Legend of the Night: An Introduction to Japanese Snack BarsCulture
Sunakku, or snack bars, have been fixtures of Japanese nightlife for a half century. Found in various forms in towns and cities across the country, they are generally small drinking establishments that revolve around an older female proprietor known as a mama who provides a comfortable and relaxing environment for patrons to drink and socialize. I have been researching and writing about these unique facets of Japan’s entertainment culture for many years. Below I give a brief history of snack bars and describe how they differ from other types of bars and clubs that dot Japan’s night entertainment landscape.
The Anatomy of Sunakku
Snack bars are diverse and difficult to define, running the gamut from local watering holes to more upscale establishments. However, they do share some general characteristics. Typically they are cozy, with only counter seating and perhaps a few tables, and are run by a sole mama who warmly tends to her mostly male clientele, chatting, mixing drinks, lighting cigarettes, and singing duets on the shop’s karaoke machine.
Amenities are few, with the emphasis being less about imbibing than enjoying the sociable atmosphere—in particular the service of the mama. Prices vary, but ¥3,000 is standard for a fixed menu featuring light fare and bottomless drinks. There may also be extra charges, such as for singing karaoke. Drinks are chiefly spirits like shōchū and whisky, served on the rocks or mixed with seltzer or mineral water. Patrons can drink from the “house bottle” or order one of their own, labeling it with their name to keep behind the counter and consume when they visit the bar. Food is simple, ranging from homemade side dishes to dry snacks like nuts and crackers.
A mama may employ other female staff to help entertain customers. However, unlike the markedly more flirtatious service at such establishments as kyabakura, or “cabaret clubs,” and hostess bars, interaction is normally conducted across the counter and not while seated next to patrons, an important distinction under Japanese law.
Snack bars emerged around the time of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics as the government was tightening regulations on the adult entertainment industry in the runup to the event. In response to a new law requiring adult entertainment establishments to close down at midnight, snack bars began offering light meals, or “snacks,” along with their regular services to circumvent the ordinance and stay open into the early morning hours.
Navigating the Nightlife Scene
Snack bars are just one of a variety of options available to people looking to spend an evening out. For the uninitiated, though, the clutter of establishments in entertainment districts, especially those in big cities, can be overwhelming. In general, a snack bar, along with its cousins the “girls bar” and kyabakura, differs from standard drinking establishments in that its focus is on entertaining. Pubs and bars may share some similarities in pricing, but people come to enjoy a drink, not to chat up the barkeep. Snack bars, on the other hand, attract people looking to socialize with members of the opposite sex—typically male customers and female staff.
Along with snack bars there are so-called girls bars—the name derives from the fact that staff are generally young women in their twenties. Shops openly capitalize on the amorous feelings of customers, but stop shy of infringing on Japan’s adult entertainment law, allowing them to stay open past midnight. Customers come to drink and chat with the nubile staff—there is no mama—but interactions are conducted across the counter. Patrons pay a set fee plus drinks, typically shots, and are encouraged to also purchase drinks for servers.
Kyabakura take entertainment a few steps further and are subject to stricter regulation than snack bars. Instead of a mama, shops are staffed by hostesses who chat and flirt with customers. Customer pay a set fee, normally charged hourly, that often includes bottomless drinks, or they may choose to order, at an inflated price, their own bottle of spirits to keep behind the counter. There are also additional charges for services like asking for a specific hostess and for buying them drinks. Unlike the vague origins of the snack bar, kyabakura can trace their origins precisely to the May 1982 launch of New Gaga, an establishment near the east exit of Tokyo’s Ikebukuro Station.
There are also high-end hostess clubs in places like Tokyo’s upscale Ginza district, along with a bewildering array of seedier outfits offering more prurient services, but the above examples should provide a rough idea of Japan’s entertainment establishments.
Keeping a Tradition Alive
Snack bars have a more fluid existence in areas outside Japan’s main urban centers. Along with standard shops, there are some establishments that allow staff to sit with customers. Generally, though, there is no system to ask for the company of a specific hostess, as at a kyabakura, making these shops closer to what is known as a “lounge” in Japan. Such establishments are governed by adult entertainment laws, but it is common for local authorities to allow the mama to call a place a snack bar anyway. Smaller cities that lack kyabakura often have several of these establishments
Although the number of snack bars in the key urban areas has dwindled considerably, they continue to thrive in more rural districts. They offer travelers and locals alike a warm sense of community and remain nostalgic symbols of the vibrant nightlife that existed in Japan’s booming economy of yesteryear.
Their future is by no means certain, though. Shops come and go as tastes and needs change. There might come a day when mention of a snack bar draws puzzled looks from people. In my role as a researcher and writer, I hope to keep the spirit of these establishments alive for future generations.(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Signs of snack bars and other drinking establishments light up the Shianbashi entertainment district in Nagasaki. © Jiji.)