May 6, 2017

Can we see the kids menu? The changing role of izakaya in Japan

Can we see the kids menu? The changing role of izakaya in Japan photo

The izakaya in Japan is often likened to the British/Irish pub. The link between the two, however, doesn't really go much beyond the shared status of a place where people drink booze, regularly, and for a reasonable price. For a start, an izakaya isn't somewhere to go for a Sunday afternoon roast dinner with the family. Spend long enough in Japan, and you'll come to see familiar patterns in izakaya patrons; generally adults of working age (izakaya are a great stress release), sometimes solo, maybe even on a date (there are some pretty spectacular izakaya out there), but typically with friends or colleagues. If you're in the mood, an izakaya can be a wholesome, unpretentious salt-of-the-earth social drinking experience. If you're not, the smoke, noise, and multiple pairs of socks that have endured a busy day's work can be irritating, at best.

It came as a surprise then when in a no-frills izakaya in the middle of that most no-frills of izakaya spots Shimbashi, Tokyo (aka Salaryman Town) on the last working day (post-work, I should add) before Golden Week a family of four took up seats at the one of the tables down from our party. OK, so a family shouldn't necessarily be a cause of surprise, but when said family consists of mom and dad accompanying two daughters who were still in their elementary schools uniforms (they couldn't have been older than about seven), everyone in the space who was still sober enough broke off conversation to have a good gawp. I could see one of the office workers sat at the next table do a quick double take between the kids and his packet of cigarettes as he briefly debated the ethics of lighting up in such proximity.   He did anyway.

And why shouldn't he (setting aside the myriad of health reasons)?

My first reaction was why on earth a young family should be out looking for food in the backstreets of Shimbashi, an area typically reserved for middle-aged office workers, looking to drink, smoke, and maybe get a massage?  But hey, it's a free country, as they say. And maybe, finding themselves in such an area explains their choice to dine in an izakaya, as that's pretty much the only option in this part of town.

Asking Japanese friends about this revealed less surprise; young families taking the kids to eat in izakaya are on the rise in Japan. The prominent thought behind this seems to be that there could be no complaint about noise should the kids play up, or get overly excited. A fair point; complaints about noise in your average izakaya would go unheard, even if they were audible.

The food also comes into play. Japan's izakaya, for the most part, are fairly all-encompassing when it comes to their menu, and even the most picky of eaters would be hard pushed not to find something they can stomach, for a reasonable price, too.

Now, one might be concerned about bad language and inappropriate stories drunkenly told. However, after years 'in country' this expat has yet to learn of any word in Japanese that translates to anything stronger than, say, 'stupid', or something equally insipid. Not that this makes it OK to use this kind of language in front of children, but perhaps the mentality on the part of parents is similar to that of my old man taking us to football matches when were were kids back home (where the language was at best colorful, at its worst, racist and violent); an important life / learning experience.

Of course, there's the issue of all that smoke, but this has to be the sole responsibility of the parent, one would have thought. For a brief moment though, the salaryman nearby thought it was his, too (although anyone who's made frequent visits to the smoking section of Japan's family restaurants may have noted a staggering lack of concern about this among some families).  Still, what concern there might be raises an interesting question; What do we think of izakaya becoming more family friendly?

One supposes that ultimately it will be market forces that determine which direction izakaya take in this regard. For now, it seems hard to imagine any great need for izakaya in Japan to appeal to the custom of the young family given that they rarely seem to be short on all-drinking, all-smoking customer numbers. But I can't confirm this. It's merely my impression, and one that is garnered from the izakaya of Shimbashi, which have an army of stressed and salaried office workers to draw from at least five nights of the week.

'Nights', however, could well be the key word here. Things are unlikely to really get going in an izakaya until around 7 pm, leaving a gaping time slot relatively untapped. This is perhaps another area where comparisons between izakaya and pubs don't stand up; The latter can appeal to daytime patrons with airy (and now smoke-free) spaces, street side views from bay windows, and often outdoor seating in pleasant garden surrounds. In the former though, it's always dark and moody, no matter the time of day.

A lack of windows, or benches and a garden haven't stopped some of Japan's izakaya in their appeals to a younger crowd. Among the Japanese friends I addressed this topic with, one of them told of colleagues whose children (in high-school) would have parties with their friends in an izakaya that offers all-you-can-eat/drink time slots to customers who aren't of the age to drink alcohol (20 years old in Japan). Do I need to qualify this by adding that alcohol isn't part of the deal?

Well, this might be good news then for frequent family-restaurant users who've grown tired of gangs (the term used loosely) of school students holding up the drink bar, but are we OK with them spreading into Japan's izakaya? Whatever market forces might have in mind, in the same way that parents might bring their children to an izakaya so as not to potentially disrupt those who were hoping for a peaceful meal, can we not say the same thing in support of people who just want to unshackle themselves of responsibility for a bit and drink, smoke, and 'F' and blind, safe in the knowledge that they are not corrupting anyone too young to know better?

To be honest, I'm not sure who we should be showing sympathy for here; parents, children, school students, workers ... all are deserving of a decent meal and a place to kick back and have fun. I remain sceptical, however, that Japan's izakaya are the omnipotent option. Of course, there's always the fear that a diluting (if that's the right term) of the izakaya is all part of preparations for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, where planners and those who seek to profit from it seem determined to make anything and everything in Japan accessible like a fast food joint. They're already taking the 'love' out of love hotels, maybe a similar fate awaits the nation's izakaya.

A you a frequent visitor to izakaya in Japan?  Would you like to see them change in anyway?  Would you take your children out for dinner in an izakaya?   Let us know in the comments.

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