The economic downturn continues to affect all parts of Japanese society with long-term repercussions for some. Restaurant operators in Japan saw a 1.5 percent drop in total sales in 2009. That figure may seem small, but it’s the first decline in six years. This survey by the Japan Food Service Association shows that the food-loving Japanese are tightening their purse strings as never before.

The number of customers and the amount they spent dropped last year. Japanese-style pubs including izakaya were especially hard hit, with 6 percent lower income. Customers at traditional-style coffee shops (kissaten) tumbled 5 percent. The only sector to benefit was fast-food chains with a 2.5 percent rise in revenues and 2.7 percent gain in customers. That marks a potentially significant shift in Japan’s overall spending.

Many people who would have eaten out at restaurants just two years ago now dine at home, perhaps munching on leftovers, according to a recent poll by a nonprofit group, the Doggy Bag Committee. Apparently, 90 percent of people in the Kanto, Kansai and Chubu regions would take leftovers home from restaurants. If this trend continues, asking for a doggy bag after a meal may become as common as saying “Gochisou-sama deshita.”

Japanese culture has long respected practicalities and shunned wastefulness. However, the current trend of not eating out signals much deeper concerns about personal spending. The drop in the number of people dining out may not seem large compared with downturns in other sectors of the economy, but restaurants comprise a vital part of consumer spending. Eating out often combines with other consumer activities, like shopping and entertainment. When one drops, they all may drop.

It would be a pity, too, if the fast-food chains’ low-price menus wiped out the cuisine and dining experience of the traditional Japanese izakaya and kissaten. The shift to fast food may only be temporary, but let’s hope that economic forces will not just benefit those places that offer the cheapest choices for the longest time. The tradition of dining out is deeply rooted in Japanese socializing customs and hopefully the decline will not be permanent.

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