News photo
Osamu Kouke and his family pose in front of Daruma, an “izakaya” pub he opened 35 years ago in Tokyo’s Monzennakacho area.

“This used to be an area of factories, and men working at Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries Co. and – students at Tokyo University of Mercantile Marine were our main customers,” said Osamu Kouke, 73, who opened Daruma 35 years ago.

“It was noisy with heated talk about the company or the college (now named Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology). But these days, most men drink quietly because they are accompanied by women. They don’t want to leave a bad impression,” he said.

Izakaya, whether a one-off neighborhood dive or a cookie-cutter outlet of a nationwide chain, have evolved their strategies for the sake of survival as rival establishments encroach on their turf.

The first franchise shop of the Yoronotaki Co. izakaya chain opened in Itabashi Ward, Tokyo, in April 1966, and similar chains have since flourished.

The first Murasaki Corp. outlet opened in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo, in 1973. That same year, the Tsubohachi chain launched its first outlet, with a floor space of just 8 tsubo (26.4 sq. meters), in Nishi Ward, Sapporo.

Their arrival coincided with the graduation and entry into the working world of the baby boomer generation. At that time, izakaya were places where salarymen drank with their colleagues and young people got rowdy and drunk in groups. That image has in large part been transformed in recent years as more emphasis is placed on quality, and couples and families are targeted.

“The spread of chains has made izakaya more attractive, and the quality of food served has improved. Also, service has gotten better. 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 percent of Watami’s customers, and families are a common sight. There are also glass-partitioned sections for nonsmokers.

Watamin-Chi izakaya, where most dishes are 200 yen to 300 yen each, are popular with couples seeking reasonably priced fare.

Shinro Hamada, 47, an employee at a shipbuilding company who runs the Izakaya Raisan (cultism) Web site, said izakaya provide an atmosphere handed down from generations.

“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 like an old-fashioned dad, and at another, she is a gentle mother,” said Hamada, who visits izakaya in Tokyo and Kanagawa Prefecture and has about 500 listed on his Web site.

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