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The Dilemmas of the Multigenerational Restaurant

The multigenerational family-run restaurant is part of the culinary iconography of urban Japan, with three, sometimes even four, generations of family members working together, cooking, cleaning, serving, and managing. Such businesses may be hundreds of years old, Customers also span generations, with grandparents introducing their favorites to grandchildren. It is a nostalgic model, yet one endangered for many reasons, often related to its core element -- the family.


The family business does have its merits. One is costs. A whole family may be supported by a single business. And then there is the management of labor. Family members don’t easily quit, and they can be trained over a period of many years. You can casually boss around a family member in a way that would not be acceptable to a hired employee. But there are also the drawbacks of a family-run business. People work together day in and day out. There is no distinction between private and work life. Frictions may fester and bleed into personal life. And then there is the problem of succession. If no one in the family wants to take over, the business may disappear.


Nishiogi still has a number of multigenerational family restaurants. One of the is Shōkyu Soba Shop in Nishiogi, which occupies the first floor of a massive house on Shinmei Street in the Miyamae neighborhood, which could be considered the Eastern fringe of Nishiogi. The family lives on the two upper floors, while the restaurant takes up the first floor.


We spoke with Miyagawa Mika, who married into the family twenty-five years ago. She and her husband Takayuki Miyagawa are now the central force in the restaurant but are still helped by Takayuki’s aging parents.  Shōkyu relocated to Nishiogi about the same year that Takayuki’s mother was born, which was in 1938, over eighty years ago. “This is my mother-in-law’s house,” Mika explained.  Before 1938, the business was located nearby, but no one now living knows for how many generations the business actually has continued. It can certainly count over a century as a family-run business. As a soba restaurant in Nishiogi, Takayuki is the third generation of owners.


We asked about the early years of the family restaurant. Mika explained that the restaurant was located nearby even before moving to its current location.“Back in those days, we weren’t just a soba shop,” she said. “It was a restaurant serving soba, sushi, grilled eel, and other things. When I first came, we were still serving grilled eel." 


During the war, the restaurant closed for a time and Takayuki’s father worked making school lunches. But after that, he restarted the soba restaurant. The building survived the war, so they were able to continue in the same place. We asked about how the menus had changed. “At first, we used to clean and prepare the eels ourselves, but later more convenient products [semi-finished] came out. We served that until about ten years ago. It was part of a set menu. We served tempura and eel sets, but always part of a set. We have always been a soba shop, so just like we have katsudon now, we had eel back then.”


The most popular item now is the tempura soba set. They make all the noodles in-house. “In the winter people will order more hot dishes, but tempura is still the most popular.”

The noodles are made by machine rather than cut by hand, she explained.  “They are different,” she said. “Udon and soba both are homemade also but not handmade. Handmade noodles can't be delivered. My husband is really particular about that. If you're going to deliver, you shouldn't do it by hand ... Because the handmade soba noodles aren't suitable for delivery. "


Long before Uber Eats and other delivery services, Tokyo soba restaurants have specialized in home delivery. Shōkyu is no exception. “We are far from the station,” Maki explained. “Delivery is about seventy percent of business and eating-in is about thirty percent. Now because of the corona, it is about eighty/twenty. But normally it is about seventy/thirty.”


We were surprised to learn about the high proportion of the business that is delivery, but we also learned that both types of business have been declining. One reason is the changing lifestyles of people in the largely residential neighborhood surrounding Shōkyu. “Wives have now all started working,” Maki said. “So almost no one is at home during the day. When the housewives were all at home, they would all get together for lunch. That’s the way it used to be. Also, on days when the kids did not have school. But now there is school on Saturday and also school lunch. So, orders are decreasing. Now the main customers are the elderly. The elderly like soba more than young people. But the orders are small, one or two per household. Still, some order every day. It is hard for them to get out, so they order in. There are many regular elderly customers. We have both rice dishes and soba, so they can choose.”


Still, because of the new construction of apartment buildings along Shinmei Street, there are new customers for the restaurant. “Right now, because of the corona, there are more young customers,” Maki said. “Many people are working at home, so they come out for lunch. There are also construction workers working on a site. And also the people working road construction. They will come in for lunch. On Saturday and Sunday nights there are many families. On weekday nights many single people come. There are many unmarried men. They come in for a drink. There are many people in the apartment buildings, and they also order delivery. Some people first come in to eat and then they will order delivery. Many of these are young people, and there are many with young children. It is easy to feed udon or soba to children."

“Still, it used to be busier. There are almost no full-time housewives anymore, right? Also, families are getting smaller. So, there are not so many mouths to feed. And there used to be more families with multiple generations under one roof, but there are also fewer of those… Now, more and more people are buying lunch at a convenience store. Even a workman can hang his bag at the convenience store. On a really cold or really hot day, he might come to a restaurant. But now it is the age of convenience. And you can eat something really tasty and cheap there. This is really a big influence, I think.”


In sum, she said, the number of customers is decreasing because of the smaller family size, working women, and the rise of convenience stores.


Despite the relative decline from previous years, the restaurant is still busy, Mika said. Takayuki starts every day at 5 a.m. He is up by 4:30, and the service continues until 8:30 p.m. They are cleaning until 10 pm. “So the hours are really long,” she said. “In the afternoon there is time for a break. We have a pause at 3:30, but during this time we have to prep for the evening. So, he only gets an hour break.”


As for Mika, when the kids were small, she focused on them. “When the kids were in school. I would get up at 7 a.m. We didn’t eat dinner until everyone finished their work, and then I had to clean up. That would be around midnight. But until I established that pattern, when the kids were really small, it was really hard.”

In any case, work hours were long, and before she was married, she had little knowledge of this type of lifestyle. “I have been here 25 years,” she said. “My son is now 23. I came in after I got married. At first, it was difficult. I remember the first New Year’s Eve [a day associated with eating soba]. I worked so hard; I was crying. Even compared to the usual busy day, it was five times as busy. Or ten times as busy as a slow day. The preparations begin from the night of the day before. I had a child to take care of, but the men had to start preparing from the day before. You can’t say we didn’t sleep at all, but it was really a long day. I was shocked. But for soba shops, this is known as the ‘soba festival.’”


She grew up in Mitaka herself, Mika said. “I was young, and I didn’t think much about it. My parents opposed [the marriage] for a while. They said, ‘It’s going to be hard.’  But I was used to physical work at the time, and I thought that entering a home and living as a housewife wasn’t suitable for me either. I was used to working, and I really didn’t think much about having free time. So that was my perspective when I came in. I wanted to continue my own job at first, but I realized I wouldn’t do that.”


She laughed when she told this story, but it was clear that entering into this family business as a young woman had been very hard, and working while also raising small children was a difficult chore. We asked about the current division of labor among family members. "Now my father and mother-in-law are still helping us a little,” she said.  “So, if I include them, there are five of us. There is one employee who in charge of the delivery, though he is part-time. So, there are five of us, and on the weekends when we are busy, we take on someone else."


She explained that two older sisters of Takayuki who have already married and left the house come in on the weekends as part-time workers. "My husband does all the main things such as preparing the broths and noodles,” she said. “He is now the third generation. He cooks all the tempura. He has to do that himself; he is a craftsman. It has been handed down for generations, though he might change the ratios [of ingredients] a bit. He can't leave things to others; he wouldn’t accept that."


Actually, Mr. Takayuki also worked in an Italian restaurant before coming back to work in the family business. "He did quite a few things he wanted to do before he came back here," she said, "before he met me when he was twenty-two or twenty-three. The second generation was still doing well, so he took over little by little. There are areas where the second generation doesn't want to give up. The ratio of duties changed little by little. Now almost all the work is done by my husband. (Grandfather) is eighty-five. He did delivery until he was eighty. He still chops the green onions ... He still wants to do his part of the job, and he also helps with the cleaning up. They are a father and son, and he would get frustrated if he couldn’t do anything ... He wants to do his part. I understand the feelings on both sides. ... To not be able to do something you could always do in front of your son, it’s difficult.”


In general, emotions within the family-based business can be difficult to manage. The place of work is also where they live... "At first,” Mika said, “we had a lot of fun with each other because our children were small. But after a while, you both get tired ..."

Since Mika married into the Miyagawa family, there are many concerns both regarding work and life. They have three children. The youngest is only fourteen, and still requires a lot of care. They have childcare, and with the grandfather and grandmother both aging, there are trips to the hospital.  When they visit the hospital, the older sister is put in charge to give them peace of mind. But this division of roles also creates frictions.


Finally, we asked about the future of Shōkyu as a family business. “My oldest child is twenty-two, the next is nineteen and the bottom is fourteen. There are two boys and the youngest a girl. They won’t continue the business. They don’t want to, and I don’t want to make them. My husband also believes that this is longer that era, and it is not an era in which soba shops will survive. So, for the future, our stance is not to keep it going. If we did that, I would end up working with my daughter-in-law. I think I would die.”


She said this laughing, but it was clear she was serious. We asked what she would do if her children wanted to take over. “I would help,” she said. “But I don’t have this kind of intention. When they were little, I had them help out a bit. But now they are the kinds of kids who don’t even know soba broth [soba soup]. We’ve been eating soba all the time, but we never go to soba shops. Because we work in soba shop. So, my kids don’t know how to eat soba properly. So, when we had a chance to go out and eat, I thought, ‘no way, they don’t know anything.’ They didn’t even put wasabi in their soba. I told them, ‘Eat properly, you are the children of a soba shop.’ But at home they eat what they like.”


It seems that they don’t have the intention of continuing the restaurant into the next generation. “So recently when there was some work that needs to be done on the restaurant, I thought, just forget about it. Let’s just wait it out. If my father-in-law and mother-in-law knew about it, they would be angry, so I haven’t said that to them.”


Multigenerational family-owned restaurants are everywhere in Japan feeding generations of neighborhood residents. However, everywhere they are decreasing in number due to changes in family forms, changes in foodways, and attitudes toward work that change with the times. Both the customer side and the store side are changing. Nowadays, not only in the restaurant industry but also in other industries, there is the problem of succession in family businesses, but in our discussion this time, what we have seen is not simply that there are too few potential successors, but rather that the current owners perceive few chances for success.  If such views are widespread, then the multigenerational family restaurant itself may be an endangered species. (James Farrer April 19, 2021)


(interview by James Farrer and Fumiko Kimura March 18, 2021; transcription and Japanese editing by Fumiko Kimura; translation by James Farrer; copyright by James Farrer.)

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