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Japanese Dancing Through Adversity

January 04, 2004|Aiko Hayashi | Associated Press Writer

TOKYO — James Brown, circa 1972, is blasting from the speakers. Thousands of drops of light swirl around an otherwise dark, smoky dance floor, where a group of middle-aged regulars do the soul cha cha, the funky Broadway, the old man.

Discos are back.

Well, actually, they're just kind of back. There's lots of room out there on the dance floor. The music, which by house rules must date from between 1970 and 1984, has a kind of museum-like aura. And Tokyo's trend-loving young people are much more likely to be found elsewhere -- at raves, listening to trance, hip-hopping at more happening clubs.

But the disco fad has become one of the most talked-about cultural developments in Japan and raises an interesting question: Are Japan's notoriously uptight legions of over-35 office workers and housewives finally ready to loosen up?

Absolutely, says Mitsuhiro Okamoto.

"It's a rather rejuvenating experience for me," the 37-year-old company worker says after one of Discotheque Byblos' Thursday night dance lessons -- for which he removed both his suit jacket and his necktie. "Coming to a disco is my way of releasing stress."

Byblos, which opened in an upscale Tokyo enclave in 2002, recreates the atmosphere of a disco by the same name that was among Japan's most popular when discos were booming in the 1970s and early '80s. It is now one of many discos that cater to basically the same crowd -- albeit 20 to 30 years older -- that fueled the original fad.

Part of the reason for discos' renewed success is the revival of 1970s fashions worldwide, and clever marketing. Digital recording and the transition from records to CDs has made music from the '70s available for repackaging, reviving the market for disco hits.

But experts say the underlying social forces are more intriguing.

Tatsuo Inamasu, a professor of social psychology at Tokyo's Hosei University, says the trend has gotten so much media attention here because it reflects a new willingness among the nation's middle-aged to buck long-standing conformist expectations.

"Norms based on age, expectations that you behave this way or that, are becoming less important for this generation of people," he says. "They might have stopped going to discos after they started working, but it's still the thing of their generation and so they want to go back."

There is also a strong element of escapism.

In sharp contrast to the booming growth and swelling optimism of the 1970s, Japan has been mired with a sluggish economy for more than a decade, a grim reality that is hitting people in their 40s especially hard.

"We are not really living in happy times right now," Byblos' manager, Tsutomu Obara, says, sifting through dozens of articles he has clipped from newspapers analyzing the disco trend. "Japan's economy is in recession, and middle-aged people are constantly exposed to the fear of restructuring at work."

Obara adds that economic anxieties -- along with a desire to let go after years devoted to child-rearing and homemaking -- are also felt by housewives, who are, in fact, the core of his business.

"Women outnumber men nine-to-one on a typical weekend," he says. "This isn't so much a place for finding romance as it is a place for them to feel comfortable and let off steam."

Kyoto Nemoto, a 51-year-old office worker dancing at Byblos, says she goes to a disco at least once a month.

"I used to go to discos almost every night when I was young. A disco is a totally different world than work for me," she says.

By Japanese standards, the turnout isn't large.

In the 1970s and '80s, far more people would line up outside such popular spots as Maharaja, Xanadu or Juliana's -- a racy disco that sparked a brief revival in the 1990s -- than are to be found inside most discos now.

Byblos gets several hundred people on a typical Saturday night. Maharaja has about 600 on a good night, far below the 2,000 to 3,000 it drew at its peak in the '80s.

Even so, it's a demanding task to keep up with the crowds, who expect an authentic-as-possible replication of good times past.

"I've had to do a lot of studying," says Byblos DJ Takeshi Shinkawa, who, at 31, missed the original disco fever. "But it's not quite the same as having firsthand experience of the times."

He admits he hasn't become a fan of the music, either.

"Personally, I prefer [contemporary] black music, like hip hop and R&B," he says.

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