Business / Corporate

Japan's restaurant chains cut overnight hours to help workers, stem losses

by Daisuke Kikuchi

Staff Writer

Like convenience stores, many nationwide restaurant chains used to stay open 24 hours a day, targeting younger generations who want to dine or sip beer in the late-night hours.

But amid a decline in the number of nighttime customers, many operators are starting to close around midnight. And as cases of karoshi, or death from overwork, continue to make headlines, closing early is seen as a way to prevent long working hours at such establishments to ensure a better working environment.

Last week, Skylark Co., the operator of restaurant chains including Gusto, Jonathan’s and Bamiyan, said about 80 percent of all its 987 eateries that currently operate around the clock will be closed between 2 a.m. and 7 a.m. starting in April.

Skylark spokeswoman Mai Kitaura said the company has been shortening restaurant business hours since 2013 following a decline in the number of customers after midnight.

But the latest decision was made to “improve the work-life balance of the employees,” Skylark President Makoto Tani said in a statement.

Such moves are becoming an industry-wide trend.

Another major restaurant operator, Royal Host Co., announced in November that all its stores will be closed at least several hours a day starting in January.

“During the 1980s and the 90s, it was common for young people to eat out after midnight. (But) the numbers of customers are decreasing in the midnight hours,” Norihisa Sasaki, president of Royal Host, said on a TV program for Fuji News Network TV in November.

Shorter working hours have also allowed all restaurants to provide better services during their busiest hours in the day, Royal Host spokeswoman Fujimi Tamura said in an email.

“Since around 2011, we have been reviewing our business hours to maintain the quality of services and products offered to customers during lunch and dinner time,” she said.

But the decision was aimed at “improving the working environment of the employees,” she wrote.

Long working hours at eateries came under the spotlight after the June 2008 suicide of Mina Mori, a 26-year-old employee at a Watami izakaya pub in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, was recognized in 2012 as being caused by overwork.

Before she committed suicide, Mori had worked up to 141 hours a month in overtime at the pub, well over the karoshi threshold of 80 hours a month.

McDonald’s Japan has also been shortening business hours at its outlets.

The fast food restaurant once had up to 1,857 outlets that operated around the clock. But the number had declined to 809 as of September, said McDonald’s spokesman Kenji Kaniya.

“We believe that since the Great East Japan Earthquake, the consumption behavior of our customers changed, and our customers don’t necessarily demand for 24-hour operations,” he said.

Instead, it decided to improve the quality of service during the lunch and dinner hours and cut labor and utility costs, he said.

To ensure a better working environment, customers should also refrain from demanding that restaurants offer nonstop services, said Munenori Hotta, a professor at Miyagi University’s food services industry department.

“I wouldn’t say operating around the clock is a necessary evil. Services are all about meeting customers’ needs,” said Hotta.

“However, it would be tough for restaurants in rural areas, for example, to meet the demands for similar services offered in Tokyo. Consumers too, should be more aware of that situation,” he added.