TO The vivid rainbow heralds the arrival of dusk in Tokyo, but the legendary promise of a pot of gold must seem like a cruel joke to the restorers of Shimbashi, where office blocks are in the happy proximity of hundreds of watering holes.
In the days before the coronavirus, dusk would be the signal for the neighborhood’s neon lights to kick into action and for touts armed with rolled menus to invite office workers in with promises of cheap food and drink.
But as Tokyo enters the fourth week of its latest coronavirus state of emergency, the usual post-work bonhomie spilling into Shimbashi’s narrow back streets has been replaced by anger and discouragement.
“Take a look … it’s empty,” says Yasuko Matsui, the owner of a small restaurant that serves Nagasaki-style noodles. “We are not allowed to serve alcohol, so no one is interested in eating out. Imagine going to a pub or restaurant where you can’t even order a drink. “
The alcohol ban is one of several restrictions Tokyo restaurants have been told to watch as the city tries to stop a fourth wave of Covid-19 infections, two months before the scheduled date to host the Olympics. Even those that switch to serving only soft drinks must close at 8 p.m. As an incentive, the government is offering daily subsidies of between ¥ 40,000 (£ 258) and ¥ 200,000 (£ 1,292) depending on the size of the establishment, along with the threat of a ¥ 300,000 fine for non-compliance.
Even drinking outdoors is discouraged, with burly men in high-visibility jackets and baseball caps posted on street corners to discourage the “displaced” from congregating in a nearby park.
Japan’s third state of emergency, which targets Tokyo, Osaka and several other prefectures hit by the virus, came into effect on April 25 and was supposed to end on May 11, but has been extended until the end of the month.
While cases have declined in recent days, infections remain stubbornly high, adding to concerns that the cycle of restrictions and periods of relative freedom, combined with a slow launch of the vaccine, will not make a dent. significant in the burden of Covid-19 cases in the capital.
Tokyo reported 732 cases on Tuesday, up from 925 on the same day last week, bringing their total to more than 153,000, with nearly 2,000 deaths.
Japanese health experts have long pointed to the increased risk of Covid-19 transmission when groups of people sit in confined and poorly ventilated spaces and they take off their masks to eat, drink and chat.
But for Shimbashi’s restaurateurs, the measures pose an existential threat. “The subsidies are too low, since we can’t serve alcohol and we have to close very early in the evening,” Matsui said, adding that his restaurant was “about to survive” by offering special offers to people in the office at Lunch time.
Others complain that the subsidies do not come close to matching the profits generated by alcohol sales. A bar owner, who asked not to be named, said his income had dropped by 60% since the start of the pandemic.
“We will probably be able to survive, but there are many smaller places around here that were encouraged by the government to borrow before the pandemic. Now they have to start paying them back, but they can’t. We will see many places go bankrupt. “
In other parts of the neighborhood, diners crowd the few restaurants that have decided to open, while others display signs indicating that they will remain closed until the end of the state of emergency. A small number seem like they will never reopen.
His pain is felt throughout Tokyo, whose endless gastronomic possibilities have helped win him over. more Michelin stars than any other city in the world – and other parts of the country.
While sales in fast food chains have grown during the pandemic thanks to the increased demand for take-out food, those in bars and izakayas, a type of casual bar serving drinks and snacks, which plummeted nearly 40% in March compared to the same month last year, according to the Japan Food Service Association.
A report from Tokyo Shoko Research, a corporate analysis firm, says 842 restaurants across the country filed for bankruptcy in 2020, 5.3% more than the previous year. But it is in the smaller izakaya pubs, a fixture of Japanese social and cultural life, that the virus is causing the most damage. In the year to the end of March, 175 closed, an annual increase of 17%, he said.
“People stayed away from pubs to avoid crowds,” the report said. “Small restaurants are also suffering the cost of investing in equipment to prevent the spread of the virus, such as partitions.”
Global-Dining, a large Tokyo-based restaurant chain, is fighting back. He recently filed a lawsuit for damages from the metropolitan government, alleging that the shutdown order is illegal and violates his constitutional right to conduct business.
As the clock ticks towards 8pm, when his restaurant would normally be crowded, Matsui is preparing to lower the blinds after another night of frustration. “We are caught in a vicious circle and politicians no longer listen to us,” he said. “It feels like they’ve put their hands around our throats.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism