Stop the Music

From the opening of futuristic mega-club Gold at the dawn of the decade to the Rainbow 2000 party which attracted 20,000 ravers to the slopes of Mt. Fuji, the nineties have seen an explosion of dance - whether house, techno, reggae, hip hop, Latin or drum'n'bass - of unimaginable proportions. The phenomenon has energized Japan's youth and linked it to the world through the global reach of the mass media technology at its heart. But as the decade draws to a close, nightclubs are under attack. Tokyo Classified's Dan Grunebaum takes an irreverent look at a Decade of Dance and the police campaign threatening dance culture in central Tokyo.

Photos by Beezer/Courtesy of Toy's Factory

I first noticed something was truly amiss when I headed down to Azabu Juban in Minato ward in early September for a party at the just-opened swish new nightclub Luners, only to find disgruntled party-goers milling about in front of the entrance, while a Luners staff member directed clubbers to a bus headed for Roppongi crossing. The staff member was handing out photocopied apologies explaining that due to unforeseen circumstances Luners would be closed for the foreseeable future. Luners later explained to Tokyo Classified that the police had expressly forbidden them from continuing business.

The bust followed the earlier closure in March of Mission, perhaps Minato ward's most stylish see-and-be-seen nightclub, which had been raided by the police and shut down for good, and marked the beginning of a month-long September crackdown. It is a disappointing trend at the end of a decade which saw Tokyo develop a vibrant nightlife to rival London and New York, but now puts the city's status as a capital of dance culture into doubt as the nineties came to a close.

Police crackdown
After the closure of Luners, the dominos began to fall rapidly. Clubs in Minato ward - home to Roppongi and the epicenter of club culture in Asia - were shutting down left and right. Vivian, 328 (San-Ni-Pa), Breakfast Club and Yellow (a world-renowned venue which regularly played host to top Japanese DJs like Emma, Towa Tei or UFO, as well as touring worldwide electronica stars) were hit by the police in rapid succession. Busts were made and club managers and owners did stints in jail. Maezono Katsuji, the owner of 328, was one of those targeted. After 328 was raided by the police on August 27, Maezono (better known to his friends as Ma-chan) recounts: "I was jailed for 15 days at the Azabu police station and then released after paying a misdemeanor fine." Some of these clubs have shut their doors for good; others like Yellow are in a holding pattern, waiting for permission from police to reopen. 328, on the other hand, was able to reopen on September 15.

The root of the troubles roiling clubland? While few were willing to speak on record, both Japanese and foreign nightlife impresarios seemed united in pinpointing the alleged cause - a newly installed police chief, Mutsumoto Yoshitaka, at the Azabu police station (which has jurisdiction over Roppongi) who is determined to clamp down on all-night partying in his precinct. One veteran Roppongi techno party promoter alleged, "The new police chief who has come into Azabu is very ambitious, and it seems there's some kind of point system for promotion in the Azabu district which awards points for shutting down dance and hostess clubs seen to be in breach of the law." A public relations officer at the Metropolitan Police Department insisted that the crackdown was unrelated to the new chief, and that any arrests were business as usual. And indeed, it's clear that the forces at work run deeper than any single individual.

"Some clubs had people posted at the door, and would put down tables and chairs on the dancefloor at the sight of approaching policemen, but that's no way to have fun."
a veteran Roppongi club organizer

No dancing after midnight
Well known and much loathed by Tokyo club owners are a set of laws governing the operation of nightclubs known as the fuzokueigyoho, which can be loosely translated as "public morals business laws." The laws, originally promulgated in 1949 to regulate Japan's booming postwar sex trade, have over the years been used to force dance club owners into line as well. The laws contain a bewildering thicket of regulations stipulating the size of dancefloors, permissible decibel levels, lighting specifications and, most notoriously, prohibiting dancing after midnight (recently changed to 1am).

But police began to enforce this clause only in the eighties, after a woman was raped on her way home from Shinjuku's Zenon, at the time Japan's biggest disco and now home to Club Code. The wide-ranging laws give police virtual carte blanche to shut down dance clubs at will and arouse universal condemnation among club owners and dance culture fans.

"People can go to a snack bar and sit with naked girls, but they're not allowed to dance," complains one Roppongi club manager whose event was shut down by the police this summer. Another shuttered Japanese club owner echoed, "In Minato, the government is trying to get rid of clubs. The police higher-ups seem to dislike dance clubs for some reason. It seems very personal in nature because, for example, in Shinjuku they can do what they want." Tanaka Hiro, editor of Japan's premier dance culture magazine, Loud, states unequivocally: "There's nothing wrong in principle with dancing at a nightclub - I think that lumping it in together with businesses restricted under laws designed for the commercial sex business is wrong."

328's Maezono points to the recent surge in drug use and in minors clubbing into the wee hours as a cause, adding that the recent passage of laws criminalizing soliciting sex with minors may play a part in the crackdown. But with 20 years in the business, he takes the long view. "This is the fourth time this has happened to me," he notes wryly. "But this is the first time in ten years. I used to accept it as an inevitable part of the business, but seeing as it's almost the new millennium, I think it's about time to change the laws."

"All the club owners and managers are scared."
a veteran Roppongi club organizer

Rumors and innuendo
On top of these, insiders point to a number of other factors in the recent crackdown. One veteran foreign Roppongi party promoter says that, with large clubs backed by big corporations, like Avex's Velfarre, shutting their doors at midnight and obeying the letter of the law, there was no excuse for smaller clubs in the same precinct to stay open all night.

Shibuya nightclub owner Greg Natali even goes so far as to point to organized crime as a possible spur to the crackdown. "I think there is an underlying presence or pressure which is targeting places. That seems like a bigger and better reason than any other."

An official of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, speaking anonymously, said that there are larger forces at work. "Big redevelopment projects now underway in Roppongi are going to transform the area. If nightclubs are seen to be hurting the area's image, the police can use a variety of rules and regulations to shut them down." According to a Minato ward official, talks are in progress about relocating Asahi Television from Asahi Terebi Dori and building a large Ebisu Garden Place-style commercial development. The hulking Ministry of Defense complex near Roppongi crossing is also to be razed to make way for commercial construction, tentatively in the year 2000.

At the Metropolitan Police Department, a public relations officer denied that redevelopment of the area was related to the club closures, insisting that any clubs targeted were in violation of dance restrictions or other regulations, or were conducting illicit commercial sex activities. Attempts by Tokyo Classified to reach the Azabu police directly for comment were met with a "chotto dame" (no comment) and referred to the Metropolitan Police Department.

Capitals of clubland: Tokyo vs. New York and London
The rise of club culture worldwide has been made possible by a relatively laissez-faire official attitude towards clubbing. But in a disturbing trend the recent campaign against dance clubs in Tokyo has been mirrored in other cities. Leading New York entertainment weekly The Village Voice's nightlife editor, Michael Musto, says that New York City has undergone a massive club crackdown in the last several years, with Mayor Rudy Giuliani leading the attack. "The drug scene is very intertwined with dance culture," he notes, "and the mayor has a severe distaste for that kind of hedonism.

"As real estate and rents increase dramatically," he continues, "New York is now a place where 'quality of life' issues have taken precedence over the need for clubs - and everyone's forgotten that clubs are a part of the quality of life that's supposed to make up New York."

"The only arrests have been made in Minato ward, and only the police know why."
a representative of one of the closed clubs

Meanwhile, an editor at London's Time Out, Nigel Kendall, reports that things are a bit looser in dance ground zero London. The authorities have tolerated the proliferation of nightclubs as a part of "cool Britannia" (the rise of the UK "superclubs" such as Ministry of Sound has even meant some 24-hour licenses), but clubs have been shut according to antique laws limiting late-night drinking, making for an unusual situation in which, he observes, "It's easier to get cocaine/Ecstasy in a club in London after midnight than it is to get a beer."

Whither Roppongi?
Is Tokyo headed for a quality of life crusade against nightlife a la New York? With redevelopment under way in Roppongi and nightclubs under siege, the character of the city's most famous entertainment district for foreigners is in a period of transition. Some in the area welcome the change. A 17-year resident says that the area has become seedy, and remembers a time when Roppongi was "kinder and gentler."

It looks as if an unofficial policy is in place to force the migration of dance clubs to central Roppongi, Shinjuku's notorious Kabukicho and Shibuya's Maruyamacho districts, where late-night dancing is the least of police worries. "In Kabukicho the police are more concerned with the sex trade," says club/concert space Liquid Room's Kobayashi Koichi. But even Liquid Room is only granted permission for late night dancing on a month-to-month basis. "We have gotten the license to dance all night as an exception to the rule - every month it has to be renewed," he adds.

As this article goes to press, clubs in Roppongi are in a holding pattern. Yellow's Kobayashi Makiko says that the club has finished renovations but is caught in a Catch 22, awaiting permission to reopen. "We have a license for business, but have been told that if we open up it will be taken away." Luners is also still intending to reopen and Mission is rumored to be reopening under a new name and management, but some club owners have given up what they see as a losing battle. In an encouraging attempt to move the debate above board, Matt Naiman, a dance club owner in Shibuya, has even floated the possibility of holding a "Free to Dance" event to highlight the issue.

Amid charges that the morals of Japan's youth are "looser than their socks" and at a time when Japan's image is taking a beating in the world media, the nightclub crackdown may be seen as a salvo in the country's ongoing generation and culture wars. But with young Japanese in an increasingly assertive mood, the police may just find themselves fighting a losing battle.

"The only arrests have been made in Minato ward, and only the police know why."
a representative of one of the closed clubs

With Maki Nibayashi

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296: Stop the Music
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295: Just Do It!
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