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In June 2020, Takuya Komuro, the manager and sommelier at Diavola, an Italian restaurant in Omiya, Saitama Prefecture, heard an announcement on TV that promised to revive excitement for Japan’s struggling hospitality industry.

The first wave of the pandemic was in full swing, and seat capacity in his restaurant was restricted to 50%. But a news report flashing on the screen caught his eye: The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT) had announced the creation of the Corona Senyo Tokurei (“Special COVID Permit for Road Occupation”), a temporary measure which relaxed the country’s previously stringent regulations on outdoor dining.

In the face of COVID-19, cities like New York have experienced a growth of outdoor dining, even during the frigid winter months. The circulation of air outdoors minimizes transmission risks, which are heightened when congregating in tight quarters; dining rooms moved from inside to outside, and streets in major urban centers across the globe became packed with chairs and tables. In Japan, too, there has been hype and excitement. Websites like TokyoTerraces popped up to help risk-averse diners find restaurants where they could eat en plein air.

Komuro was excited: Here was a chance to place tables and chairs on public land, just outside the doors of the restaurant, which would have been illegal in the past without overcoming a protracted bureaucratic process. “I thought it could be great to have a standing space to have a drink, as you have in Italy for aperitivo,” he says. “I wanted the space to be used by as many customers as possible.”

The MLIT heralded outdoor dining as the “new normal,” and undertook two sets of modifications to ease the complex regulations on the usage of public land for outdoor dining: the aforementioned Senyo Tokurei and a revised Road Act — passed in May 2020 and first enforced in November.

On the same day the MLIT announced the temporary measure in June, Rui Izumiyama, a professor at Nihon University, wrote in a blog that it was a “chance to make (Japan’s) roads into environments centered on pedestrians.” A revival of outdoor dining seemed possible, if not imminent.

Outdoor dining dreams: UDCO’s ideal plan for the Omiya Street Terrace called for flexible use of the space. | COURTESY OF UDCO
Outdoor dining dreams: UDCO’s ideal plan for the Omiya Street Terrace called for flexible use of the space. | COURTESY OF UDCO

On the surface, Tokyo offers a promising cityscape for restaurant-laden streets and communal public spaces.

“Tokyo has a lot of potential,” says Jorge Almazan, a practicing architect and associate professor at Keio University. “People don’t depend on cars (so) it is one of the best cities where you can reduce traffic without problems.”

Despite this potential, outdoor dining has yet to materialize at scale. According to May 2020 data from Tabelog, only 3.2% of Tokyo’s over 130,000 restaurants have a terrace. “Street terraces” — outdoor patios, often found in traditional shōtengai shopping streets — popped up in Futako-Tamagawa, Shibuya, Yushima and Ueno, Omiya and elsewhere in the greater Tokyo area during the spring and summer. But these have been uncommon, and often temporary.

One reason for the disappointing numbers could be the persistence of bureaucratic complexities and absence of accessible channels, even for owners like Komuro.

To place tables and chairs on public land at the entrance of a restaurant requires two permits — one issued by the road administrator, which is usually the municipality, and another issued by the police. Komuro intended to take advantage of the simplified procedures that allowed stores to rent public land for free, but single stores could not apply under the temporary measures.

“The permit has to be requested by the shōtengai,” he says, adding that, despite Ichibangai, his local shōtengai association’s interest, coordinating a single application for a group of restaurant managers and owners that detailed furniture, hours of operation and longitudinal drawings was difficult, if not impossible.

The turning point for Komuro came with the arrival of the Urban Design Center Omiya (UDCO), a local association that works on urban development. Since 2017, the center has been experimenting with public spaces in Omiya, and has established an array of street terraces — often temporary, but usually vibrant. With the change in regulation, UDCO was after new, temporary spaces, which led it to Ichibangai.

“The shōtengai was facing long-lasting problems. Store managers did not know each other and there was a lack of interaction within the community,” says Shun Niitsu, a design researcher at UDCO. Staff, already initiated into the legal complexities of outdoor dining, organized the restaurants and completed the paperwork and permit applications. “One of our goals is to show a path of sustained development for the shōtengai.”

On Aug. 1, 2020, the Omiya Street Terrace at Ichibangai opened, brimming with makeshift chairs and tables and white strips that cordoned different sections off. Diavola ended up with a table for two and a retrofitted barrel set in front of the restaurant.

“New regular customers that eat and drink outdoors have emerged during the pandemic,” Komuro says. “I think that without the UDCO coordinating us, we wouldn’t have been able to do this.”

But it was a difficult, months-long discussion process for what ended up being a few meters of outdoor space per restaurant. While UDCO’s original plan called for more flexible use of the space, local authorities denied several facets on account of safety concerns.

And by the time the chill of winter (and the second state of emergency) rolled around, the head of at least one street terrace said that business was “terribly difficult.”

Dismal numbers: According to May 2020 data from Tabelog, only 3.2% of Tokyo’s over 130,000 restaurants have a terrace. | COURTESY OF UDCO
Dismal numbers: According to May 2020 data from Tabelog, only 3.2% of Tokyo’s over 130,000 restaurants have a terrace. | COURTESY OF UDCO

Even now, as the cherry blossoms bloom and warmer spring weather arrives, the future of Japan’s new outdoor dining remains tenuous. The Senyo Tokurei is set to expire at the end of March, which will also require the new outdoor dining spaces created under the measure, including the terrace in Omiya, to close. But there’s a chance the temporary measures may be extended, and the first crop of approved restaurants and shōtengai have begun to reap the benefits of last year’s revised Road Act, which is supposed to spur long-term change.

It’s still a dismally small number. The revised act theoretically simplifies the application process, and individual stores can now request a permit for the use of public land; no longer is there a need for an agreement among neighboring restaurants. But even so, restaurant owners and managers, without the specialized knowledge or guidance of an organization like UDCO, still face many of the same hurdles as Komuro. The permit applications are muddled in technical language, the process remains complex and the regulatory obstacles are grave. As of March 2021, only around three areas have utilized the revised act.

Nevertheless, the various legal revisions and measures have planted the seeds for future change.

“Before, there was this idea that public space was uniquely in the hands of the government. It was something we shouldn’t mess with,” says Yosuke James Uchino, from the Futako Tamagawa Areamanagements, which organized the recently closed Futako Tamagawa Street Terrace. “But now things have started to change. Finally, the mindset of people managing urban space is getting closer to that in the U.S. and Europe.”

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