An expansive restaurant in Tokyo’s upscale Nishi-Azabu district, Gonpachi is perhaps best known as inspiring the location of the most audacious fight scene in Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill.”

Now it’s at the center of a different kind of battle: one between authorities calling on restaurants to close early to stem the spread of the coronavirus and business owners who say such requests are pushing them past their limits.

With Japan’s virus strategy dependent on voluntary cooperation, the struggle shows the limits of its social compliance model as the pandemic drags on into a second year. Japanese authorities have singled out eating and drinking in public as the biggest source of infections, and called on bars and restaurants in regions under its state of emergency to close by 8 p.m.

“We can’t comply with the request to shorten business hours with the current level of support money from the government,” Kozo Hasegawa, the CEO of Gonpachi’s operator Global-Dining Inc., said in a statement after Japan declared its emergency this month. He said shortened hours and temporary closures didn’t contribute to curbing the virus, and expressed doubt over whether hospitals are really overwhelmed.

Protecting jobs

Experts insist that tackling infections during meals is crucial to containing the record surge in cases and avoid dragging out the emergency period, which is set to expire in just over two weeks. In an attempt to secure cooperation, Tokyo, a city famed for its culinary delights and with more Michelin stars than any other, is handing out ¥1.8 million ($17,308) a month for stores that comply with requests to shut.

But the program is one-size-fits-all, failing to take into account the size of the business or the number of employees. And unlike other prefectures, Tokyo’s subsidies only cover small- and medium-sized operations and independently-owned businesses.

That means restaurant chains led by larger corporations, often paying higher rent for premium locations, receive nothing. Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said Monday she’ll consider extending the same aid to bigger restaurants.

While many restaurants in Tokyo are following the requests in return for subsidies, others are starting to break ranks. Ikka Dining Project Ltd., which operates 71 restaurants, initially cut its hours, but then reversed course.

Pedestrians walk through an alley in Tokyo on Jan. 8. | BLOOMBERG
Pedestrians walk through an alley in Tokyo on Jan. 8. | BLOOMBERG

“Without staying open — even if that means receiving no support money from the government — we can’t protect the jobs of over 300 employees, 800 part-time workers and our suppliers,” CEO Taro Takenaga wrote. “We believe protecting their jobs is also our responsibility.”

The standoff reflects the growing inability of places with light-touch containment strategies to quell winter surges in the face of growing public fatigue. In Sweden, another country that had previously avoided strict restrictions, the government passed a new law this week to allow it to shutter businesses and fine citizens for flouting tougher rules.

A similar measure is also now being mulled in Japan as voluntary social compliance weakens.

Government ‘bullying’

Japan’s first state of emergency in the spring was a success, despite authorities being limited in their ability to enforce restrictions due to the country’s Constitution. A high level of cooperation with voluntary requests from the public and business owners helped form the country’s “Japan Model” for tackling the virus.

But with the government this time around seeking to reduce the economic damage and avoid a blanket request to limit activities, restaurants and bars most feeling the pinch are starting to push back.

People dine at a restaurant at the Ameya Yokocho market in the Ueno district of Tokyo on Dec. 30. | BLOOMBERG
People dine at a restaurant at the Ameya Yokocho market in the Ueno district of Tokyo on Dec. 30. | BLOOMBERG

“Every single time the government makes a statement, we are hit with a blow,” said Nobu Miyake, president of Fine Food Systems Co., which currently operates seven bistro-style restaurants across Tokyo and is cooperating with the requests. “It’s terrifying reading the news every day, wondering what they might say next.”

Bankruptcies in the dining sector surged to a record 780 nationwide last year, with bars and beer halls the hardest hit, according to data from research firm Teikoku Databank.

“The government shouldn’t bully the restaurants,” said Takeshi Niinami, CEO of Suntory Holdings Ltd., which supplies drinks to restaurants nationwide. Blanket restrictions even on eateries that are following infection prevention protocols are unfair, he said, calling on local authorities to carry out checks to identify offenders, as well as adjust subsidies depending on business size.

Now lunches

Experts have said one of the triggers for the current surge was increasing numbers of people eating and drinking at year-end parties, particularly in Tokyo. The period came on the back of government subsidy programs in the summer that encouraged people to travel and eat out, and coincided with colder weather that made ventilation harder and provided a more hospitable environment for the virus.

Authorities had already called for restraint and earlier closing hours even before the state of emergency was implemented. The pleas for increasingly strict restrictions have since added to the sense that the industry is being singled out.

For some, the matter was summed up by Issei Horino, president of casual Italian chain Saizeriya Co., who spoke at a news conference on Jan. 13 after authorities had called on people not to eat and drink out during the daytime, either. Saizeriya had already seen profit plunge 80% in the quarter ended November, before the current surge of infections took hold, and is cooperating with requests to close early.

“Now they’re talking about lunches?” Horino muttered, with a grim laugh. “Give us a break.”

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