Businesses struggle to respond to Japan’s latest state of emergency

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A notice of temporary closure is seen at the Tobu Department Store’s Ikebukuro main outlet in Toshima Ward, Tokyo, on Saturday.

Business operators were scrambling to decide how to respond to closure requests on Saturday, the day before a new state of emergency was declared for Tokyo and three other prefectures due to a resurgence of the novel coronavirus.

Sales areas providing daily necessities can be open for business, but the definition of this term is unclear, prompting different responses among companies. There was also little time to prepare for the state of emergency, which was issued for the capital and the prefectures of Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo, inevitably throwing businesses into turmoil.

What are daily necessities?

On Saturday morning, Tobu Department Store Co.’s Ikebukuro main outlet in Tokyo decided to temporarily close all floors, with the exception of those selling items such as food. As a result, the Hokkaido Fair that had started ahead of the Golden Week holiday period ended about two weeks earlier than initially scheduled.

The department store had taken steps to prevent infections, including widening aisles and limiting the number of customers when the venue was crowded.

“We had just became able, finally, to hold events in department stores. It’s disappointing because many customers were looking forward to the event during the holiday period,” said a department store official in charge of the event.

The store will operate only a few sections, such as basement floors selling groceries, the beauty salon and sections selling eyeglasses and hearing aid devices.

Other department store operators will also continue to operate their grocery sections while closing many other sales areas.

Operators have been split over what constitutes “daily necessities” other than food.

Isetan Mitsukoshi Ltd. continues to operate some restaurants and cosmetics sections at their department stores in the prefectures subject to the state of emergency. Cosmetics are consumables, and department stores offer many high-priced products that cannot be found in drugstores.

“Many people asked us to keep open [the cosmetics sections] during the state of emergency last year,” an Isetan Mitsukoshi senior official said.

In addition to cosmetics, Daimaru Matsuzakaya Department Stores Co. will keep open the women’s handkerchief and sock sections during the state of emergency. A company official in charge said these items are “things people need on a daily basis.”

‘Everything left to us’

When a state of emergency was declared in April last year, responses differed among department store operators because they were not specifically asked to close their businesses. Isetan Mitsukoshi closed all of its stores, for example, while Takashimaya Co. kept just its food floors open.

Faced with the new state of emergency, a senior official at one department store operator said, “We’ve received a series of requests from tenants and business partners to allow them to continue to operate.” The department store operator has been busy negotiating with these parties.

“The central and local governments are drawing a vague line. In the end, they’re leaving everything to the department stores,” the official said angrily.

Takashimaya is operating only the food floors at its Osaka and Kyoto stores, but its Tokyo outlets are operating sections that sell cosmetics and some other daily necessities. As the details of the closure requests differ between the Tokyo and Osaka prefectural governments, Takashimaya examined them until the last minute before making a decision for each store, according to the official.

A senior official of another department store operator expressed frustration regarding the short period of time to prepare. “We had to decide what products we would sell within half a day after the central and prefectural governments announced [the details of closure requests],” the official said.

Food services in disarray

Operators of izakaya Japanese-style pubs have suffered a significant blow with the new state of emergency. Colowide Co. is closing stores in the affected areas that cannot make a profit without serving alcoholic beverages. Stores that can manage by serving lunch and taking other steps remain open, but with shortened business hours.

“The announcement was so sudden. We don’t have enough time to make arrangements to serve lunch,” a person in the food service industry said.

Global-Dining, Inc., which operates eating establishments such as the Gonpachi Japanese restaurants, has decided not to comply with the closure requests and will even continue to serve alcoholic beverages until late at night. The company has repeatedly insisted it would be impossible to stay in business and maintain employment if it complied with such a closure request.

Global-Dining said it would continue to operate as usual under the current state of emergency unless it receives an order from relevant local governments.

Many family restaurants and beef bowl chains have stopped serving alcoholic beverages and shortened their business hours.

In the leisure sector, Universal Studios Japan in Osaka is closed during the state of emergency, as is the Yomiuriland amusement park, which straddles Inagi, Tokyo, and Kawasaki.

Tokyo Disney Resort is located in Urayasu, Chiba Prefecture, which is not subject to the state of emergency, but it plans to stop serving alcoholic beverages from Wednesday at the request of the Chiba prefectural government.