Luxury seafood demand soft as Japan’s emergency declaration hits restaurants

Published on
April 24, 2020

As Japan grapples with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, luxury seafood is taking a hit from drastically reduced service at restaurants.

Measures taken in Japan have varied between different prefectures. At a news conference on 9 April, Hideaki Omura, the governor of Aichi Prefecture, said he had asked the central government to add his prefecture to the list of prefectures covered under the state of emergency declared by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on 7 April.

That declaration covered Tokyo, Osaka, Saitama, Kanagawa, Chiba, Hyogo, and Fukuoka. Aichi, where  both the major city of Nagoya and car company Toyota are located, declared its own state of emergency on 10 April.

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases nationwide as of 24 April was 12,429. A total of 328 people have died of the disease in Japan, with 2,408 recoveries.

Measures under Japan’s state of emergency are weak compared with those in China, Europe and in some U.S. states. The prefectural governors can only request businesses to close – compliance is voluntary – though the cohesive Japanese society tends to follow rules more conscientiously than elsewhere.

The only compulsory provisions are that masks and medical supplies and land or facilities may be requisitioned for use by the government: For example, the government might order a supplier to sell masks, or use land for the construction of temporary hospitals without the permission of land owners.

Companies across the country have instituted work-from-home arrangements where possible. When on-site workers are needed, they are put into two shifts that work on alternate days. Flex time is used to reduce rush-hour crowding on trains and buses. Some stores are reducing their hours and spacing is requested at queues.

Large venues such as museums, art galleries, theme parks and tourist attractions, are closed, as are most schools and universities. Visitors are not allowed to view the Toyosu Wholesale Market, though the market business continues.

Many measures vary by prefecture. In Tokyo, the government is asking people not to visit bars, karaoke parlors, and other nightspots. Theaters, sports clubs, pachinko parlors, and department stores are also requested to close.

While business at Japanese izakaya pubs is now about 10 percent of what it was, many are demanding that the government compensate them for lost revenue before they are willing to shut up shop. Tokyo has the budget to do this, but other prefectures are cash strapped, so in Osaka, the governor only requested restaurants to close by 8 p.m., which avoids the obligation to subsidize them.

Domestic seafood supply chains are working normally, but international airfreight – important for many sushi ingredients – has been interrupted. Cargo that usually travels in the holds of passenger planes is backed up, since many flights have been cancelled.

Fishermen are actively working, but there is a major shift from restaurant meals to take-out or ingredients for home cooking. As a result, demand for luxury items like bluefin tuna and pufferfish has plummeted, but reasonably priced foods are doing well. Canned fish is widely sold out.

The government announced a JPY 108 trillion (USD 1 trillion, EUR 910 million) stimulus package. It provides payments to those who have had to stay home to care for children because of school cancellations. There are also government guaranteed loans for small and medium businesses. However, the application process is similar to a regular loan application and requires that a decline in sales and other revenue must be verified and certified by the head of the municipality. Thus, it is time-consuming.

Many restaurants and small food processors do not have the means to meet current obligations, such as meeting payroll or paying rent without quick access to cash. It is uncertain that they will be able to remain viable until the measures are lifted.  

Photo courtesy of Walaiporn Paysawat/Shutterstock 

Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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