The owner can by right operate a bar, a restaurant, a boutique, a small workshop on the ground floor

Monday, August 22nd, 2022

There are a number of reasons small business in Tokyo is so vibrant:

A huge one that you can look at cities around the world and ask is how many flexible microspaces are available across your city. By microspaces, I mean small little nooks and crannies in the commercial or residential sectors of the city that you can do a lot of different things with and don’t need to pay a huge amount of money in rent.

This is going to sound wild to anyone who lives in the US, but for any two-story rowhouse in Tokyo, the owner can by right operate a bar, a restaurant, a boutique, a small workshop on the ground floor — even in the most residential zoned sections of the city. That means you have an incredible supply of potential microspaces. Any elderly homeowner could decide to rent out the bottom floor of their place to some young kid who wants to start a coffee shop, for example. When you look at what we call yokocho alleyways — charming, dingy alleyways that grew out of the black markets post-World War II, which are some of the the most iconic and beloved sections of the city now — it’s all of these tiny little bars and restaurants just crammed into every available space.


Liquor licenses are extremely cheap and easy. A liquor license in an American city can sometimes run up to $500,000. You’re not going to have a little four-seat, mom-and-pop bar for the locals. So those regulatory and policy choices that we make fundamentally determine what our cities are going to feel like.


  1. Altitude Zero says:

    There’s lots of things that work in Japan that would not work in more “diverse” countries, for reasons too obvious to state.

  2. Mike in Boston says:

    If you are saying we can either have nice things or a diverse country, I know which one I would choose.

    But even in the country we have, more respect for property rights and energetic enforcement of property crimes might be enough to let us have nice things.

  3. Altitude Zero says:

    Agreed, we used to do this. But enforcing these laws would almost certainly result in “disparate impact” which takes us back to “diversity” – and around we go…

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