One recent evening near Shimbashi Station in Tokyo, a mix of drinkers at varying states of inebriation — salarymen who had just finished work and other revelers — had gathered for a casual open-air drink, in what has become an increasingly common scene across the capital.
While drinking with friends on the street with booze bought from a convenience store has long been a popular activity in Tokyo’s centers of youth culture, such as Shibuya, the practice has spread in recent weeks as the weather has warmed and restaurants and bars have faced closure requests due to the state of emergency.
Drinkers might be savoring the opportunity to maintain a social life amid the coronavirus pandemic, but authorities have been less welcoming.
“I immediately request people stop drinking on the street, which has been an issue recently,” Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said April 28. “The risk of infection is still there even if you are outside.”
In conjunction with the police, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government is stepping up patrols to curtail drinking on the street. Outside Shimbashi Station, a mix of police officers and metropolitan government staff members stood with signs bearing instructions such as “stay home” or “go home early” — instructions that mostly drew curious looks or prompted people to snap a photo or take a video for social media. Some groups were gathered a stone's throw from a police box, but officials on patrol said that the best they could do is ask people to stop drinking and hope that they comply.
“It just cannot be helped, since more people gather as more people drink on the streets, and that attracts more people to do the same,” said Toru Shimomura, 32, who was drinking with a group of friends near the station exit.
The metropolitan government’s messages are not only fighting widespread fatigue over social distancing, but the perception that outdoor socializing is generally a safer activity — certainly compared with gatherings at home or in izakaya pubs.
“You don't have to worry too much when you are outside since ventilation is done naturally,” said Ayaka Takahashi, 25, who was drinking outside the station in front of a large statue of a steam train, a local landmark.
Experts are much more cautious, however.
“Though it is generally said that being outside poses a lower risk in terms of infection … the risk increases as conversation continues between people eating and drinking at close distance,” said Shinichi Yokota, a professor at Sapporo Medical University. “At the end of the day, drinking at home (on your own) would be the most advisable option. Even when you drink outdoors, spit can travel to a wide area, as people talk louder while drinking alcohol in large groups.”
Safety concerns aside, for many, it is a cheaper option compared with drinking at restaurants and bars. Despite showing signs of recovery in the wake of the nation's first state of emergency, which was in effect in April and May last year, the economy has been hit by two subsequent states of emergency, with a knock-on effect on people’s livelihoods and spending.
“To be honest, street drinking is a financially reasonable option, since you can't spend too much money on drinking when the economy is this bad,” Takahashi said. “Instead, it makes sense to have just one drink here and go home, which is cheaper.”
Staff writer Chris Russell contributed to this report.
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