Traditional Japanese bars stagger under blow of second coronavirus emergency

Yasuyuki Shimahara, owner of an "izakaya" or Japanese-style dining bar specializing in tuna dishes, prepares to close his shop until the end of the state of emergency that's aimed at curbing the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Tokyo, Japan

Yusuke Aoi has seen earnings at his traditional Tokyo bar plunge since the coronavirus pandemic began last year – and fears the area’s second state of emergency could deliver a final blow.

Japan declared a month-long, limited state of emergency in the capital, Tokyo, and three neighboring prefectures on Thursday to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

The curbs are less stringent than during last year’s emergency period, where people were largely confined to their homes. This time people are asked to stay at home after 8 p.m. unless they have essential reasons to leave.

As last time, restaurants and bars are asked to close by 8 p.m. and stop serving alcohol an hour earlier, with government subsidies available to those which abide by the requests.

But with losses already built up and footfall down as people work from home, owners of Japan’s traditional izakaya, which serve lots of small eats along with alcohol, are being forced into crushing choices.

“Customers usually start flocking in around 7,” the 29-year-old manager of “Setouchi Lemon Shokudo” said. “If we can only serve alcohol until 7, there’s no point in staying open in the evening.”

Aoi’s izakaya has seen sales slump 70 percent since the pandemic as more people worked from home and avoided crowded spaces. They have now started serving lunches, but still can’t make ends meet.

Operating with shortened evening hours would bleed him of as much as 1 million yen a month in labor and utilities, he estimates. “The damage is less if we close.”

The areas affected by the current state of emergency – Tokyo and the three neighboring prefectures of Chiba, Kanagawa and Saitama – are home to about 150,000 restaurants and bars.

Tokyo-based Teikoku Databank said this week bankruptcies in the sector hit a high of 780 in 2020, up from the previous record of 732, and many izakaya owners fear the worst.

Yasuyuki Shimahara, who owns a central Tokyo izakaya specializing in fresh tuna, will close until the state of emergency ends. Though he has applied for government subsidies, he expects losses to run to around $20,000 (2 million yen) for the month.

“As a business owner, it’s not what I want, but I think we have no choice due to the situation the country’s in,” he said.

Japan has been less seriously hit by the pandemic than many places, but has been unable to rein in the virus. Recorded daily infections exceeded 7,000 for the first time on Thursday, and it has seen a total of 267,000 cases and nearly 3,900 deaths.

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