for National Geographic News
Part five of a special series that explores the local faces of the world's worst food crisis in decades.
The poster on the wall in the Footnik bar in Tokyo's busy Ebisu district is brief but apologetic. Addressed to owner Yuji Imai's loyal clientele, it says beer prices were raised 5 percent as of April 1, 2008, but that management hopes customers will continue to drink at the pub.
"We mainly serve Sapporo beer, and they told us that from the start of April prices would be rising because their costs had also risen," said Imai, 46.
"We have been very fortunate because people understand the situation, and we told them about the increase as soon as we knew, so we have not noticed any decline in the number of customers."
His regulars may have swallowed the price hike this time around, but with the cost of many basic foodstuffs increasing—including the malt used to brew beer—and Japan's economy showing signs of stagnation, the owners of Japan's bars and restaurants have good reason to worry.
Even in affluent Japan, luxuries such as a night out are the first to go during an economic contraction, so Imai cannot afford to ask drinkers to fork out too much more too soon.
Yoshiki Yamashita works in the communications department of Kirin Brewery Company.
"We cannot say whether the situation will improve or worsen in the future, but if we look at the cost of ingredients and raw materials over the last year it is clear that prices are going up," Yamashita said.
Of the four main Japanese beer makers—Kirin, Asahi, Sapporo and Suntory—Kirin became the first to raise its prices, in February.
Market demand for malt doubled between 2006 and 2007 for Kirin, and hops cost 30 percent extra in the fall of 2007 than they had one year previously, according to Yamashita.
In total, the cost of ingredients for the company's beer climbed to 7.2 billion yen (U.S. $69.23 million) in 2007, he said. In 2008, that figure is expected to hit 10 billion yen ($96.13 million).
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