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It’s past 01.00 at Onzieme, a nightclub in Osaka, and hardly anyone is dancing. As a techno beat reaches ear-splitting decibels, small groups stand around more than a dozen waist-high tables on the dance floor, sipping their drinks and bobbing their heads.

Not long ago Onzieme’s dance floor would have been packed and rowdy until well past 03.00. Most clubs in the area, known as Amerikamura (American Village), kept the music going until sunrise. Outside Onzieme the lanky man checking identification at the door says the club will close at 02.00. “I used to work the 21.00 to 05.00 shift at different clubs in the area and we usually had 150 to 200 people dancing,” says Kazumoto Nakamura of DJ duo Public Café.

Four years ago police began raiding nightclubs and arresting owners. The reason: clubs were playing music that customers were dancing to. The crackdown spread from Osaka in western Japan to Tokyo, Fukuoka and other parts of the country. Osaka’s late-night clubbing scene was gutted. Since the raids, club owners and DJs say the crowds have dwindled. “It just doesn’t make sense to punish people for dancing,” says Nakamura.

Dancing is not illegal in Japan. But it’s treated under Japanese law as a moral threat: it might lead to obscene acts or even prostitution. That’s how nightclubs ended up in a strictly regulated class of businesses known as fuzoku eigyo, a catch-all for the country’s adult entertainment industry that includes strip clubs, hostess bars and soapland brothels.

The law hasn’t changed much since it was drawn up in 1948. It’s so old-fashioned, however, that nightclubs usually don’t bother to apply for a licence. “Why would I ask for a licence so I could be lumped in with the sex industry?” says Masatoshi Kanemitsu, the former owner of club Noon, on Osaka’s north side.

Police seem to be less interested in trying to curb lewd acts than in silencing noisy clubs. At his office, lawyer Kyoji Mizutani is giving a precise explanation of what the law is supposed to do and how it’s failed. Mid-sentence, he decides it’s easier to show what he’s talking about, gets up from his chair and starts break-dancing on the floor. “There’s almost no chance that this type of dancing could cause lax sexual morals,” he says.

Japanese lawmakers are now on the verge of approving legal revisions that would help remove the stigma on nightclubs. As monocle goes to press, the national parliament is planning to deregulate the sector. It’s a move that would let many businesses enter the fray, bringing new capital and legitimacy. “The image of nightclubs was that of bars where customers would pay for ‘hostesses’ to pour their drinks and chat,” says Takahiro Saito, a lawyer in Tokyo.

A former DJ, Saito has spent the past two years lobbying lawmakers and persuading museums, concert promoters, artists, fashion retailers and architects to join the debate. “If clubs were the only ones supporting this, we wouldn’t have got very far.”

For now the legal grey zone that nightclubs inhabit leaves them at the mercy of police. In a dark backroom at Noon, Kanemitsu, the former owner, is pressing himself against a wall. He is demonstrating what happened two years ago when police barged into the club, ordered the music to stop and lined up the staff, DJ and customers for questioning. “They were going up to each customer saying, ‘You were dancing, weren’t you?’” says Kanemitsu. “Then they turned to the DJ, staff and me saying, ‘You were making them dance, weren’t you?’”

One of the city’s best-known indie-music venues, Noon was the sort of place where music careers were made. All that mattered to police, though, was that the club had no licence. In the 20 years that Kanemitsu had run Noon and its predecessor, Down, in this location, he had been fined once for not having a licence.

Police arrested Kanemitsu and two of the club’s managers. They spent three weeks in jail while police grilled them about the club’s history and finances and possible links, which didn’t exist, to crime organisations. Police later filed a criminal case against Kanemitsu.

By then Osaka’s police had made a similar sweep of many of the establishments in Amerikamura, on the city’s south side. Sound Channel, Donflex and Lunar Club were among the high-profile clubs that closed down.

The raid on Noon triggered a backlash. Three months later, dozens of musicians, rappers and DJs staged Save the Club Noon, a four-day music festival in Osaka. Regional grassroots organisation Let’s Dance spent more than a year collecting over 150,000 signatures from people who wanted lawmakers to rein in the police. Soon the national dailies were on the story. In April, the Osaka District Court declared Kanemitsu a free man; police have appealed the verdict.

With parliament expected to approve the revision, Kanemitsu’s trial is likely to be dismissed. For the past two years he has let his wife run Noon. It’s now mainly a café that serves hot dogs, hamburgers, coffee and desserts and closes at 23.00. DJs and bands still perform but not as frequently as before.

One evening at Noon, Masataka Toyota, a regular who runs Cabo, a café and clothes shop nearby, shows up with five friends for a three-band set featuring Ego-Wrappin’, a popular local jazz-pop band that played its first gig here. For nearly five hours straight, 250 people dance beneath a rotating discoball. When the music ends just before 23.00, the crowd makes a beeline for the exits. “I made a lot of friends here just hanging out until morning after the DJs or bands finished,” says Toyota. “Now everyone just goes home right afterwards. This is a great club. But since the police, the place just feels a bit subdued.”

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