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Alex T Thomas

By Alex T Thomas

  • Opinion
  • Japan

Tokyo's Snack Mamas

Snack Mama 1
Snack bars nestled in a street in Omori, Tokyo

A "snack" is a cosy neighborhood venue generally run by an older woman, where local patrons can sing karaoke, nibble on snacks, and have a bottle of their favorite liquor waiting with their name on it.

The owners, known as mama-sans, run everything from taking care of customers, preparing food and setting up or decorating their space. They’re an entertainer, talker, listener and therapist all at the same time. Their clients trust them and reveal stories and truths they might not share with anyone else. It’s a safe space. In a closed society like Japan, where personal fears and problems are kept secret rather than talked about with friends, the snack mama is one of the few people you can connect with.

Snack mamas are outliers to the norm of what Japanese society deems women should do. Working an opposite shift to the daily grind, these women get to meet fascinating people from all walks of life who come to unwind. It’s safe to assume a mama-san has a life less ordinary, working from 5pm to 3am most nights, while often at an age where women are long deemed irrelevant.

Caretakers to those who might not be able to connect to real mothers and wives, most mamas have an extensive network of high-profile connections. Famous clients often bring their equally famous friends to their secret snack hideaways. Japan speaks its best truths after the alcohol flows and the songs are sung. Behind countless powerful men is a snack mama who connected them to a client during a sappy song of nostalgia from the Showa era. Snack culture is one that not many realise is more than just a bar and a night out of drinking – it’s connecting on a human level in a land where it’s required to be polite over honest.

I love snack bars for the conversation. It might be simple but, a nice night with a drink and a conversation is all I need. And maybe a song.

Male, Insurance Worker, 50s

What’s more, Japan has an ageing population, youth is disappearing, and yet the old are being ignored and their opinions unheard. The population is mostly compiled of those in the age bracket that hangs out at snack bars. A snack mama gets to see the real life, the real Japan, real emotions, unheard stories and unseen faces. Open sake bottles equal open hearts and open mouths.

Snack mamas have a vast collection of salacious and interesting stories about Japan’s society, problems and what really goes on in someone's personal life. The culture is wrapped in a bubble of Showa era nostalgia which is – accentuated by its older clientele – a time where it was believed harmony was ruling throughout Japan. This hidden culture beginning to attract a younger crowd looking to gaze into a window of a generation they rarely encounter.

A retired mahjong parlor owner, an animator for Pokemon, a used camera salesman and a 70-year-old voice actor are some of the people I’ve met recently at snacks. We sing and drink together. The chance of meeting people like this is so random.

Female, 30s

Accessing this private community is not always easy. It’s not difficult to locate a snack bar, a couple are scattered across nearly ever neighborhood, though – it can be a challenge to actually enter one. A majority of guests come by recommendation or are invited by friends, while some snacks are members-only. Most importantly, if the mama doesn’t like you, you’re not getting in – after all, mama-san knows best.

Earlier this year I dedicated myself to unearthing and understanding some of the finest and most intriguing snack mamas across Tokyo. In the following articles I share the stories of the mamas I met.