FUKUOKA – The aging of owners coupled with local administrative restrictions are taking a toll on the famed open-air food carts in the center of Kyushu’s economy, transportation and culture.
The “yatai” stalls first made their appearance in the form of bicycle-drawn carts shortly after the end of World War II, offering sake, beer, a type of stew called “oden” and ramen.
In their heyday, more than 400 of them lined the streets of Fukuoka, primarily in the Hakata and Tenjin districts. The number is now down to 166, but some proprietors predict a third of them will be out of business in five years.
The gloomy outlook reflects the aging of stall operators and restrictive measures enforced by local government officials.
In other Japanese cities, yatai have already disappeared due to crackdowns by officials worried about sanitation standards. However, owners in Fukuoka established an association in 1950 in a campaign to keep their stalls in operation.
In 1995, conducting business on the street was banned for new stalls when the prefectural police force invoked a stipulation in the Road Traffic Law, and decided not to allow newcomers to establish new yatai.
In the face of residents’ complaints that the stalls were unsanitary and obstructive to pedestrians, the city drew up guidelines in July 2000 on measures for garbage disposal and to ensure pedestrian space.
The city prohibited stall owners from transferring permits to occupy pavement to other people, except for spouses and children who relied on income from the open-air business for their livelihood.
Yoshinobu Ando, a 67-year-old adviser to the Fukuoka food and drink business association made up of stall owners, said the business is in danger unless younger people are willing to enter the business.
The stalls are chiefly run by couples in their 50s to 60s, who cannot always cope with the physical strain of keeping them open regularly. There have been only four cases of parents passing on stalls to their offspring since the municipal guidelines went into effect.
Meanwhile, about 30 stalls have shut down in the last seven years.
And some residents still complain about stall operators who allegedly ignore the guidelines and set up chairs on sidewalks.
The association decided at a meeting in July to organize a group to check on violations. It aims to ensure the stalls’ survival by adhering to the rules, and looking for the municipality to ease the ban on transferring permits to third parties.
Teruhide Yasuno, 71, president of the Hakata food and drink business association, described the stalls as a part of Fukuoka’s culture. “We cannot let it fade,” he said. “To keep the stalls open, we want our customers to cooperate with us in running the business and following the rules.”