Pole Dancing in Tokyo sounds like another terrible sex-laden non-fiction narrative by a foreigner about living in Japan, but since 2007, it has gradually become one socially accepted and amazing way to stay in shape in this city.
Whenever that lewd friend of yours sees a freestanding pole in a restaurant or bar, they will most likely associate it with the shadier variety of pole dancing that’s more recognized by the public. However, in a similar way that e-sports are becoming more recognized as a legitimate athletic activity, pole dancing is quickly developing a more professional and respected aura around it as an art form.
Pole dancing originated not from the American burlesque bars where it got its sexual connotation, but from the Indian sport of mallakhamb, in which gymnasts stack on top of one another against a tall wooden pole while posing. In the 1920s, this sport was altered to be used in magic shows and soon became popular on cruises and in circus shows. After moving to bars and combining it with burlesque dance, a downward spiral began that essentially removed any artistic respect pole dancing once had.
But beginning in 2006, this all began to change as pole dancing started gaining popularity in dance studios. In 2008, Ania Przeplasko founded the International Pole Dance Championships which were held in Manila, but already two of these competitions have been held in Tokyo, now seen as the pole dancing mecca. Part of the reason why its become so popular here recently is due to dancer and teacher Lu Nagata, who founded the Pole Dance Tokyo studio in 2007. She and Anna Przeplasko are long-time friends who helped popularise pole-dancing as a sport, an art, and a fitness regime in Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Asia. Lu also choreographed and wrote a dance retelling of the Japanese literary classic The Tale Of Genji (源氏物語). When the JSRC made a group visit for an introductory class taught by Nagata–sensei, there were several foreign champions there. Even male pole dancing competitions have become more common lately.
Still, it will likely be challenging to convince the public that pole dancing is cleaning up its act, so I’ll give a rundown of what my experience visiting Pole Dance Tokyo was like.
The first thing that might surprise you is that the studio located in Akasaka is a well-lit dance studio with about a dozen poles scattered throughout the room. There’s nothing sleazy or super sexy about it. It is stylish and clean. When we visited, Nagata was teaching a class of much more experienced pole dancers who were understandably surprised that a group of unfit reporters and their friends felt the desire to try pole dancing. Thanks to JSRC editor/founder Jake Adelstein who knows Nagata, we were able to set up a group lesson.
After stretching and some basic exercises in sensuality, Nagata took us through several moves such as spinning with legs around the pole, away from it, and holding ourselves up sideways with our arms (she claims you don’t need arm muscle strength but this one will most likely leave you sore). If you imagine having to swing your head toward the ground as your arms hold up your suspended body, that’s a bit what it was like. If you can execute the inverted pole stance (upside down), you’re in amazing shape. (Kids, don’t try this at home or on the local park swing set).
Once we had these spin variations down (barely), and managing the challenges that come from the pole being too slippery, she had us put it all together for a choreographed routine. After putting on some quality Nicky Minaj music and switching on the multi-colored strobe lights, Nagata had the group go through several of the moves while also making sure to “maintain the sexiness” that is associated with pole dancing. Obviously, the more experienced dancers did much better than the others and especially one friend of a JSRC contributor who was reluctant to come. As pole dancing changes with the times, some twerking was also expected. Anaconda is the song most suited for doing it.
Was I embarrassed? A little bit, of course, but as an intern at Japan Subculture Research Center (JSRC), I didn’t have much of a choice. I would definitely recommend anyone visiting Tokyo to try a visit for a lesson. Lu is often in London but all the teachers have a great reputation. In these lessons, it feels less like a dance class than it is an introduction to any quirky hobby like rock climbing or snowboarding (at least until the pop music and stage lights go on).
Jake Adelstein and Angela Kubo contributed to this article. Mostly by being really silly.
You have to write for your right to (dance party)
Put on those dancing shoes!…in a few months. Maybe.
The National Police Agency of Japan is at long last (and after much public pressure) considering revising Japan’s archaic adult entertainment laws to allow dancing past midnight! Yes, Japan may finally be going footloose. From today, July 25th, they are accepting public comments. You can mail them at email@example.com or better yet, FAX them at 03-3581-5936. For more details please see the National Police Agency home page. The current draft of the revised bill is here (警察庁の改正案はここです。最低と言わないがよくはない）. Frankly, it seems pretty sucky.
The National Police Agency wants to know what you think about these issues:
Should people be allowed to dance all night? Should dance clubs and discos be allowed to go all night? How should they be regulated? (クラブの深夜営業は許可すべきか。規制すべきか）
Should dance clubs be removed from the province of the adult entertainment laws? （クラブなどのダンス社交の場所は風営法の対象外とすべきなのか）
If we allow dance lessons to be conducted anywhere, will it corrupt the morals of Japan? (ダンス教室の無許可営業は日本の風紀を乱すのか）
What is the danger that dance clubs turn into places singles go to meet other singles and possibly hook up? (If you don’t even consider that a danger or a problem, let them know) (クラブは出会い系の場所となる危険性（？）はどう思うのか）
What if dance clubs are used to facilitate prostitution? (ダンスクラブは売春の温床となるのでは？）
There are probably more silly questions that the NPA is coming up with but these seem to be the issues they are most concerned about. Because as we all know, late night dancing could lead to sex, which could lead to people having more children, which could be a serious problem in this overpopulated country. Oh. Wait. Actually, Japan is having a population crisis because people aren’t getting married and having children. That also requires sex. So maybe late night dance clubs could be good for Japan?
Well, if men and women meet in clubs and start dating each other or have consensual sex without paying a third party, how will this affect Japan’s legal sex industry? Think of the economic blow this could do to blow-job parlours and sexual massage parlours, not to mention hostess and host clubs!
The National Police Agency plans to submit a revised bill, perhaps the current draft, to the National Diet this Autumn. On the 15th of this month, they will set up a panel of experts (who will probably be virulently opposed to dancing, social conservatives, and mostly men) and interview dance club operators. They will hold hearing sessions to create a revised law, which hopefully will allow Japan’s nightlife to come back from the dead.
A Brief History Of The War On Dance
You may be wondering why the Japanese police have been raiding dance clubs and criminalizing “rhythmical movement to music” and other lascivious acts in recent years. Allow me to explain. I’ve covered some of this ground before in other articles, so please forgive me while I repeat myself.
If you’re thinking about dancing the night away to some great trance music, or even old-fashioned rock, you may have a tough time finding a venue in Japan these days. In fact, you may end up waltzing away hours inside a police station, pissing into a cup after being rounded up in a raid. It’s not just Tokyo, in Kansai as well, “The War on Dance” has been raging on for the last few years.
On September 2nd (2012), at 3:40 am, members of the Kanto Rengo gang burst into the VIP room in Roppongi’s Club Flower and clubbed a man to death in front of 300 people. Since then, the police have been making regular raids on the nightclubs, discos, and live houses that make night life in this city vibrant and fun. The intensity of the raids have gone up, but in fact, they are simply a continuation of what began in Osaka in 2012.
Ostensibly, the clubs are being raided for violating Japan’s archaic Adult Entertainment Laws which forbid dancing after midnight. The police are simply enforcing the laws. That’s the official party line.
But anyone who has lived in Japan for several years knows that wasn’t always the case. The laws existed on the book, gathering dust, but were rarely enforced
So why now is there a “War on Dance?” Is it a part of the “War on Drugs”?
Who do we blame? Do we blame the police? Do we blame the Kanto Rengo for killing a man after dancing hours, thus reminding everyone that the Adult Entertainment Laws (AEL) were being ignored?
The answer is complicated.
Let’s start with the obvious answer: it really is against the law to dance after midnight in most venues in Japan. This is well explained in the book Odotte wa Ikenai Kuni, Nihon (Japan: The Land Where You Can’t Dance) .
The Adult Entertainment Laws originally were revised after WWII to clamp down on the infamous “Dance Halls” which were thinly disguised venues of prostitution. Several decades later “Dance Halls” have been replaced by clubs, discos, and bars with dance floors; they are not proxy brothels. The places people dance have changed, as have the customers; the laws have not.
I don’t think there is anyone who would argue that dancing itself is dangerous or unhealthy. Dance is part of the educational curriculum in Japan. Some forms of dance are considered cultural treasures. So why would dancing at a club after midnight miraculously transform what is a healthy form of entertainment into a threat to the public welfare? Do dancers transform into rampaging werewolves as the clock strikes midnight?
There is no logical answer.
One unofficial answer from the police is this: “It’s much easier to raid a dance club on violations of the AEL than it is to get a warrant for a drug search. Dance clubs are hotbeds of drug activity.”
Maybe, that’s partially true. At some dance parties, there will be people using ecstasy (MDMA). There will also be people getting so drunk that they get alcohol poisoning. There will also be people just dancing. Should the rest of us be banned from the dance floor because of a few reckless people?
The hardline enforcement of forgotten laws may make the police look good. It is a nuisance for everyone else. It hurts the business of legitimate clubs. It discourages people from staying out late, making nightlife boring. If there’s no place to dance after midnight, than many people will go home. It’s bad for tourism as well. “Tokyo: The City That Always Sleeps Before Midnight”—try attracting people to Japan with that slogan. Ultimately, it hurts the economy and encourages corruption.Clubs relying on late-night traffic will go out of business. Clubs that want to stay in business will pay bribes and protection money to avoid the raids.
That brings us to another reason for the “War On Dance”. It stems a bit from the Organized Crime Exclusionary Ordinances that went nationwide on October 1st, 2011. In the old days, the clubs paid off the local yakuza. In return, they often got advance notice when a token raid was coming. The yaks provided muscle when customers got out of line and kept local street crime down. No muggings, purse snatching, or theft allowed. The smart clubs avoided getting shut down, kept pushers off the premises, and people felt safe going to them.
The police knew the clubs were operating way past legal hours, but looked the other way. The enforcement was so sparse that late-night dancing existed in a comfortable grey zone.
But when doing business with the yakuza became a crime in itself, the clubs stopped paying them. The non-designated organized crime groups, like Kanto Rengo, cut in on the dance. They became the unofficial security guards. They soon found the clubs lucrative venues to peddle drugs and in some of the high end clubs, prostitutes as well.
Dance Hall days were here again.
The Flower killing made it clear that the “new yakuza” were now running the nightlife. The investigative journalist Atsushi Mizoguchi coined a term for these outlaws: hangure. It comes from the Japanese word for “half” and Gurentai. After the war, Gurentai were the undisciplined youth gangs who preyed on the general population, engaging in theft, robbery, and violent crimes. The “half” in the term is also an acknowledgement that these new groups are “half” yakuza as well. Many of them are backed by yakuza or ex-yakuza that can no longer operate in the open, and have no code of honor to burden them.
A few weeks after the Club Flower murder, the National Police Agency reportedly issued a directive to all police departments to strictly enforce the Adult Entertainment Laws. The directive was meant hurt the hangure and deflect criticism of lax enforcement. And the cops have been doing their jobs.
The Japanese police are no longer comfortable with grey zones; everything has to be black and white. Grey is the enemy. The dance clubs closings are the casualties of a badly run war. Coincidentally, Hangure, can also be read as “half-grey.” It’s the color of “illegal.”
Not everyone is taking this haphazard enforcement lying down. The Let’s Dance Committee, headed by a lawyer and run by a group of volunteers is lobbying for changes in the law that will protect Japan’s “dance culture.” They have already collected over 150,000 signatures for a petition to the government. A recent court decision in Osaka may have also made the police here reverse course in the unpopular dance club crackdown.
On April 25 2014, the Osaka District Court acquitted Masatoshi Kanemitsu, the owner of a nightclub called NOON, of charges of “corrupting sexual morals” and violating adult entertainment laws in what Kanemitsu’s lawyer, Kenichi Nishikawa, called Japan’s first trial challenging its archaic “no dance” laws. “It was a victory for common sense and freedom to dance,” Nishikawa said. “It is historic and significant, and while not finding the current laws unconstitutional, the courts ruled both that the police were too broadly interpreting the laws and that dance in and of itself is not a corruptor of public morals. Nor does it make people throw off their clothes.” For the rest of that story see The Japanese All Go Footloose To Protest The Nightlife Crackdown in The Daily Beast.
If you want to join the tango, check out www.letsdance.jp. And of course, write the National Police Agency. In the meantime, until someone brings the laws up to date, the War on Dance will keep on moving to the music of the National Police Agency marching band. For a limited time, you may have a say in the tune that we hear in the future. So speak now or learn to love “Dancing By Myself.”