When popular South Korean performer DJ Soda took to social media last summer to call out those who groped her at an Osaka music festival, she highlighted the challenges faced by women carving out their own dynamic niche in the male-dominated electronic dance music scene.

Females only accounted for around 10 percent of the top 100 world DJs ranked last year by British publication DJ Mag, and Japan also reflects that reality. Aspiring female disc jockeys in the country's pulsating nightlife are faced with strong gender biases.

DJ Natsumi.
(Photo courtesy of DJ Natsumi)(Kyodo)

DJ Natsumi, who first met DJ Soda nearly a decade ago while performing at a club in Fukuoka Prefecture, southwestern Japan, says that the tendency for women to be objectified, or worse, based on their appearance lies at the heart of the issue.

"People often say that women get attention without any real skill or effort just because they excel in communication or sales. And if you stand out, people tend to think it's not due to your music at all and don't consider your actual abilities," said Natsumi.

Originally a dancer, Natsumi began DJing at the age of 19 in the club district of her home prefecture of Fukuoka. Early in her career, from 2014 to 2018, she was part of an all-female DJ duo known as Tidy. It was at that time she met DJ Soba and was inspired by her look and vibe.

Natsumi said she also encountered unwelcome physical contact and sexual advances during the time she emulated DJ Soda's alluring aesthetic. She has since switched to a more casual street style to encourage people to value her for her art, rather than her looks.

"Being sexy might attract attention, but you tend to be seen in a certain way by men. I want people to see me for my music," said Natsumi.

Her efforts appeared to have paid off. In 2019, she was ranked the top under-29 producer in Japan by DJ Mag Japan, a localized version of world DJ ranking, and number one in the female DJ ranking DJane Mag Japan in 2020-2021.

DJ Natsumi takes a photo with the crowd after playing a set at Ultra Japan 2019.
(Photo courtesy of DJ Natsumi)(Kyodo)

DJ Eri x2, who debuted in April 2021, says that as a woman she also often feels she has to put in more effort to be taken seriously.

But the up-and-coming female DJ has been able to avoid sexual harassment by being street smart, maintaining distance from the crowd, and removing herself immediately from compromising situations.

"I am always on the alert because you never know what might happen in a nightclub, where drinking is involved," said Eri x2, who has played in prominent venues like Ce La Vi Tokyo, Womb and Zerotokyo.

Sumiko Nakashima, a consultant in her 40s who moonlights as a DJ known as Sumi, says a lack of sex education among young people and weak laws on sexual harassment in Japan are partly to blame for normalizing unsavory behavior in clubs.

"In the United States, such (actions) would be punished. So Japanese guys are really spoiled, as they can do whatever they want," said Nakashima while also blaming Japan's pervasive sex industry for oversexualizing women.

This and other cultural issues leave Japan consistently ranked poorly on the World Economic Forum's gender gap rankings, which track economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and empowerment. Japan fell to its lowest position on record at 125th among 146 countries in 2023, the worst in the East Asia and Pacific region.

Meanwhile, the country's sex industry was estimated to be worth a whopping $24 billion in 2015, the third largest in the world, according to black market research company Havocscope.

DJ Mai-My. (Photo courtesy of DJ Mai-My)(Kyodo)

Against this backdrop, veteran DJ Mai-My, who co-founded III Faiths DJ School in Tokyo's Shibuya district nearly 15 years ago, says underlying gender biases can also work to women's advantage.

"Even if guys are skilled DJs, there are only a few opportunities. For girls, being cute, showing a bit more, or being young catches the eye of organizers or venue owners. So for us as organizers, it's easier to make a girl famous than a guy," she said.

III Faiths DJ School, which has seven franchises across Japan and affiliates in the Philippines and Singapore, boasts over 4,500 graduates, with some going on to perform at world-famous music festivals such as Ultra Japan and EDC Mexico.

Mai-My said that the number of female students at the school has risen in recent years, as livestreaming platforms such as TikTok have enabled access to audiences from the safety of their homes.

"The compatibility with digital content is excellent for DJs, making it enjoyable for a diverse audience. Especially since it enables teenagers, who can't enter clubs, and older generations to engage with this type of music," she said.

Mai-My, who started DJing in an era before mobile phones and DJ schools, taught herself by watching professional DJs in clubs she frequented since she was 18.

"Even if you asked experienced people to teach you, they wouldn't share their techniques. So, I watched and learned by stealing, rather than relying on someone to guide me," said Mai-My.

Now with nearly 30 years of experience under her belt, she supports budding DJs to make their debut after graduating from her school. But at a time when technology has made a large vinyl collection and turntable skills somewhat obsolete, aspiring DJs need to offer something extra to gain a competitive edge.

A typical DJ class at III Faiths DJ School in Tokyo's Shibuya district. (Photo courtesy of DJ Mai-My)(Kyodo)

"If, say, eight out of 10 can be easily achieved, then it becomes a choice of how to cover the remaining two -- whether it's through appearance or skill. Appearance is easy, as long as you have it. But for skill, to beat someone who has been doing it for 10 or 20 years, you need to be incredibly good," said Mai-My.

Natsumi admits her initial strategy of wearing revealing outfits as part of Tidy, and marketing that image on social media, helped her to gain fans when first entering the industry. That subsequently enabled her to establish her own style and secure invites to perform at international festivals such as EDC Mexico.

Now a full-time DJ, producer and influencer, Natsumi wants to end the prejudice in the male-dominated electronic music scene, and become a positive influence to emerging talent.

"I believe in producing my own music and that's what is making me successful. So, I hope more people follow the same path. Make music while being a DJ," said Natsumi.

Meanwhile, Mai-My said that reaching the top in any profession, not just DJing, is challenging, and perseverance is key.

"Despite starting with enthusiasm, many people end up quitting. So, whether it's because you love music or enjoy (club) culture, the most important thing is to keep at it."

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