“Learn Japanese”: Tokyo Izakaya Closes After Owner’s Social Media Outburst

“Learn Japanese”: Tokyo Izakaya Closes After Owner’s Social Media Outburst

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Japanese Speakers Only
Picture: まちゃー / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
A restaurant in Tokyo had to close temporarily after its owner ranted on social media about a non-Japanese couple who came to the store.

Japan is experiencing a huge influx of tourists. As a result, some stores and restaurants are struggling with how to handle customers who don’t speak Japanese. Learn why one restaurant owner took out his frustration on social media – and had to close his store shortly after.

“I’d learn English if I came to an English-speaking country”

The restaurant in question is Kadoya, an izakaya (alcoholic drinks and small plates) shop in Tokyo’s Sumida City. The owner recently took to their X (formerly Twitter) account to relate how a “white couple” came into his store. They asked, in English, if the store had an English menu. The owner says they replied “no” in Japanese.

That, normally, would have been the end of that. Except the owner continued to rant online: “This is Japan. If I went to an English-speaking country, I’d speak English. Make the effort to speak Japanese in Japan. If that’s a hassle, bring an interpreter.”

The rant didn’t stop there, however.

“Indigenous Japanese might not know this. But if you go to another country, speaking that country’s (region’s) language is taken for granted. Like back in the day in Barcelona, you couldn’t not only get away with English, you couldn’t speak Spanish either. Everyone spoke Catalan. Can stupid Japanese people finally stop with this ‘we lost the war’ mentality?”

The owner finishes with a common complaint other restaurants have expressed. They used to accept orders from foreigners who didn’t speak Japanese – but it took too much time and was “tedious.”

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Reception and (temporary) closure

The thread’s top post generated over 65,000 likes and 10,000 retweets. While some people sympathized with the owner, others took them to task for their attitude.

One comment, with over 2,000 likes, reads, “This doesn’t seem like something worth fighting over? I’ve been rescued myself going overseas and finding an English menu available. You don’t have to know English but currently it’s spreading as the world’s lingua franca, and knowing it brings big benefits for both companies and individuals.”

Another poster concurred, claiming it’s “mean-spirited” to reply the way the shopkeeper did. “10 years ago, when I asked foreigners what they thought of Japanese people, they’d uniformly say ‘they’re pretty gentle!’ But now I’m hearing some say, ‘They’re so cold!’ I guess we’re over capacity [of tourists].”

On Unseen Japan’s X account, commenters also split the difference. Many said that, while the shop owner was within their rights to refuse service in English, they could’ve done so without being a jerk.

The controversy seems to have taken its toll. On the 21st, the owner reported they were temporarily closing the store due to “mental and physical stress” from the controversy. However, instead of deleting any of their tweets or apologizing, they’ve continued to tweet through it. In their closure message, they snarked, “I don’t know when we’re opening again, but it’ll be as a bar that doesn’t depend on oh-so-precious white personages who can’t read Japanese.”

In subsequent tweets, they lambasted Nikkan Sports for its coverage and complained that they’d entered X’s Trending topics alongside Sugar Baby Riri.

Tweet from Kadoya shopowner lamenting trending alongside Sugar Baby Riri (Itadaki Joshi Riri)

Are tourists driving out the regulars?

Customers enjoying themselves at a coffee shop
Picture: 8×10 / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

There’s little doubt the shopowner could’ve responded…well, better than this. At the same time, they’re echoing concerns shared by a number of other businesses. Many say they’re struggling to keep up with the influx of visitors to Japan.

Japan gets most of its tourists from South Korea, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the United States. To handle this, most businesses have settled on at least supporting English on menus. However, in a recent survey by reservation site TableCheck, some 70% of restaurants said they had no plan for serving inbound tourists.

One factor that makes it hard to bridge the gap is that tourists and restaurants have different concerns. A 2016 survey by the Japan Tourism Agency found that tourists’ top concerns were language-based. They struggled with how to order food and find restaurants. On the other hand, stores’ top concerns were customers not understanding local manners and those who canceled reservations without notice.

In the TableCheck survey, the primary reason for not catering to inbound visitors is that translating menus is too hard (or expensive). However, at least 10% of respondents said that serving more tourists drives their regulars away. (Another 15% or so said tourists “don’t fit the stroe’s atmosphere” – which may or may not have racial connotations depending on the respondent.)

Walks-in are a challenge

President Online notes that most high-end Japanese restaurants are well-equipped to cater to foreign diners. The problem often comes from smaller walk-in shops – izakaya, soba, udon, ramen, teppanyaki, okonomiyaki, etc. – that tourists drop into because they want to experience authentic Japanese cooking.

According to data from the Ministry of Internal Affairs & Communications, over 80% of the staff at such small locations are part-time workers. That makes it hard to find and train people who can cater to guests in more than one language. Many of these businesses are also struggling to restaff after the pandemic.

Other factors that play a role in catering to tourists include the delayed advent of cashless payments in Japan and the country’s low level of English education. While businesses are making good headway on the former, there are few short-term fixes for the latter (outside of increased immigration).

Strategies for handling the influx

TableCheck interface showing how the site supports up to 18 languages.

Some stores are devising new strategies to cater to both crowds. President Online notes one okonomiyaki shop in Hiroshima that has a “Prefectural Residents Night” (県民の夜; kenmin no yoru). One night per week, only people who live in Hiroshima Prefecture can enter the store.

It’s also getting easier to book a reservation online if you don’t speak Japanese. TableCheck, the Toreta app, Omakase, and Tabelog now support English. Tabelog also supports Mandarin, Cantonese, and Korean. Meanwhile, TableCheck supports a whopping 18 languages.

Machine translation can also play a part. While not perfect, smartphone translation apps can help guests and staff bridge the communication gap in situations that require more than pointing at a picture on a menu.

Another way to avoid this situation entirely is to hire a local interpreter to show you around. If you’re coming to Japan soon, contact Unseen Japan Tours. We can create a custom itinerary and act as your Japanese-fluent guides to Tokyo, Osaka, and beyond.

Sources

「外国人お断り」と書くと炎上してしまう…英語がまったくダメな零細飲食店は、押し寄せる訪日客をどうすべきか. President Online

「日本では日本語を喋る努力をしろ」外国人接客への投稿で炎上店主が「お詫びと休業のお知らせ」. Nikkan Sports

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Jay Allen

Jay is a resident of Tokyo where he works as a reporter for Unseen Japan and as a technial writer. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) and is fervently working on his Kanji Kentei Level 2 certification.

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