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Economy

Feeling caged? Japanese swing back to restaurants and shops

Data shows reservations and sales recovering after mid-March

Pedestrians gather at the Shibuya "scramble crossing" in Tokyo on March 17. (Photo by Kohei Fujimura)

TOKYO -- Japanese consumers, who immediately toed the line after a government request to curtail outings amid the coronavirus outbreak, may be showing signs of cabin fever as they gradually return to retail spots around the country.

Though traffic at Tokyo restaurants remains down by double digits on the year, the attrition has eased from late February and early March. Analysis of customer traffic also shows a recovery at retailers across Japan since the second week this month. 

A sense of complacency may be setting in even as Japan still faces the risk of an infection surge. Alarmed by reports of cherry blossom viewers crowding parks, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike on Wednesday urged residents of the capital to stay indoors over the weekend.

Restaurant reservations in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward, a residential area, declined 19% on the year during the seven days ended Sunday -- an improvement from the 26% plunge for the week through March 15. Meguro Ward recovered to a 12% drop in the third week of March from a 26% plunge in the first week.

Places patronized by business professionals are harder hit. Bookings in Chiyoda Ward, where restaurants often see expense account meals, fell 46% during the third week of March. The plunge followed a 50% drop in the first week of the month. Adjacent Chuo Ward has also seen similar declines. 

"A few weeks ago, we had absolutely no reservations, but we're slowly recovering," said the head of a Belgian beer house in Chuo Ward.

The findings are based on bookings for 3,000 restaurants that have comparable numbers from a year earlier. Toreta, a Tokyo-based provider of dining reservation software, furnished the data.

Traffic at retailers seemingly has hit bottom as well. Customer arrivals at apparel and other outlets slid 30% on the year during the third week of March. Yet this compares favorably with the 39% and 32% dips in the first and second week, respectively.

The figures are estimated via data from cameras and sensors installed in 468 stores, and analyzed using artificial intelligence by Abeja, a Tokyo-based data analyzer.

"Even if you [compare] the number of people passing in front of the stores and same-store sales by value, there is a recovery starting in the second week," said Wataru Kobayashi at Abeja.

Tokyo's commercial districts seem to be experiencing a sharper recovery in foot traffic than are communities on the outskirts, based on cellphone tracking data from a few million subscribers to wireless carrier KDDI.

In neighboring Chiba, the average number of people congregating around Aeon Mall Makuhari New City, one of Japan's biggest shopping centers, during weekends and holidays continues to drop. This traffic sank nearly 60% in the second week of March, though the pace of this deepening decline has slowed recently.

Meanwhile, the average density of people within 500 meters of Tokyo's Shibuya Station on weekends and holidays fell just 23% in the second week of March, after crashing 42% during the third week of February.

"Company workers have stopped coming because they were cautioned by their employers against eating out, and that has hurt business," said the proprietor of an izakaya pub in the area. "But college students and other young people continue to come like always."

But this fragile recovery could evaporate if Tokyo sees the rapid increase in infections warned about by the governor.

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