Because of its emphasis on formality and social obligation, Japanese culture is seldom thought of as permissive. And yet, the relationship between the Japanese and their vices is a complicated one.
A perfect example of this can be found in any neighborhood kombini, where a vast assortment of porn magazines share shelf-space with less lurid material, accessible to anyone (of any age) shameless enough to peruse them in public. Famously, though, Japanese pornography often turns a bashful eye on itself, blurring out certain acts as if protecting the identities of participants’ private parts.
Prostitution is illegal in Japan, but the law allows milder, non-penetrative services to be commercially dispensed. In big cities, signs in nightlife districts often advertise gentleman’s clubs and spas (called “soaps”) where these and other services are available. (Not that I know from experience. By reputation, most of these places are considered “Japanese-only,” so no matter how lonely I get, I’ll probably never be tempted to find out.)
So, while it may not be a hedonistic paradise, Japan isn’t as straight-laced and uptight as it sometimes seems. And yet, of late, these same nightlife districts have come under the scourge of a most unusual restriction: no dancing allowed.
Kevin Bacon references aside, the bizarre movement to clamp down on dance clubs has gained traction in Japan over the last two years. According to an article in the Japan Times published last year, the crackdown on dancing has been made possible by a 1984 addition to a law dating back to 1948, which was aimed at regulating hostess bars and cabaret clubs, and was never intended to apply to ordinary dancers.
Still, the result is that nightspots need eight different activity licenses for patrons to eat, drink, and dance as they please in accordance with the law. One license in particular is apparently limited to clubs with more than 66 square meters of floor space, which arbitrarily excludes a huge number of music venues in cramped Japanese cities.
For years before I arrived here, these laws remained on the books, but an understanding between club owners and police officers kept them from being enforced. Recently, though, a rash of noise complaints in certain cities and neighborhoods has led to more aggressive policing. Contributing to this is the fact that certain segments of the Japanese populace see the dance clubs as havens of suspect behavior, including drug use and underage drinking.
Now, by and large, none of this affects me, because I don’t live anywhere near a city large enough to have a real dance club. Evidently, though, the newly imposed restrictions are having a real impact on midsized Japanese cities like Fukuoka and Kumamoto, where the closing of certain clubs has put others on notice. A year ago, I went to a dance club in Fukuoka on New Year’s Eve, the only time I’ve had such an opportunity since being in Japan. Strangely, it’s possible that experience may now be a thing of the past.
If this wasn’t ridiculous enough, what makes this movement even more absurd is the fact that Japan’s economy is struggling as it is. While unemployment is relatively low here, the economy has been growing slowly in Japan for almost two decades, and crippling an entire industry for moral reasons is not going to help any.
The biggest city, Tokyo, has enough of these venues to soldier on, because you just can’t close them all. But crackdowns in second-tier cities are only give young people another reason to flock to Tokyo, as if there weren’t enough already. Given how much hand-wringing goes on over the urbanization of Japan, it seems like sweating a couple of dudes kicking it old school is hardly worth the effort.
To me, though, the strangest thing of all is this: dancing is a very real part of Japanese culture. At every undokai, the students perform a handful of elaborately choreographed dances, including the very traditional soran bushi. At the festival I attended in Kazusa last week, the courtyard beside the centuries-old hot spring shrine was the scene of half-a-dozen traditional dances, complete with masks and period outfits. Dancing is one of the many skills of a geisha, and in traditional Japanese theater, both Noh and Kabuki, dancing is a prominent performance element.
Now, the club kids may not be performing a fan dance, but hell, this is the country that invented Dance Dance Revolution! That was a simpler, more idealistic time, the aughts. Today, though, the revolution seems to have run out of steam, its arrowed-based Reign of Terror having faded meekly into a Thermidorian moratorium on all shaking, rattling, and rolling.
In Japan, sadly, it may be too late to bump and jive.