By Sophie Knight
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's government is considering relaxing a law that forbids late-night dancing in public establishments, according to a draft proposal reviewed by Reuters, potentially ending police raids that have shuttered nightclubs across the country.
Dancing at public venues is technically illegal in Japan and is only permitted until midnight in clubs with a special license, a vestige of a law on "businesses affecting public morals", which was passed in 1948 to stamp out prostitution linked to dance halls but over the years was all but forgotten.
The police renewed enforcement of the law four years ago, however, with a crackdown on bars and clubs after a student was killed in a brawl in Osaka, Japan's second-largest metropolitan area, and worries mounted about the country's youth culture against a backdrop of celebrity drug scandals.
Raids invoking the law spread to Tokyo and other cities, with police breaking up parties from techno clubs to salsa bars and arresting dozens on suspicion of gang connections or tax violations, while closing venues known for noise complaints.
Now, a public backlash against the law has spurred debate in parliament and led the government to ease up as part of a broader deregulation drive by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who wants to stimulate the economy and prepare for an increase in tourism ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
"I think politicians and authorities are feeling pressure as they don't want Japan to be seen as a boring place by foreign tourists," said Takahiro Saito, a Tokyo-based lawyer who spearheaded a movement against the law called "Let's Dance". The group submitted a petition of 150,000 signatures to the Diet in May 2013.
The petition prompted a group of nonpartisan lawmakers to urge reassessment of the law and in April the Osaka District Court exonerated a club owner charged for violating the dance ban, setting a legal precedent.
This week the prime minister will submit for government approval a deregulation plan, seen by Reuters, which proposes removing the clause in the law that limits dancing to clubs with a special license and bans all dancing after midnight or 1 a.m.
The government will have until the end of March next year to make a decision on how or whether to change the legislation after talking to related parties, the proposal says.
Because the law was often used as a pretext to act against or investigate separate problems such as rowdy clubgoers, illegal drugs or suspected gangster involvement, changing the law may not end police intrusions into clubland.
"If they cut the part referring to dance out of the law then at the very least they won't stop people dancing any more. But the police may strengthen their efforts to target problems such as noise and other nuisances to the neighborhood," said Saito.
"For conservative parliament members, there is still a strong image of clubs being a place where young people cause trouble".
(Editing by Edmund Klamann and Rachel Armstrong)