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Anger, disappointment brews over Tokyo gov't plan to stop eateries' alcohol sales

An izakaya pub in front of JR Akabane Station is seen taking coronavirus prevention measures while continuing business, in Tokyo's Kita Ward on April 23, 2021. (Mainichi/Yohei Koide)

TOKYO -- The Tokyo Metropolitan Government plans to request restaurants serving alcohol temporarily close during the state of emergency come April 25 when it goes into effect, in a move likely to bring unprecedented shock to the capital's eateries and their customers.

    Businesses that have already complied with repeated requests to curtail business hours described a mix of anger and disappointment over the metro government's plans for the tough measures, which seem to suggest that drinking at eateries should be prohibited.

    At Minato Ward's Shimbashi restaurant district, which usually heaves with office workers, 46-year-old Masahiko Yamashina, owner of yakitori grilled chicken skewer restaurant Yamashina, said, "It's too sudden, I can't keep up."

    He has so far cooperated with all shorter business hours requests, and implemented infection prevention measures including plastic curtains between seats. If the shop complies with the metro government's policy and stops serving alcohol, it can continue to trade until 8 p.m., but Yamashina intends to close as he feels a yakitori place without sake is incomplete.

    "I can't keep going just with the cooperation money for complying with past early closing requests. I need to be compensated properly," he said.

    One of his regular customers, a 57-year-old office worker, was furious: "The hospital bed shortage and vaccination delays are the national government and Tokyo Metropolitan Government's responsibility. It's unreasonable how the burden has to be on izakaya pubs."

    Masaomi Yamazaki, 42, manages bar Amulet-D in Shibuya, Japan's youth culture center. He asked, "Is the situation improving by presenting only eateries as at fault?" Though he will comply with the government request, as he has previously, he remains unconvinced.

    The Akabane district in Kita Ward is known for its rows of affordable pubs. Hiroaki Shinohara, 52, owner of izakaya Yakiton Daimao, complained, "We're forced to pay for (administrative) ad hoc measures." A local company executive, 50, expressed his anger: "Customers will gather at stores that don't comply with the closure requests, and eateries taking it seriously will be disadvantaged."

    For teppanyaki grilled dish store Ikudon, it takes just three minutes by train to go from nearby Akabane Station to Kawaguchi Station in the Saitama Prefecture city of Kawaguchi, which is under less severe quasi-emergency measures.

    Although Saitama, Chiba and Kanagawa prefectures, which neighbor Tokyo, want to suppress the flow of people from the capital, if restaurants at prefectural borders continue serving alcohol, they may attract drunk customers. Ikudon employee Seigo Saito, 56, sighed and said, "It's unfair to have different responses here and across the river. We'll lose regular customers."

    Business closure requests are having an impact even on traders. "The time has come," said a resigned-sounding Minoru Sasaki, the 66-year-old president of Sasaki, a liquor wholesaler in Shinjuku Ward in business for over 100 years and currently trading with some 3,000 Tokyo eateries and other stores. It is clear sales will drop sharply after April 25, and the firm will have no choice but to discard stocks of liquor close to their expiration date.

    "I want the national government to provide sufficient support to intermediaries," Sasaki said, adding that most of the sales of chain liquor stores near Shimbashi Station depend on deliveries to the area's eateries. He added, "Recently, we've focussed on suburban stores where demand (from customers drinking at home) is high."

    If eateries serving alcohol close, it is possibile that more people will drink in the streets and parks. The metro government plans to issue warnings for behaviors with a high risk of infection, such as drinking in groups in the streets, but their efficacy is unclear.

    A 50-year-old office worker from Edogawa Ward, who was chatting while drinking a can of beer in a Shimbashi park in the dark, said, "It's impossible to completely eliminate places for communication. Drinking on the streets will not disappear."

    (Japanese original by Hiroshi Endo, Shintaro Iguchi and Shotaro Kinoshita, Tokyo City News Department)

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