US-born, Japan-based Terre Thaemlitz is a producer, writer and transgender activist best known for material released under the DJ Sprinkles guise. Here, she reacts to the news that Japan’s infamous ‘no-dancing’ legislation, dating back to 1948, has been officially revised.
Over the past few years, I am sure you have heard about struggles against Japan’s Entertainment Establishments Control Law (Fuueihou) – most likely oversimplified as the fight to end a 1am curfew on dancing. You may have also heard that changes to the Fuueihou became official this past 17 June, 2015 (effective in 2016) – likely misreported as the Fuueihou being “struck down” or “overturned.” To be clear, the Fuueihou has not been overturned. It is in many ways more here than ever, with both legal and social repercussions.
The Fuueihou is essentially Japan’s morality code. It is a broad piece of legislation that covers many aspects of culture, ranging from the regulation of sex work to ballroom dancing. Over the years, producers and participants of various musical genres have had their unique struggles with this law. For example, in the early 80s Japan’s jazz scene was decimated by bans on playing music after midnight. Clubs were forced to start performances at 6pm, but of course this was too early for most people to attend. It was out of desperation that clubs like Tokyo’s Blue Note began serving dinner in order to get people in earlier.
The current Fuueihou revisions will make it easier for large night clubs with dance permits to have all-night events (although in classic Neoliberal legislative style, things are never made ‘too easy’) – all of which should be well in place for party-minded tourists coming to the 2020 Olympics. Hooray! Of course, the majority of clubs – which are too small to qualify for dance permits – shall continue to exist illegally as always, but fuck ’em, right?
To celebrate, a group of over 40 prominent Japanese DJs (mostly techno and hip-hop) issued a co-signed “Declaration On the Future Of Japan’s Club Culture,” poetically restarting history by declaring 2015 as “the first year of dance music in Japan,” and concluding with a father-pleasing pledge to straighten up and seriously “endeavor to develop Japan’s culture, society and economy.” Bizarrely, their conservative declaration was printed in the Asahi Shimbun, a major Left-leaning newspaper. I quickly issued a counter-declaration asking among other things, “Japanese culture as sanctioned by whom? Whose society? Are profits the sign of cultural validity?”
One of the dark undercurrents of the revisions is that the police now have clearer control in defining what constitutes legal ‘entertainment’ (yuukyou). This is devastating, since the Fuueihou revisions are not simply about the “right to dance,” but the state’s physical and social policing of our bodies and their movements. Given the Fuueihou’s role in governing sex work, this aspect is undeniable. Similarly, these issues are entwined with other feminist and queer struggles with labor issues, censorship and control of one’s body. Therefore, any meaningful analysis of the failures of the current Fuueihou revisions must situate them within a greater history of Japanese civil rights activism and legislative failures.
"Of course, the majority of clubs – which are too small to qualify for dance permits – shall continue to exist illegally as always"
Japan has often been described as an authoritarian-democracy: an authoritarian society without an authoritarian government. The culture and language are historically structured around nuance and active silences, such as learning to ‘read the air’ (kuuki wo yomu). Meanwhile, Japan was forced to adapt a Western political paradigm in which power is inseparable from visibility. Between these contradictions of unspoken and spoken power lies the grey areas within which people here move and express themselves daily. Maintaining the ‘grey’ is vital to protecting social mobility and freedom amidst dominant cultural restrictions. Whenever possible, one avoids speaking the rules, lest one be held accountable to following them to the letter. For better or worse, all of this has a special resonance for me as a non-essentialist transgendered person and pansexual Queer who has always lived through greys and closets. Sadly, when attempting to clarify and resolve social injustices through legislation in Japan, all that has been hitherto unspoken must suddenly be put into language. Language that is invariably controlled by and manipulated in the favour of those in power.
For example, when legislation was begrudgingly passed guaranteeing women equal opportunity in the workplace, language was introduced that distinguished between full-time jobs to be protected under the law, and part-time or temp-agency positions not ‘serious’ enough to need protection. In effect, politicians deemed such positions need not be spoken for by the law, thus they were explicitly excluded from protection. Of course, the majority of Japan’s women are only able to find employment as part-time or temp-agency workers, making the hard-fought law all but meaningless. I should say, meaningless to the needs of women, yet from the perspective of politicians and corporations it managed to further crystalize those economic and social abuses feminists sought to ease. Under the guise of equality, the law made it clear that the majority of jobs inhabited by women were excluded from legal protection against gender bias.
Another such instance is Japan’s censorship of images of genitalia, most recently making headlines through the 13 December, 2014, arrests on obscenity charges of illustrator/sex shop operator Minori Watanabe (aka Minori Kitahara) and artist Megumi Igarashi (aka Rokudenashi-ko). The stringency of Japan’s ban on visual representations of genitalia is the result of a series of ever-escalating lawsuits from the 1980s between the Japanese government and the publishers of Photo Age magazine. Photo Age featured Nobuyoshi Araki’s candid photo essays of Japanese sex workers, a community that was then booming through the financial and cultural excesses of Japan’s bubble economy. Somewhat similar to the American government’s response to Homoerotic photos by Robert Mapplethorpe, conservative elements of the Japanese government used Araki’s photos to debate definitions of pornography, and began placing restrictions on what could and could not be portrayed in photographs. With a bit of good humor and overconfidence in both the freedom of the Japanese press and an artist’s right to self-expression, Araki and Photo Age took the anti-censorship limelight, responding to each new legislation by pushing it to the limit. For example, after it was deemed illegal to directly show genitals, Araki only photographed pubic hair. It then became illegal to photograph pubic hair, after which Araki photographed women with shaved genitals that were then concealed by manually drawing pubic hair onto the photos. And so on, until legal costs forced Photo Age out of business and Japan was left with today’s excessive censorship laws.
As part of the Fuueihou revisions, police are forcing clubs to brighten their interior lighting, and yet it just seems to get darker and darker. Some of the Japanese lawyers whose worthy struggles against the Fuueihou resulted in today’s painful legal paradoxes are respected friends of mine. I know they continue to fight as best they can to remedy and finesse the law – battling for vagary as much as clarity. They are as trapped as the rest of us. Meanwhile, small and underground dance clubs remain illegal, as ever. Although it is of little comfort, this is the entirety of Japan’s club cultures to date. This is all that has been known until now. 2015 is not the first year of anything. 2015 is just another grey year.
Read album annotations, articles, essays, lecture transcripts and other texts by Terre Thaemlitz at comatonse.com