Nightclubs in Japan are categorized under the aforementioned fuzoku laws, the same that govern a range of adult-orientated businesses, such as hostess bars and love hotels. Established in 1948, the law generally deals with restricting the sale of sex and businesses that may offer similar services, though due to a broad set of terminology this also includes "nightclubs and related establishments that allow customers to dance." The law states that businesses of this nature must be appropriately licensed, which involves conforming to strict specifications for business operation. To be eligible, the establishment "must have a floor space for patrons of over 66m2, with at least a fifth of the floor space set aside for dancing," and "objects such as partitions larger than 1m, tables, decorations, shall not be placed such that they obstruct the view into the room for patrons." If a club does manage to obtain fuzoku licensing, they must cease operation at 1 AM (or 12 AM in some areas).
The law also goes on to say that the local authorities can exercise their own judgment on whether to close a club or not. While in general police turn a blind eye to unlicensed clubs (unless there is a particular issue), the blanket nature of the law itself makes it easy for selective application as the need arises—in this case, for removing late-night businesses that are supposedly contributing noise pollution and making the Minami area unsafe.
"Of course I wasn't happy at this situation. Why so sudden and also why only in Amemura?" says DJ Shine, ex-owner of the now closed Lunar Club and one of those affected by the crackdown. After receiving an official warning he asked his building's owners for permission to get licensed, but as with many local owners they weren't interested and he had to close the club in March. But after listening to both sides, he gained some closure.
"I think I understand why," he explains. "West Shinsaibashi, especially Amemura, has a longer history as a residential area, while East Shinsaibashi has always been a nightlife mecca. Then lots of clothing shops (especially second-hand clothing) opened in Amemura, and then the clubs followed. But in the last four or five years the area has become a bit of a rough neighborhood, especially at night. They (the authorities) believe having clubs in the area isn't a very good idea since most of the crime is related to the clubs. When there's a fight in the club, the security tends to kick them out on the street as a means of dealing with it, which can sometimes make things worse."
This alleged degradation of the Amemura area became the trigger for the local residents union to voice their fears to the authorities, which also seems to be why the crackdown started in this area in particular. While Amemura is still the most targeted area—with over 20 clubs and venues receiving official warnings in 2011 (many of which, including both Triangle and Joule, opted to get the necessary permits and therefore commit to the 1 AM curfew), establishments in other areas of Osaka have also received attention. Most noticeably the larger event space Studio Partita in Suminoe-ku, Osaka's answer to Ageha in Tokyo, was raided by police in mid-November of 2011. At this time Studio Partita's owners have decided not to allow the space to be rented out for dance-related events for the foreseeable future.
In order to address the resident's concerns, the club owners themselves formed a union aimed at finding a diplomatic solution that still allowed them to do business. The union (formed from over a dozen club owners and organizers) has proposed measures to take more responsibility in the area, from helping with street cleaning and late-night safety patrols to stricter security in clubs to deal with undesirable clientele, as well as checking ID to prevent underage individuals from entering the clubs. While no concrete progress has been made as yet, the discussions are ongoing.
Fuzoku law and the concept of making late-night dancing illegal obviously feels outdated and excessive to fans of the club culture, but oppression of this culture by legislation isn't limited to Japan. In England—a country renowned as one of the birthplaces of electronic music—the infamous 1994 Criminal Justice Act outlawed unlicensed open-air raves at which music "characterized by…a succession of repetitive beats" is played, causing an uproar from the UK dance music community.
Perhaps more relevant to Osaka's situation, however, is New York's crackdown throughout the '90s, where nightclubs were targeted by then-mayor Rudy Giuliani and his Task Force (dubbed the "dance police"). Most of the Manhattan commercial area where people could drink was not zoned for any size of social dancing after the rewriting of the cabaret law in 1990—which effectively meant a group of three or more people dancing together at a bar, club or restaurant was a violation. Giuliani's focus was borne from the mindset that clubs lowered the standards of the neighbourhood, with excessive noise leakage and (more significantly) violence and crime occurring outside venues. This viewpoint in New York in 1995 uncannily resembles the stance being taken in Osaka today.
Does this mean late night clubbing in Amemura and south Osaka is a thing of the past? Changing the law in favour of nightclubs certainly seems a mammoth task—Japan's laws trend more conservatively rather than liberally. There is a precedent, however: "Social dance" establishments (with professional instructors) were also subject to the same laws and curfew until 1998, when 30,000 people signed a petition and convinced lawmakers to make them exempt. The image of dance halls is certainly not associated with crime or noise pollution, which suggests that if nightclubs and their community want special treatment, they too will have to clean up their act.
DJ Shine agrees that the clubs and customers need to take responsibility for their actions and their image. "The most important thing is to have less complaints from the residents. If we can have the scene without the complaints, then the police wouldn't close the clubs. If you want to change something, you have to change too. The cops won't listen to you unless you're obeying the law. People already have a bad mentality towards clubs, so you have to work really hard to change the situation."
Either way, the crackdown isn't going away any time soon. Triggered by the events in Osaka the movement has spread to other cities such as Kyoto, Nagoya and Fukuoka. Naturally there have been many incidences of fuzoku laws being used to close clubs in the past, but this kind of sustained and comprehensive action is new. One thing is clear: the club scene cannot survive without adaptation. It's now over 12 months since the crackdown began, and Osaka's club life is finally beginning to find its feet again. Along with the emerging Sunday afternoon events, innovative solutions such as parties in restaurants, invite-only parties, "secret parties" with an unpublished location (relying on word-of-mouth) are all now taking place on a more regular basis.
That may be the most positive thing to come from all of this. Those in it to make a quick buck are now looking elsewhere. Those truly devoted to doing great events and promoting music will see this as an opportunity to start anew. While the fuzoku laws are certainly archaic and unsuitable to the present day, there are many other routes that can be taken without demanding its revision. By adapting to the law and the circumstances, the essence of dance music in Osaka may still be kept alive.