Weather makes beer the hot stuff on liquor store shelves
THEY say it's an ill wind that blows nobody any good. Since the last week of July, when the five-week rainy season ended, Tokyo office workers have been sweltering in temperatures of up to 36 degrees Celsius.
'I can hardly bear to get on the subway,' said one grey-suited worker, whose 60-minute ride to the office involves standing on a jam packed train that doesn't have a proper cooling system. But the beer industry is thrilled by the weather.
Since the last third of July sales have even been running five per cent up on last summer - one of the hottest for many years - when turnover jumped by nearly 50 per cent.
When the weather heats up tired salarymen and 'office ladies' flock to roof-top beer gardens in central Tokyo and Osaka for one or two Asahi Super Dry, the astringent beer with a high alcohol content that has been the star of Japan's brewing industry for the past five years.
Hot weather also encourages people to choose beer for the o-chugen - summer gifts that are a traditional part of social life in Japan.
In Tokyo o-chugen are usually sent by mid-July but in country areas the season is about a month later, reflecting the lingering influence of the old Japanese Inreki lunar calendar.
O-chugen gifts are timed to coincide with Obon, the traditional festival of the dead.
'That's great for us,' says Shinya Sekiguchi, a spokesman for Asahi Beer. 'Because country people usually drink more anyway during Obon.' It's not unusual for people paying casual visits to a neighbour's house during the holiday season to arrive loaded down with a 24-can pack of Asahi or Kirin, neatly wrapped in a silk furoshiki cloth.
In Tokyo, people are less neighbourly but a lot more price conscious.
Most shopping districts still feature traditional neighbourhood sakayasan liquor stores but the real success story in the urban beer trade is the discount stores.
At Garcon, a newly established discounter in Tokyo's Setagaya ward, a 24-can pack of American imported beer costs 2,680 yen (HK$211) compared to a sakayasan price of 3,960 yen. A bottle of Chivas Regal at the same store goes for 2,480 yen compared to a standard 6,500 yen.
Champagne is slightly less of a bargain perhaps because Japanese consumers haven't caught on to it yet. Garcon charges 6,400 yen for a bottle of Dom Perignon. That compares with 10,400 yen at a department store.
Garcon was started by Sigeru Iwatsuki, a former diplomat who retired from the Foreign Ministry to enter politics but failed to get elected at his first try, partly because he didn't have the cash to finance a proper campaign. With sales at the company's three stores doubling or trebling every year Mr Iwatsuki hopes soon to have another try at politics. But the real action these days seems to be in the shotengai or shopping precincts of Japan's big cities - not in Tokyo's parliament building.