Izakaya Drinking Places


Drinking Places, Izakaya 居酒屋 

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Izakaya adapting to social changes

By Hideo Yoshida

An "izakaya" (inexpensive Japanese-style pub) in the Monzennaka area, one subway stop away from Tokyo's Kayaba district where securities companies are concentrated, is always full of salaried people, both men and women, at night on weekdays.

Osamu Kouke, 73, the owner of the establishment, called Dharma, opened it 35 years ago. "This was an area of factories, and employees at Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries Co and students at then Tokyo University of Mercantile Marine (now Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology) were our main customers."

"It was noisy, with heated talk among the men about the company or college. But now, customers drink quietly as most of them are accompanied by women. They may not want to cut a poor figure in front of a woman," he said.

At night on a Saturday in early July, six men in their 30s and 40s gathered at the izakaya. They got to know each other through the Internet website "Izakaya Raisan (cultism)." Nobody knows the others' profession or career. What links them is their love of izakaya.

One of them, a company employee, 44, said, "I can drink enjoyably without bothering myself." "It is enjoyable as we have the same sense of values," said a 36-year-old editorial staffer at a specialized newspaper.

The "Izakaya Raisan" website was created by Shinro Hamada, 47, an employee at a shipbuilding company. It has had more than 3.5 million hits.

Hamada visits izakaya in Tokyo and neighboring Kanagawa Prefecture on his way home from the company or on holidays, and writes notices on the web page about the food, prices and impressions of the place. He has so far written about more than 500 izakaya on the site.

Regarding what makes an izakaya attractive, Hamada said, "People in the neighborhood gather, and their talk is full of local topics. Depending on the izakaya, the atmosphere is different. At one, the proprietor is an old guy like an old-fashioned dad, and at another, she is a gentle mother. Like in a hot spring, you can welter in an atmosphere handed down from generation to generation."

The first franchise shop of the izakaya chain Yoronotaki (waterfall for the aged) Co. opened in Tokyo's Itabashi Ward in April 1966, and similar izakaya have since mushroomed.

The first of the Murasaki (come to the village) Corp. izakaya chain was opened in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward in 1973. In the same year, the Tsubohachi (8 tsubo) chain began its business by opening a shop that had a floor space of 8 tsubo (26.4 square meters), in Sapporo's Nishi Ward, Hokkaido.

Their openings coincided with the graduation from university and entry into the working world of the baby boomer generation born shortly after World War II. At that time, izakaya were considered to be places for company employees to drink with their workmates and young people to make a rumpus in groups, but that image has drastically changed in recent years.

"With the spread of chain shops, they have become beautiful, and the quality of food served has been improved. Also, the quality of service has been improved. That was needed to attract the young, and women and families," said Miki Watanabe, 46, president of Watami Co, which runs some 600 Watami and other izakaya nationwide.

Women account for 60% of the customers at Watami izakayas, and there are also many families who use the chain. Nonsmokers can also enjoy eating out for a change as there are glass barriers to separate the smoking and nonsmoking areas.

Customers can enjoy "real food" with no chemical seasoning and in a quiet atmosphere at the Zen No Ya (natural house), and married couples can eat and drink at ease at the Watamin-Chi (Watami's house), where most dishes are priced at 200 yen to 300 yen each. Thus, Watami is trying to attract as many customers as possible by responding to their needs.

Watanabe said, "When you drink with your friends, you change shops depending on them. When you go out with your family, the shop you go once a week is different from that you go to once a month. In a rich age, the lifestyle has become segmented. Izakaya have to respond to the needs of these customers."

In the high economic growth period in the 1960s, overtime and drinking afterward was the normal lifestyle for the "salaryman," but now, young people who work for companies are changing their "after 5" lifestyle.

Folk singer Kenichi Nagira, 54, said, "Izakaya were an after-5 relaxation place for baby boomers, who had to work hard and are still trapped in the feeling they have an obligation to do so. They need to find something interesting."

Hamada said, "For baby boomers and people before them, izakaya and cheap drinking places were places to take their mind off their companies. But now, they are places to enjoy a free time."

© 2006 Kyodo News. August 9, 2006
© The Japan Times, August 15, 2006



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