The Changing Face of Drinking in Japan

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It’s hard to describe what a Japanese izakaya (居酒屋) is, because no direct analogy to American culture holds up well.  They’re closer to what we would call “tapas” in the US, though not as overpriced. They’re a bit like the American bar or the English pub, though not quite as lonely and sad.

Izakaya have several hallmarks:

  • Socially oriented. Izakaya are the place you come with friends or colleagues after work (or for nijikai, the second round of drinking for the night) and enjoy one another’s company.
  • Small, affordable plates. While tapas plates in an American city will typically run you from 7 to 14 dollars a plate, most izakaya plates run between 200 and 700 yen (about $1.90 to $6.70 US).
  • Cheap booze. Cheap beer, nihonshu (Japanese rice wine) and highballs (whisky shot with a mixer) are the order of the day, and usually run a mere 300 to 500 yen per glass. Some shops also offer a two-hour-long 飲み放題 (nomihoudai), or “all you can drink” option, for a flat fee.

I’m a huge fan of a good izakaya. But I’m also an American with a lot of disposable income. For Japanese, izakaya are starting to fall out of favor. Taking their place are restaurants and small eateries catering to choinomi (ちょい飲み; just a little drinking). New chain establishments such as Nagasaki Chanpon (長崎ちゃんぽん), a.k.a. Ringerhut, offer prices as good or cheaper than izakaya. Many existing chain fast food shops, like Yoshinoya and Matsuya, are also adding choinomi menus. While izakayas are structured around people taking a table for one or two hours and continuing to place small orders, these choinomi spots cater to those who are looking to grab a small, quick bite with friends and just a glass of beer or two before heading home.

Why are izakaya falling behind the times? Hard economic conditions is one reason. But retail expert Saitou Masahi, writing for Mag2News [Japanese], points out a few additional factors:

居酒屋は基本的に気軽に利用できる仕組みにはなっていません。「お通しが半ば強制的に出され、料金を支払わなければならないシステムの店が大半です。立地はビルの2階以上の階や地下に位置することも少なくありあません。そのため、気軽に立ち寄って低価格で楽しむのには適していないといえるでしょう。

Fundamentally, izakaya do not favor casual use. In over half of all cases, appetizers are just brought to the table, and customers are compelled to pay. And the number of izakaya located on the second floor or higher of a building isn’t small. So you could say these places aren’t suitable for just dropping in and enjoying a cheap meal.

But izakaya don’t have to worry just about their competitors – they’re also losing ground due to the change in attitudes among the young towards drinking. Recent surveys show a whopping 30% of Japanese in their 20s say they’re not drinking at all [Japanese]. That’s a stark contrast to those in their 50s: 34% of men over 50 report drinking every single day. Since 2014, the number of people who report drinking every day has dropped a whopping 17.3%, and the number of people who have sworn off The Devil’s Brew altogether has fallen by 3.3%.

If that weren’t bad enough (well, for izakaya – I’m sure it does wonders for the country’s mental and physical health), when Japanese do drink, they by and large prefer to do it at home. While Americans also sport a preference for drinking at home (particularly wine), a survey from a couple of years back [Japanese] shows that over 85% of Japanese prefer brown paper bags.

All of these factors conspire to favor casual drinking of the kind offered by restaurants taking advantage of the choinomi trend, and spell dark times ahead for a lauded Japanese tradition. Whether izakaya will be able to innovate to take advantage of the changing tides of Japanese culture remains to be seen.

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