A customer is seen at an Izakaya dining bar in Tokyo on June 22, which is less crowded than before the coronavirus outbreak. Photo: REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
business

Japan's izakayas, once a staple of after-work socializing, crippled by pandemic

37 Comments
By Leika Kihara and Daniel Leussink

Japan's after-work drinking scene has been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, forcing its often jam-packed izakaya dining bars to reinvent themselves to survive.

For decades, izakayas - a mainstay of Japanese working culture and late-night drinking - have thrived by offering cheap drinks to office workers in cozy settings.

Even though lockdown measures to contain the virus were lifted in late May, izakayas are facing an existential crisis as more people work from home and social-distancing rules force most eating and drinking outlets to halve their seating.

"I used to drink out about twice a week. Not anymore," said 26-year-old Erika Aoi. "It was nice to hang out with colleagues after work, so it's sad the culture is shrinking."

Hitoshi Yaosaka's establishments are among those hit hard. The 10 izakayas he runs in Tokyo have seen customer numbers return to only a third of their pre-pandemic levels, with fewer workers commuting to nearby offices.

"If drinking out isn't considered welcome, izakayas will go under. There's a pretty good chance Japan's izakaya culture will die down," says Yaosaka, who warns that small izakayas like his aren't profitable if the already-tiny establishments cut counter seats by half.

The government hasn't given a time frame for how long the restrictions will last. But officials warn they must stay in place until an effective vaccine is developed. That may prod more companies to allow employees to work from home and reduce opportunities for drinking outings with far-flung colleagues.

Restaurants make up 16% of coronavirus-related bankruptcies in Japan so far, according to data from think tank Tokyo Shoko Research.

The gloom could put a dent in consumption for months if not years, and prolong Japan's already deepening recession.

"Consumption may rebound somewhat in June but will take a very long time to return to pre-pandemic levels," said Yoshiki Shinke, chief economist at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute.

The disappearance of social drinking has hit restaurant and izakaya chain operators like Colowide, which is shutting 7% of its 2,665 outlets. Rival Watami is also closing 13% of about 500 outlets.

Takeshi Niinami, a government adviser and head of Japanese beverage maker Suntory Holdings, warns that more than 20% of bars and restaurants could fail because of the pandemic.

"Given the current coronavirus situation, what I'd like to see is for them to make it through the next two to three years until we can allow for more noisy, intimate get-togethers," Niinami said.

Surviving that long is no easy task for many izakayas in a shrinking market. Some are rethinking their business models.

Watami will open new wagyu beef restaurants targeting families and launch a fried chicken delivery service.

c05e1b028bbf018da0b745d5c1f80700.jpg
A customer drinks a glass of beer next to chairs bearing social distancing signs at Setouchi Lemon Shokudo in Tokyo on June 22. Photo: REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Setouchi Lemon Shokudo, an izakaya near Tokyo's Nihonbashi business district, was packed with office workers before the pandemic.

Now, social-distancing policies have forced the shop to cut seats to 30 from 50. Sales and visitor numbers in June are still 30% of what they were a year ago.

To make up for lost sales, the shop bought a food truck to sell lunches to a wider range of customers. It also started selling take-out meals and food online.

Tadao Nakashima, CEO of Bears Corp, which owns Setouchi Lemon, does not expect business to recover this year.

"The pandemic has shaken the foundation of our business, which is to provide a venue for face-to-face communication," said Nakashima, who has been in the izakaya business for more than two decades. "We may need to come up with a model that doesn't focus too much on alcohol."

© Thomson Reuters 2020.

©2020 GPlusMedia Inc.

37 Comments
Login to comment

People can save more money due to corona virus ...

-1 ( +8 / -9 )

launch a fried chicken delivery service. Finally welcome to 2020.

-8 ( +3 / -11 )

The gloom could put a dent in consumption for months if not years, and prolong Japan's already deepening recession.

Thanks a lot, CCP, thanks a lot.

People can save more money due to corona virus ...

A lot of people are losing money being as how they're losing their jobs.

8 ( +14 / -6 )

Without izakayas there is no reason to live in Japan.

3 ( +12 / -9 )

How difficult is it to partition a restaurant?

Time for the restaurants to become creative as I had to...

-11 ( +2 / -13 )

launch a fried chicken delivery service. Finally welcome to 2020.

Another good reason to go back to 2019.

3 ( +6 / -3 )

Without izakayas there is no reason to live in Japan.

Lol...agree..its a pretty big part of the appeal ..:)

7 ( +10 / -3 )

We went to a couple of places in Kobe yesterday. One was moderately busy the other was packed.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

I don't like izakayas. Small, smoky, expensive. Good riddance.

-6 ( +7 / -13 )

I thought smoking was banned now.

-4 ( +1 / -5 )

The lockdown and social distancing did this. Not the pandemic

-16 ( +1 / -17 )

thelessdeceived you have been deceived. It is banned but still half of the izakayas still allow smoking because they are afraid they will lose customers.

Whatsnext ?? what's logic? pandemic=lockdown=social distancing.. ?

3 ( +4 / -1 )

doggarToday  06:17 pm JST

I don't like izakayas. Small, smoky, expensive. Good riddance.

You sound like a bundle of fun.

5 ( +7 / -2 )

@Tandoorinacho ..LOL !

1 ( +2 / -1 )

The reason is not Coronavirus alone. The taxation hike hit consumption figures pretty hard.

Combination of Covid economic depression and taxation hike is just too much for Japanese people.

2 ( +5 / -3 )

I don't like izakayas. Small, smoky, expensive. Good riddance.

The smoke from the grill kills coronavirus dead, and gargle with cold beer to clean the virus out of your throat. A virtual health spa with chicken skewers.

10 ( +11 / -1 )

I don't like izakayas. Small, smoky, expensive. Good riddance.

What would you want to replace them with though? The best izakayas are small, smoky but cheap. Faded beer posters on the walls along with most of the menu, racks of keep bottles, a grill sizzling in the corner, lots of noise and laughter. Wonderful places.

7 ( +8 / -1 )

What terrible places to go to :

Cheap beer.

Awesome cheap food.

And a happy environment.

Please keep the fun police away.

Wish we had more Izakayas in Melbourne.

10 ( +12 / -2 )

I enjoy izakayas but come on; with the beers that come quickly, the surcharge cheapo appetizer, and the small dishes that necessitate many dishes, has anyone ever left an izakaya paying less than 30$? Its not cheap like a night market in SE Asia or quick fry in China or Taiwan.

-8 ( +1 / -9 )

I think this will solve the problem Japan faces with alcoholism but may require more alcohol rehab facilities to open to prevent AWS.

-6 ( +0 / -6 )

good, send them home to their families / relax / have some rest ... ... i like izakayas, what i don,t like is the obligation ( after a long, and i mean long, day of work ) to go to this so called “after work social drinking” thing... how much you wanna bet that more than fifty percent of workers are actually not sad with this because they don,t even wanna go... in many cases they don,t even like some of their coworkers and bosses... in other cases they,re too tired to go... etcetera.

2 ( +5 / -3 )

There are both positives and negatives to this issue. One positive result is people not relying on 'friendship' with co-workers, but rather going home or seeing real friends or family in more mentally stimulating environments. And, of course, one negative is some izakaya employees losing their jobs, and the owners of said establishments being forced to re-design their service. 'Survival of the fittest'? I don't think so, but if there's one thing about Japan that I always found disturbing it was how many of these places exist. They're more numerous than convenience stores. So, in my view, it's about time people took a serious look at their work/life imbalance. And that doesn't hurt. It requires introspection, and sadly I think that's something most Japanese shy away from.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

Peterbowie if by awesome food you mean microwaved takoyaki, frozen takitori and day old sashimi, then by all means tempt fate and eat. The food at most izakayas has a lot of be desired.

-4 ( +2 / -6 )

doggarToday  10:03 pm JST

Peterbowie if by awesome food you mean microwaved takoyaki, frozen takitori and day old sashimi, then by all means tempt fate and eat. The food at most izakayas has a lot of be desired.

Chain stores yes, small local izakaiyas no.

I Have been going to the same izakaiya for over a decade

Nice regulars and good owner who have become good always nice to drop in alone for a few beers on the way home . A local Izakaiya is a small community.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

Peterbowie if by awesome food you mean microwaved takoyaki, frozen takitori and day old sashimi, then by all means tempt fate and eat. The food at most izakayas has a lot of be desired.

No. You are eating at the wrong izakayas and I suspect that your experience is not as extensive as you would have us believe.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

about time

-6 ( +1 / -7 )

Chain stores yes, small local izakaiyas no.

A local Izakaiya is a small community.

Exactly! My local izakaya is superb and a huge part of my life here, I'd be gutted if it closed and the neighborhood has done its best to keep it going. The people who run it and the people who go there are as important here as they are to a pub back in England. Although the decor looks like it was set fire to then put out with an axe, I love it.

if by awesome food you mean microwaved takoyaki, frozen takitori and day old sashimi, then by all means tempt fate and eat. The food at most izakayas has a lot of be desired.

Keep looking, you'll find one

7 ( +8 / -1 )

The grilled chicken that I've had at times in Japan made me cry at times with joy.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

you are reckless, its' well known that they serve old chicken. you risk getting food poisoning every time you eat at a cheap izakaya. It's better to go to gusto or jonathans, it's frozen, but its fresh.

-4 ( +1 / -5 )

Good riddance to Pubs and booze production centers. This is what we need to save our livers. Stop encouraging people to down toxin drug called achohol your not doing humanity a favor. Think of a wiser buisness rather sell booze a drug that kills.

-5 ( +0 / -5 )

There are too many of these fringe dwelling momma/papa Izakayas and ramen shops in Japan. The virus has shown just how fickle their livelihoods and Japan’s economy really are.

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

Stories like this remind me that COVID-19 is a human-made disaster and was preventable. And that those responsible need to pay a very, very high price for destroying our world, our culture, our society. Never again!

3 ( +3 / -0 )

The government hasn't given a time frame for how long the restrictions will last. But officials warn they must stay in place until an effective vaccine is developed.

A vaccine is effective only when it targets a specific virus. If that virus mutates, the vaccine is no longer effective. An effective vaccine, therefore, will never be developed because viruses such as corona viruses, are never stable; they are always mutating. Herd immunity is the only way to end the threat. And that implies that these establishments remain open for business and people stop isolating themselves.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

@doggar and @Oxycodin: Wow. I bet your lives are really fun. Looking forward to that night out at Gusto. Save me a seat.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

I agree with doggar. These places encourage people to drink more and, as a result, alcoholism becomes more prevalent.

When people become inebriated they tend to let go of their inhibitions which causes them to act foolishly without restraint.

I avoid such places like the plague (no pun intended) because I don't want to be surrounded by people acting stupid and getting out of control.

Let them fail. I don't care.

-4 ( +0 / -4 )

When people become inebriated they tend to let go of their inhibitions which causes them to act foolishly without restraint.

And this is how you were created. Thanks to mommy drinking alcohol.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

@David Shawn Kanda: Thats a VERY short sighted attitude form someone like yourself with a service/hospitality background. I doubt if you would want the same wished on you.

This is peoples lives. How callous of you.

Some of us enjoy a drink - doesn't mean we get stupid.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Login to leave a comment

Facebook users

Use your Facebook account to login or register with JapanToday. By doing so, you will also receive an email inviting you to receive our news alerts.

Facebook Connect

Login with your JapanToday account

User registration

Articles, Offers & Useful Resources

A mix of what's trending on our other sites