“A civilization stands or falls by the degree to which drink has entered the lives of its people, and from that point of view Japan must rank very high among the civilizations of the world,”
Kenichi Yoshida — “Japan is a Circle”
Booze, hooch, sauce — call it what you will but there can be no downplaying the essential role that alcohol consumption plays in Japan. Visitors from countries with more conservative liquor policies will often be surprised at how critical the stuff is to Japanese everyday life. Be it the required drinking with clients and co-workers after hours or getting trashed with friends on the weekend, alcohol is a central pillar of life. Indeed it sometimes seems that the entire society would cease to function without the constant outlet of a good drink.
Compared to some other countries where public intoxication is a criminal offense, Japan’s lax attitudes towards drinking can be startling. For one, it’s just as legal to consume alcohol out in the open as it is to pass out on the street in a drunken bliss. Unlike in the West, convenience stores like 7/11 and Family Mart almost always can be found carrying a selection of beers and mixed drinks. Furthermore, their age verification involves nothing more than the tapping a touch panel to confirm that one is of drinking age (20 years old as of this writing).
Given the legality of drinking just about anywhere in public, it’s common to find groups of friends pregaming right in front of the very store where they bought their liquor. Restaurants too are often set up to facilitate drunkenness with many offering hangover inducing all-you-can-drink courses that last two to three hours. Coupled with quasi-mandatory drinking with coworkers after a long day in the office, this all leads to a situation where anyone found out on the streets past 10 PM is at the very least buzzed (and more likely than not totally wasted).
As you might imagine, Japan is an alcoholic’s paradise that doesn’t even recognize that addiction to the substance could ever be a problem. With booze flowing in seemingly all directions, it can seem hard for those who aren’t heavy drinkers to navigate the maze of social expectations and comatose salarymen. While heaven for those who are known to frequently be concealing a flask on their person, the pressure to consume alcohol in Japan can be overwhelming for lightweights and non-drinkers. What follows are some tips and cultural insights that you use steer clear of any faux pas around alcohol and also understand the importance it plays to Japanese daily life.
On Booze & Culture
Alcohol and Japan have had a long relationship together that dates back to the earliest days of the island-nation’s history. According to the records in the Kojiki, alcohol first was introduced to Japan via Korea by a man named Susukori. Not long thereafter, Japanese quickly took a liking to the release that drinking offered so much that a third century Chinese envoy eventually noted that “They are much given to strong drink.” Alcohol eventually wove itself into the animistic native Shinto religion through the link between intoxication and the divine. After all what else would someone living back then think of the process of turning rice into a euphoria inducing liquid?
Over the years as Japanese society progressed, drinking continued to be an important part of social fabric. Unsurprisingly the region’s first commercial private enterprises were in fact sake breweries. Though initially only the domain of the shrines and the Heian-kyo court, the shift to the Kamakura shogunate in 1185 saw the rise of entrepreneurial endeavors. Forward thinking farmers saw an unmet craving for alcohol among the emerging martial government and did all they could to meet it.
Though this period and the civil war that soon followed it are known for the creation of the samurai’s legacy, they also are responsible for Japan’s mercantile spirit. Beginning first in the Kamakura period and later exploding with the rapid growth of Edo, alcohol became ingrained as an important social lubricant in an otherwise hyper-rigid warrior culture. Even today, drunkenness continues to be an important outlet for pent up emotions and stress which can then easily be blamed on having too much.
This point is perhaps most eloquently stated in Hiroshi Kondo’s Sake: A Drinker’s Guide. In the book, he writes that “A man who creates a ruckus on a late-night binge may, when apprehended and cooled off, be asked to write a formal letter of apology. He will begin, ‘I was drinking sake …’ Few people in Japan would need to hear more.” Much like a trip to Las Vegas, whatever happens when one goes off on a bender is forgotten the next day and never again spoken of.
Alcohol & Manners
Though today much has changed since Japan’s feudal days, the historical roots of booze culture continue to live on in the ritualized treatment of pouring drinks. When out drinking with Japanese, it is considered improper to fill your own glass. Instead you should pour for your drinking partners and then they will do the same for you in return. Though you may occasionally be refused, in all but the most obvious of cases, this is just a front and you should insist nonetheless.
Rather than risk coming across as rude and refuse a drink, Japanese companions will almost always accept a pour but then leave the glass topped off. This subtle signal indicated that they have reached their limit and want to opt out of further drinking without seeming inconsiderate. If your party pressed you to consume something, opt instead for oolong tea as this the universal “I’m not drinking” beverage in Japan and most will pick up on the fact that you’re not keen to drink.
Occasionally you may find yourself out with a rambunctious crowd that violate these cultural norms. If you do not wish to get drunk that night, a good ploy is to say that you’re not a drinker. Though many Japanese often won’t heed a cry of “I’ve had enough”, I’ve found that most people will respect the wishes of someone who instead says “I do not drink.” In fact a large percentage of the population lack the enzymes to properly metabolize alcohol so cite this health problem if necessary.
When out with drinking with Japanese, keep in mind that the practice of pouring drinks applies even if you are abstaining. Customs dictate that one should start with the highest status person and ensure their glass is full before serving others. As one might expect when drinking, these rules get a lot looser as the night carries on and people will eventually start helping themselves. Note that these rules of course only apply to places where pouring is relevant and the protocol become a little more lax at standing-only bars.
Though not necessarily a must, you’ll find that most Japanese start off with beer for the first round. There are a couple of reasons for this but the kampai or cheers is the most commonly cited. In Japan a real drinking party hasn’t started until everyone has clinked their glasses together in a toast and there is an added sense of camaraderie when everyone starts with the same choice. Because it is the simplest drink to prepare, beer has become the de facto choice for the first beverage. You’ll often find that for subsequent rounds, participants will branch out to other liquors to taste but usually everyone starts with beer.
Additionally if you’re from a place like North America, expect to be out much later you might be used of back home should you be out with a group of Japanese friends. Here it’s fairly common for people to be out extremely late when drinking. Most outings are followed by what’s called a nijikai (meaning second afterparty) in which participants will swap locations and start the whole process over again. As even most holes in the wall are open until well past the last train, it’s easy to lose track of time. Make sure you know how to get back to wherever you’re staying by taxi just in case!
As you might have gleaned from the short history above, there is absolutely no stigma attached to drinking in Japan. The country never had a prohibition like America and cultural imperatives keep Japanese polite up to and beyond the point of vomiting. Put simply, we don’t have the anti-social violence and aggression that are often consequences of alcohol consumption in the west. Furthermore Japan’s amazing train system mitigates the majority of potential drunk driving accidents. When there’s no need to worry about things like a designated driver, everyone can happily partake in the debauchery.
Nevertheless, at least from an outsider’s perspective, it can often seem like Japan has a serious problem with alcohol. One has to wonder is it really necessary for Japan’s professional workforce to drink themselves into a coma several nights a week. The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention defines binge drinking as the consumption of five or more drinks in a two hour span. Curiously enough this is exactly the length of many all-you-can-drink plans at many izakaya meaning they are essentially advertising binge drinking bonanzas. Is it any wonder that places like Shinjuku are littered with drunk remnants of Japan’s workforce night after night?
In many senses Japan’s corporate culture closely resembles that shown in the the American drama Mad Men. Much like in the world of Don Draper, the consumption of alcohol is critical to sealing the deal and maintaining client relations. Essayist Kenichi Yoshida notes of alcohol’s role that “In the West, businessmen drink after the deal has been done. In Japan they indulge during and after the deal. If talks come to a satisfactory conclusion, they see no reason to stop drinking and go home. If they do not, they go on drinking in the hope that some way out of the difficulties will be found in their cups.”
Outside of drinking with clients, alcohol plays an equally important role in inter-colleague communication. The release offered by heavy drinking is critical to venting pent up emotions in rigid and high strung Japan. The locals have even come up with their own term for this, “nomunication,” a portmanteau of the Japanese word nomu (to drink) and the English communication. During a night out, whatever is said while intoxicated is soon forgiven the next day and everything returns to normal. As journalist Samantha Culp writes, “When inebriated, society dictates men are not accountable for their actions.”
Despite the country’s reliance on drinking to relieve stress, it is shockingly reluctant to consider the notion of alcoholism. Some researchers speculate there are as many as 2.4 million alcoholics in Japan but only 22,000 of them have ever sought treatment. Rather than recognize liquor as an addictive substance, the Japanese are more likely view alcoholism as a personal failure to properly control oneself than a disease. As such, treatment often focuses instead on removing accompanying anti-social behaviors that come with excessive drinking rather than trying to remove booze all together.
Whatever your thoughts on drinking, there is no avoiding the availability of liquor in Japan. As such the country can either be paradise or hell depending on your outlook or tolerance. If you find yourself out with Japanese, you’ll almost always be offered an alcoholic drink of some sort. If you feel like embracing the revelry and seeing where the night takes you, feel free to cut loose! Just remember to pick up some of Japan’s amazing hangover helpers at the convenience store on the way home. On the other hand if you’d rather avoid the headache, use the tip in this article to best navigate the situation and remember you can always just say NO.
Until next time travelers…