On a warm June evening, a 20-something bartender donned a hoodie and walked to a bar on an upper floor of an unlit building on a small side street in western Tokyo.
“I kind of got my head down, trying to look as least suspicious as possible,” he says, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect his identity and employment status. According to restrictions imposed by authorities, bars were asked not to sell alcohol and to close shop at 8 p.m. — he shouldn’t have been able to visit any bar.
It was a five-minute walk from where he worked; the streets were crowded. Most people were young and gathered in groups, and many were visibly intoxicated even though the crowds, he says, were smaller in size than on similar summer nights years earlier.
“I’m about to kind of knock on the door and not really sure what to do,” he continues. But he notices a small handwritten sign taped to the door: It says that the bar was closed, and specified a date range, which roughly corresponded to Tokyo’s third state of emergency, from April 23 through June 20, 2021.
“It looks as closed as it could possibly be,” he says. The bartender knew the owner had been accepting government money, which was paid to establishments that obeyed requests to refrain from liquor sales and close early. In other words, the bar had to stay closed or risk losing its government subsidies.
He calls the owner’s cell. It rings six times. “How many?” the owner asks in Japanese. Noise in the background suggests the bar is full.
“It’s just me,” the 20-something responds.
“Where are you?”
“I’m at the front door.”
The owner opens the door and leads him into the bar.
“Every single person stops what they’re doing, and they all look to see who has joined,” he says, adding that many of the customers were regulars at the bar where he worked. “Everything just carries on as if nothing had happened.” He joins them at the counter for a beer.
In recent months, Prohibition-style scenes like this have played out across the capital. Since Tokyo’s third state of emergency in April 2021, a pervasive but hushed rebellion has flowed across the city.
As Japan’s states of emergency drag on (the country is currently in its fourth), numerous establishments no longer comply with government requests and defiantly operate until late in the evening. According to The Mainichi Shimbun, by August 2021 over 40% of bars in Shinjuku, Shibuya and elsewhere remained open past the 8 p.m. curfew.
Some bars have rejected government money, operating with normal hours past the requested closure time; others accepted government money but remained open anyway as semi-secret, COVID-era “speakeasies.”
“We will urge eating and drinking establishments to comply with our requests; if they do not, in accordance with the law, we will enforce specific requests and commands, etc. where applicable,” says a representative from the bureau of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government responsible for disaster preparedness. Yet the government does not know the number of businesses involved with such illicit dealings.
It wasn’t always this way. When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared the first state of emergency on April 7, 2020, the bartender breathed a sigh of relief. The windowless, whisky-toting record bar where he worked closed its doors.
He expected the closure to be a short-lived, one-month respite. He and his colleagues gathered on Friday nights to drink, converse and spin records. They bought cheap scotch and blocks of ice at the 7-Eleven down the street. Behind the bar, they made highballs and gimlets — sweet and sour mixtures of sugar, lime and gin that cascaded over blocks of surprisingly high-quality convenience-store ice.
Soon, some of the regulars, many then sequestered to their apartments, peeked into the bar and occasionally stopped by for a drink. Some brought dinner from nearby restaurants, sharing their bounty with staff.
“We would sit there talking about music,” he says, describing how they’d “rock out to some Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin, before they go home to another stressful week of working at home and feeling lonely.”
During the second state of emergency, from Jan. 7 through March 22, the bar closed again and the routine continued. On Jan. 9, The Asahi Shimbun pronounced, “Tokyo nightlife pretty much dead by 8 p.m. as new rules kick in.”
The owner received a government subsidy, which was accorded to compliant restaurants and bars, that amounted to ¥60,000 per day. This meant places that usually began service at 7 p.m., like where the bartender worked, would not open at all. Still, establishments across the city largely complied.
But as financial losses began to mount, a feeling of disillusionment began to set in: ¥60,000 per day was insufficient. “I can get monetary compensation of only 40% of sales, which is too little to cover fixed costs such as rent,” said an anonymous bar owner, who continued to serve alcohol.
“People were saying, ‘All right, we did our part by agreeing to the state of emergency, but this is not taking us anywhere,’” the bartender says. “We have already seen what this has done to us before.”
In April, on the eve of the third state of emergency, the owners of various neighborhood bars where the bartender worked met to discuss future plans. He explains how they discussed “Who is going to stay open secretly, who is going to actually do business upfront and who is going to actually stay closed.”
On April 23, as the third state of emergency began, his bar stayed open and eschewed government support, conducting its business on the books: “We were doing business regularly from 7 at night until 3 in the morning.”
It became the neighborhood hangout. The crowd swelled after midnight. It hasn’t closed since.
“To imagine, you know, 100 years ago, this might have happened in the United States in Prohibition,” he muses.
“Who would have ever thought that it would ever come down to something like this?”
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