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'It's hell': Tokyo restaurants angered at bearing brunt of endless virus measures

Masaomi Yamazaki is seen preparing to open for business at his bar Amulet-d on the restaurant street Nonbei Yokocho in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, on May 27, 2021. (Mainichi/Koichiro Tezuka)

TOKYO -- The end of Japan's protracted fight against the coronavirus still seems far off, with the current state of emergency declaration extended until June 20. But while requests for cinemas and large commercial facilities to stop trading will be eased, eateries serving alcohol will still be subject to business closure requests.

    Whether or not measures continue to be enforced or eased, restaurant owners are deeply angry and dejected at being forced to endure a situation with no end in sight. Businesses the Mainichi Shimbun spoke to described the postponements as "hell," and questioned how long it will go on.

    Restaurant street Nonbei Yokocho in the capital's Shibuya area is lined with about 40 eateries. Despite being right in front of busy Shibuya Station, the signs for the street's businesses largely remain off come evening. A distinct number of shopfronts have handwritten temporary closure notices up.

    "Extending the declaration is hell for us. I don't know how long we'll have to hold on for, but there's a limit to what we can endure," said Masaomi Yamazaki, 42, owner of bar Amulet-d, which marks 14 years in business this June.

    Since autumn 2020, Amulet-d has been subject to repeated requests to shorten operating hours or temporarily close, and hasn't run conventional hours for a single day in 2021. It has only managed evening business of about 4 or 5 hours on 60 days this year. Sales are only about 30% of what could be expected in a normal year.

    Although the state of emergency was lifted at the end of March, there was barely any time for relief. Three weeks later, quasi-emergency measures were applied in the capital, and half-a-month after another state of emergency was declared. "We had such hope, it was disheartening," he said.

    Businesses complying with requests to close or shorten operating hours are provided with cooperation funds based on their sales, with a minimum daily payout of 40,000 yen (about $364). But even with the money, eateries are burdened by fixed costs like personnel spending and rent, and many are seeing their reserve funds dwindle.

    In Shibuya, too, Yamazaki has seen fellow business owners do all they can but still end up driven into closing their locations for good. Among them, he said, was a friend's shop that he visited frequently. He added, "How much has the situation actually improved by just making eateries the bad guys?"

    Obanzai LC, a bar on the same street, has given up serving alcohol and switched to cafe service running 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. The business prides itself on its local sake offering, with selections from central Japan's Niigata Prefecture and elsewhere. When it could still serve them, it would receive about 30 to 40 customers a day, but recently it sees only about five through the door daily.

    The bar's manager, aged 38, lamented the situation, saying, "With each repeated emergency declaration, extension and ending, they've become less and less effective. How long can this really go on for?"

    Nearby izakaya Japanese pub Naochan had been temporarily closed since the state of emergency was called in late April. Until then it had been mitigating close contact on its premises by allowing only up to three customers in at a time, and observing shorter operating hours. Inside the now silent Naochan, its 65-year-old owner said, "We're taking thorough measures against infections, so I want them to allow us to operate normally."

    But what about other types of businesses and industries? Department stores and other large-scale retailers in Tokyo will only be required to close on weekends. But even with some easing, one 40-year-old department store employee in the capital couldn't conceal his anger: "Saturdays and Sundays are when department stores really do business. How much does us closing really amount to an infection prevention plan?"

    Movie theaters with an area exceeding 1,000 square meters were also subject to closure requests; soon, they will be running on shorter hours. The Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan, made up of the country's four largest film distributors, says Tokyo and Osaka cinemas account for 35% of Japan's movie theater revenues.

    They also said the effects of Tokyo and Osaka cinema closure requests are felt across the industry, in everywhere from distribution to production and even at an executive level. The association's deputy secretary general commented, "For the time being we're relieved."

    But to ensure thorough coronavirus prevention measures are observed, film production costs have increased by about 10 to 20% of what they were before, with filming staff receiving frequent polymerase chain reaction tests and more time being taken to ensure close contact is avoided leading to higher personnel costs. In an appeal to fans, the association's deputy secretary general said, "Even during the temporary closures, new movies were released in theaters. We hope many people will enjoy going to the cinema."

    (Japanese original by Shintaro Iguchi, Shotaro Kinoshita and Toshiaki Uchihashi, Tokyo City News Department)

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