Will we finally be allowed to dance?

Is the infamous anti-clubbing law about to crack? We talk to lawyer Takahiro Saito

Will we finally be allowed to dance?

Even if you’re not an avid clubber living in Japan, there’s a good chance you might have heard about the country’s much-discussed dancing ban (and if you haven’t, check out our 2012 in-depth article on the matter). Right up until last year, the problematic law was mostly perceived as a nuisance for people directly involved with the club business, and individuals like renowned artists and musicians were at the forefront of appealing for reform, cooperating on collecting signatures for petitions and the like. These efforts, while noteworthy in their own right, never seemed to lead to broader social discussion. However, since September 2013, when Tokyo won its bid to host the 2020 Olympics, debates surrounding the government’s growth strategy and the role of the Visit Japan and Cool Japan campaigns in the efforts to revitalise the country have pushed fueiho (Law on Control and Improvement of Amusement Business, the law regulating ‘entertainment’ businesses) reform onto the agenda of a wide variety of industries and interest groups.

With regard to fueiho reform, a nonpartisan group formed by Japanese MPs, known as the Parliamentary Association for the Promotion of Dance Culture (below: Dance Association), took up the issue in May 2013, and summarised their preliminary proposals in November. These proposals included a statement stressing that ‘it is necessary to maintain a comprehensive perspective that goes beyond simply protecting currently existing clubs’, and that ‘it is extremely important to utilise the full potential of dance culture in order to increase the attractiveness of urban areas’. Then, in mid-May 2014, the Dance Association submitted a detailed reform proposal, arguing that the ‘dance business’ ought to be relieved of fueiho regulation altogether. Only a few days before this, the government’s Council for Regulatory Reform had indicated that relaxation of the fueiho is indeed necessary, so a unified direction for reform seems to have been found.

In a manner of speaking, the stage for such unity was set on April 25, when in a case that had become symbolic of the fueiho debate, the Osaka District Court found the owner of Club Noon not guilty of the ‘crime’ of allowing his customers to dance. Taken together, these developments seem to indicate that momentum for positive change is building, and an upbeat mood has began to spread among reform advocates as a result. Still, can we really say that there is steady movement toward reform, and can such reform truly go beyond merely alleviating the burden on the club industry, actually helping to develop dance culture while using dancing as a catalyst for urban revival and new economic opportunities? We asked Takahiro Saito, a lawyer who’s been deeply involved with the issue from the start, cooperating with politicians, industry groups and related parties in order to enact real, meaningful fueiho reform. Having entered the final stretch, where exactly does such reform stand now?

At what stage is fueiho reform right now?

Saito: The Parliamentary Association for the Promotion of Dance Culture has been preparing its proposals since May 2013, and these were officially introduced at the association’s general assembly in May of this year.

What is the content of these proposals?

They recommend removing dance businesses from regulation as a ‘business affecting public morals’, instead regulating them as either ‘dance bars/restaurants’ or ‘late-night dance bars/restaurants’, depending on the time frame.

What will these changes mean for the current regulations on late-night clubs?

Up to this point, clubs have legally had to close at 1am, but this reform would allow them to operate until 6am.

Aside from late-night clubs, how does the Dance Association view dance-related businesses?

Of course, clubs aren’t the only businesses that deal with dancing. Dance and music are obviously enjoyed by a variety of age groups, from children to the elderly, and thus hold great potential. Not only those related to the youth-centred club business were invited to Dance Association hearings, but also people like representatives from ballroom dancing and salsa groups, executives from companies working to redevelop the city in the lead-up to the Olympics, the head of the National Art Center, and the president of Time Out Tokyo. This was done in order to be able to consider reform from the broad perspective of utilising dance and music for wide-ranging urban development.

Going into detail, what needs do you think dance and music can serve outside of the club scene, and what potential do you think they possess?

I believe dance and music serve a variety of needs outside of the club scene, including in establishments like bars and restaurants. For example, at one of the Dance Association hearings, we heard a case in which an upscale hotel used to hold late-night live performances of jazz at the hotel bar, but decided to refrain from doing so after receiving a warning from the police. This resulted in annual revenue losses of around ¥35 million. The idea here was to create an atmosphere in which hotel guests could relax, enjoy the music and culture of the city in question, as well as mingle with people from a variety of backgrounds. Such activities create added value and obviously increase revenues, but they also serve a noteworthy demand for the creation of cultural spaces.

How about the potential of dance and music outside of the late-night scene?

Outside of the late-night scene, outdoor parties that adults and children can go to together are very popular, and in conjunction with the redevelopment of the seaside area here in Tokyo, demand has been increasing for places where people can go with their children, enjoy music and mingle. Requests like this have already been submitted to the Dance Association as well.

I also often hear from people hoping to organise things like ballroom dancing parties for older customers – instead of just dancing at rented community centre studios and the like, these people want to hold events where you can dress up nicely and enjoy yourself at a bar or a restaurant, and there’s the expectation that this would lead to increased spending as well. Opinions stressing the necessity of places like this have been expressed from within the Dance Association too.

In addition, places where people can go dance to high-quality, DJ-played music, while being able to order food and drinks, have been gaining in popularity. These aren’t really full-on clubs, but more like places to hang out in an open, comfy atmosphere. I think there’s a significant segment of people who don’t really go to clubs, but still want to make music and dance a bigger part of their lives.

Then, how can such needs be addressed in practice? What are the interested parties doing in order to make sure their voices are heard during the legal reform process?

In addition to the examples I mentioned earlier, there are requests coming in from a wide variety of businesses. Preparations are ongoing to organise an open network of businesses for coordination purposes, as such a network is extremely important for discussing the potential of creative music and dance, as well as the associated culture and its social significance, from a variety of perspectives. Participants are expected to come from at least the restaurant business, art, fashion, dance, music, urban developers and media, as people from all of these industries have been active in presenting their ideas on the reform’s direction to the Dance Association.

Putting aside the late-night issue, are there any legal reforms being considered for dance-related businesses in general?

Under the current law, even daytime dancing is strictly regulated as a ‘business affecting public morals’. For example, those aged 18 or younger are prohibited from entering dance events altogether, and businesses are not allowed to have windows providing clear views of the interior from the outside. These regulations are based on the assumption that dancing results in ‘indecent behaviour’, which is obviously ridiculous and needs to be discarded. The perspective that appreciates the potential of dance culture has received attention as part of the government’s growth strategy discussion, and was also included in the Dance Association’s 2013 mid-term proposals.

Specifically, what sort of reforms are being considered to overcome these issues?

The proposal states that all dancing should be freed from fueiho regulation altogether and moved to the category of ‘dance bars/restaurants’. Late-night clubs and the like would still have to apply for a license, but all other businesses would only need to issue a notification, amounting to significant deregulation.

Returning to the topic of late-night dancing, what conditions would businesses have to fulfil in order to obtain a license?

Conditions for floor space requirements, location, structural requirements and so on would all have to be passed.

Couldn’t the bar easily be set too high with regard to these requirements, essentially preventing most businesses from obtaining a license?

Exactly – take the current conditions, which are so detached from reality that hardly any places have been able to qualify for licenses. As a result, most establishments are forced to either operate in a legal grey zone or close their doors for good. I think the risk exists that even a reformed law wouldn’t change this.

In the current reform proposals, which regulations do see as particularly problematic?

I think the restrictions on location will be the biggest problem for late-night businesses. Under the current fueiho, only a small number of areas are deemed suitable for operation of e.g. clubs. For example, in the case of Tokyo, late-night businesses are only allowed in areas designated as ‘commercial zones’, ‘neighbourhood commercial zones’ or ‘industrial zones’. Also, even within ‘commercial zones’, there’s a minimum distance from ‘protected facilities’ like hospitals and schools that has to be maintained.

How many clubs are unable to operate due to these restrictions?

We have data from a survey that focused on 50 major clubs in Tokyo, and more than half of these places were potentially affected by the area restrictions. For example, small hideaway clubs (‘kobako’, literally small boxes) in areas like Nakameguro, Daikanyama, Aoyama and Azabu are having a very hard time.

Have the issues relating to these area restrictions been considered in the current reform proposals?

I think the Dance Association understands how problematic the area restrictions are. The current proposal aims to remove the minimum distances with regard to ‘protected facilities’, bringing club regulation in line with regulation of e.g. karaoke establishments and allowing clubs to operate in ‘quasi-residential zones’ and ‘category II residential zones’. However, large-scale businesses with floor spaces of 200㎡ or more would still be subject to regulation.

Do you think those reforms can really be enacted?

Well, the concrete reform proposals were officially announced at the Dance Association’s general assembly on May 16, a wide variety of concerned parties were in attendance, and the assembly was also open to the media. As the reforms have now been laid on the table in such a public way, I think it would be wrong to withdraw them, especially as the last attempt at fueiho reform, around 15 years ago, was mostly withdrawn as a result of last-minute, closed-door deliberations. The media portrays the current atmosphere as positive, but we have to keep a close eye on movements from here on.

We heard there have been expressions of disapproval from within the National Police Agency regarding such wide-ranging reforms. Is this true?

After the Dance Association assembly, the NPA apparently expressed a desire to create a whole new reform proposal in the form of a so-called cabinet bill, to be overseen by the police. It looks like the Dance Association and the NPA are currently consulting with each other, but if the police really were to prepare and submit a completely new bill, they would have to hold hearings, establish provisions and open the bill to public comments, which I think would mean another two years or so of waiting. Since the focus is on passing the reforms well in time for the Olympics, it looks like the MP-sponsored bill is likely to go ahead.

We’ve also heard that some operators of existing clubs have been apprehensive about large-scale deregulation. Why is this the case?

It appears that they fear the dangers of having both large corporations and ‘anti-social forces’ (organised crime) enter into the club industry. However, as I explained earlier, this reform doesn’t aim to simply protect clubs, but to utilise dance and music, as well as related cultural forms, to overcome business barriers, revitalise the urban landscape and expand on the potential of dance culture as a whole. I believe clubs will continue to play an important role, and hope that currently successful clubs will continue to drive the scene forward in the future.

It goes without saying that we have to prevent criminal elements from entering the industry – appropriate restrictions will continue to be upheld, and the formation of a club owners’ association has already led to reinforced cooperation with the police. As the reforms aim to increase transparency and remove legal grey zones, I believe we can expect the industry to grow stronger in this respect too.

If some of the current reform proposals were to be withdrawn as a result of pressure from the NPA and the industry, what negative effects could this lead to?

The issues most likely to be withdrawn are things like looser lighting regulations, decreased minimum floor space regulations and allowing minors into clubs before 10pm. All of these are of course important, but as I noted earlier, the single most important point concerns area restrictions.

Many establishments already operate close to ‘quasi-residential zones’, ‘category II residential zones’, schools and hospitals. Most of these places have been able to uphold good relations with their respective neighbourhoods, doing business in harmony with their surroundings. As a result, the police haven’t felt the need to resort to crackdowns, and have allowed continued operation. These businesses are major employers, important economic actors and, above all, have contributed immensely to the Japanese club scene. We absolutely must not allow any reforms to result in the closing of such businesses. I also believe that failed reforms would do significant damage to restaurants, cafés, bars, galleries and the like that want to help expand and improve dance culture in the spirit of making the city as a whole a more attractive place.

Finally, what do you think is required for the proposed reforms to become reality?

It’s possible that behind-the-scenes manoeuvering to change the proposed reforms will take place, as I suggested earlier. However, the reason that this thing has progressed as far as it has is that everyone involved has maintained interest, participated through petitions, shared their opinions at Dance Association hearings and debated the issues together. In order to prevent all this hard work from being twisted and undone right at the end, I believe it’s necessary to maintain a high level of transparency, so that everyone can continue to keep a close eye on the process all the way to the finish line.

Takahiro Saito
Mr Saito has handled legal matters in a variety of fields, working for both individuals and corporations, and has acted as a lawyer providing legal support for music and the arts. He is a member of Creative Commons Japan, and has lobbied the government and the Diet for reform of the law regulating entertainment businesses (fueiho). He is also a managing member of the Japan branch of Dublab, an online radio station based in Los Angeles.

By Time Out Tokyo Editors
Please note: All information is correct at the time of writing but is subject to change without notice.


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