By Ritsuko Ando
TOKYO (Reuters) - Takeshi Niinami, the head of Japanese drinks and food group Suntory Holdings and a government adviser, predicted on Friday that more than 20% of bars and restaurants could fail due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Japan's vibrant dining scene, from tapas style izakaya pubs and restaurants to Tokyo's high-end eateries boasting the largest number of Michelin stars of any city, mostly shut down in April as the government declared a state of emergency.
Even with the emergency status lifted, many restaurants are reopening with caution and with limiting seating and opening hours as customers remain wary of dining out. Niinami said he feared the country's eating-out culture could be hurt for good.
"If you ask me how much will return, I'd say roughly, around 80% will be back," Niinami, an economic adviser to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government, told Reuters in an interview.
Niinami said that while the government's $1.1 trillion extra spending package approved last month was substantial, the government needed to be ready to provide more if a second wave of infections were to hit.
"I think it would be good to have 80% of them return, although of course I really want 100% back," he said. "Given the current coronavirus situation, what I'd like to see is for them to make it through the next two to three years until we can allow for more noisy, intimate get-togethers."
Privately-owned Suntory is dependent on the survival of Japan's dining industry, worth 25 trillion yen ($229 billion) by some estimates, as an outlet for its drinks including Yamazaki whisky and Laphroaig single malt Scotch as well as Premium Malt's beer.
The company is backing a new dining app called Saki-meshi, meaning meal in the future. It allows consumers to support their favourite restaurants by paying for meals up to 180 days in advance, to provide restaurants with much needed cash to survive until business returns.
Niinami added his weight to calls for easier access to coronavirus tests, to allow people to more confidently resume business activity.
The Japanese government has been widely criticised at home for its lack of testing, although the country appears so far to have escaped an explosive outbreak with around 910 deaths so far.
(Reporting by Ritsuko Ando; Additional reporting by Ritsuko Shimizu; Editing by Elaine Hardcastle)