electric Slide in flagrant disregard for traditional Japanese values. Lest the police intervene, such venues might spread a noxious spill of Macarena performers throughout the surrounding neighborhoods.
Who Will Be Our Kevin Bacon?
The police raids on clubs started in 2011 in Osaka, mostly in a residential neighborhood that had been overtaken by clubs. Kieth Flack in Fukuoka followed suit, and a number of dance clubs have closed or moved tables to the dance floor to discourage the evil deed.
I’m not really sure what the police expect from a city without dancing. Since the logic with most unsavory aspects of Japanese life – from the yakuza to the sex industry – tend to emphasize the logic of keeping it public and somewhat accountable, rather than driving it underground, I have to wonder why this approach to dancing has suddenly become so popular.
The Japan Times article outlining the arrest in Fukuoka and closures in Osaka is here.
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