The strange revival of Japanese snack bars
Sunakku, or snack bars, offer little more than a karaoke machine and the hospitality of a mama san (female owner) in her 60s or 70s. They’re known as places for middle-aged, worn out salary men to entertain their demanding bosses. Recently, however, Tokyo 20 somethings have started to frequent these old bars. Although the new clientele are doing pretty much the same things as their predecessors – chatting, drinking and singing – their underlying reasons for being there are quite different.
The demise of club-culture is one of the triggers of young people’s interest in sunakku. Traditionally, nightclubs were seen as an integral part of youth culture in Japan, just as they are in other countries. However, the Entertainment Business Control Law restricted late-night dancing at clubs, driving Japanese nightlife culture to the brink of breakdown. Legendary clubs suffered repeated crackdowns and – in the worst cases – orders to close. Despite a recent administrative relaxation, the government’s authoritarian stance, which had helped create a public stigma against clubbers, left a huge dent in youth culture. Against a backdrop of control, Japanese young people started looking for other places that could offer a sense of liberation and autonomy.
Rooms full of suits singing karaoke aren’t exactly an obvious solution. To find out why they’d become so popular, I made several visits to a sunakku in Yotsuya Arakicho with a group of friends and spoke with the young adults hanging out there. Their comments were revealing.
At Sunakku Fuji, for example, there was an interesting dynamic at play: a 70-something owner, middle-aged salary men, and young adults were all present. Middle-aged men tend to come here with their colleagues, and usually, the hierarchy within the group is apparent. Younger groups seemed to enjoy being in the company of the mama san and the older salary men. After a while, even the youngest patrons started singing popular songs from the Showa period, songs they probably heard their parents sing or saw on music TV shows counting down the 100 greatest songs of all time. Both young and old were intent on livening up the atmosphere, creating a sense of camaraderie while singing and shaking maracas, and spreading solidarity inside the bar.
Interacting with older working men, young adults were able to learn about the hardships and struggles of the salary man lifestyle, which means spending decades devoting themselves to a company. The middle-aged salary men are reminiscent of their baby boomer parents, who worked hard and played a role in the rapid economic growth period of Japan. They appreciate the ‘good old’ Japanese values of their parents' generation, which they thought were long lost.
A female customer in her early 20s
In addition to the positive and nostalgic feelings they evoke, snack bars also allow young professionals to feel a sense of subtle rebellion against the traditional values their parents embraced. Unlike a more conventional club or bar, the multigenerational environment offered by snack bars can facilitate a renewed sense of appreciation among otherwise dejected youth.
And finally, there’s sunakkus’ unbeatable sense of authenticity. Sunakkus allow younger, trendier patrons to experience a welcome respite from their highly SNS (Social Network Service) oriented world. All the cool bars and clubs in Tokyo are featured in magazines or on the Instagram accounts of hip Tokyoites. Even if you are lucky enough to find a one-of-a-kind place for you and your mates, it is likely to be discovered by others soon after.
Sunakkus, on the other hand, tend to be sequestered along semi-hidden local paths, and they’re not venues you can just find on Tripadvisor. The ultimate sunakku experience involves venturing into dark basements and pushing open heavy doors to get in. Ironically, given their lack of conventional cool, snack bars are also extremely photogenic. Their typical décor stands out on millennials’ Instagram feeds. Showcasing sunakkus online enables younger patrons to differentiate themselves from their peers – and gives them cause to brag about finding their own secret Eden.
Young professionals are a generation in transition, staking out a middle ground between adulthood responsibilities and carefree adolescence. They don’t want to be categorized as either, no longer feeling young, but nevertheless sensing a clear distance from, and resistance to, the culture of their parents. While enjoying expressing themselves online, and desperately wanting to connect with peers, they have a strong desire to escape their hyper connected world.
What might that tell brands wishing to cater to this market? Maybe that unique, off-the-grid spaces have the potential to nurture new relationships. Brands that offer their consumers free spaces, in which they can explore and chose from a variety of identities and values, are more likely to succeed.
This post is part of Fortnightly Youth Insights (FYI), a Lens series exploring emerging trends and currents in global youth culture
- Article by Ikumi Taneya