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Famed sake brewery questions Japanese gov't pandemic response in full-page ad

Asahi Shuzo Co. President Kazuhiro Sakurai shows the brewery's signature sake Dassai in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, on June 3, 2021. (Mainichi/Yusuke Hiratsuka)
This image taken from Asahi Shuzo Co.'s website shows part of the ad, right, that was placed in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun business daily on May 24, 2021.

IWAKUNI, Yamaguchi -- The brewery behind internationally acclaimed sake Dassai has placed a full-page ad in a national newspaper highlighting the plight of the restaurant industry amid the coronavirus pandemic and questioning the Japanese government's response, declaring, "Protecting eateries can also lead to protecting the 'life' of Japan."

    Kazuhiro Sakurai, the 44-year-old president of Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture-based Asahi Shuzo Co., said that the brewery had expected criticism over the May 24 ad in the morning edition of the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, a business daily. He said that "eateries across the country are exhausted, pushed to the brink of the abyss" by the central government's anti-virus measures, including repeated requests to shorten business hours. "If this goes on, many eateries will not be able to avoid closure and bankruptcy," he went on, adding, "These bankruptcies will lead directly to impoverishment and chain-reaction bankruptcies among alcohol and food suppliers, job losses and tough times for all those involved."

    Behind the rare move by a private company to make such a public appeal, Sakurai said, "I thought we had to do something after restaurants I knew went bankrupt one after another, and I heard about how harsh current conditions are from farmers."

    Asahi Shuzo's sales in May 2020, after the declaration of Japan's first coronavirus state of emergency, dropped to some 40% compared to the same month the previous year. Though sales gradually recovered, Sakurai apparently decided to take the lead, as "it is difficult for eateries to speak up individually, because they are in weak positions."

    Though the brewery staff had considered speaking out in cooperation with others in the restaurant and bar industry, they eventually chose to post the ad under Sakurai's name, to shift the risk of the expected mixed reaction onto Asahi Shuzo alone. Sakurai explained that he also decided to put the ad in a major national daily because similar sentiments he had penned for the brewery's blog had "proved no more than a small jab" in terms of impact.

    The ad caused major waves. The brewery received nearly 100 phone calls and letters from residents and those in the restaurant industry who had seen the ad, which also became a hot topic on social media. While there were both kudos and criticisms, favorable responses such as "I was encouraged" predominated. "To be honest, I'm still kind of scared about whether it was right to have placed the ad," Sakurai said. "But I thought that someone needed to unleash their voice and take action."

    The ad questioned the Japanese government's imposition of uniform restrictions on restaurants, such as demanding they shorten business hours and halt serving alcohol. It urged the government to make restrictions more reasonable depending on factors including infection prevention measures taken by each establishment, and business categories. The ad also cited overseas regimes that allow restaurants to open under certain conditions, such as limiting the number of seats to 50% of normal capacity.

    "It's important to change (restrictions) depending on the situation, instead of making it a choice between infection prevention measures and economic measures," Sakurai said. "Precisely because there is no right answer to this new problem, I hope that society will become one in which everyone says what they think and supports each other to go forward."

    The ad was also cited during a June 3 House of Councillors Committee on Health, Welfare and Labor meeting, with opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker Ryuhei Kawada saying, "The uniform restrictions on eateries serving alcohol should be revised." Health minister Norihisa Tamura responded, "We are doing all this based on experts' opinions. And of course, we have to keep supporting them (restaurants) financially."

    (Japanese original by Yusuke Hiratsuka, Yamaguchi Bureau)

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