Teetotaling in Japan | What to do When you Don’t Want to Drink

Someone pours sake into a small drinking cup for another person in Tokyo

Today’s post is one of those articles that hits home pretty hard. As anyone who has visited Japan in the past can attest, this country is very much like heaven on earth for tipplers. Regardless of whether it’s 2:00 PM or 2:00 AM, Japan makes it worryingly easy to imbibe adult beverages. Of course, this is even more true in the major cities like Tokyo that operate 24/7. Between the ubiquitous convenience stores like 7-Eleven that never seem to close and the dizzyingly numerous collection of watering holes, another drink is always a few minutes away. With alcohol so prevalent, is it any surprise that the national male pastime in Japan is getting absolutely wasted and then passing out on the stairs of Shinjuku Station?

Now depending on when you ask me, you’ll find that I am either an adamant adherent of this cult of booze or completely abstaining from consuming a single drop. While my close friends and co-workers certainly razz me incessantly, honestly, it’s all but impossible to strike a proper balance here between the two extremes. I’ve written about how to navigate Japan’s drinking culture before but it’s generally an all-or-nothing game, at least up until the point of sickness. If you’re participating in the drinking, it’s flat out rude to refuse another round. Quite frankly, it’s a miracle that the Japanese manage to live as long as they do. Chain smoking aside for a second, you’d think they’d all be dropping dead from alcohol-related liver disease by now.

As ashamed as I am to say this, the only way that I’ve been able to work my way through this tricky maze of frat boy like behavior is to become a total prude. Given my flip-flopping behavior and the fact that everyone knows I have previously partaken in the debauchery though, I still get my fare share of pressure. Alas, it seems like Japan simply won’t accept Donny the teetotaler; health and wellness goals be damned. Luckily for you, the reader, though, my precarious predicament with alcohol has led me to develop strategies for tactfully navigating the local drinking culture without faux pas. If you evoke the following game plan, you too will be able to dodge a drink like water off a duck’s back.

Hot to Dodge a Drink

A bunch of Japanese people enjoy drinking at an izakaya

Here are my top five go to tactics to avoid an unwanted beverage…

  1. Honesty: I Just Don’t Drink
    If you’re a tried and true teetotaler, you’ve likely arrived at a place where you can simply outright refuse a drink without issue. After all, this approach is by far the easiest and least complicated method of avoiding alcohol. That said, do expect to get some push back here, especially if you’re drinking with Japanese men (who, by the way, don’t often even acknowledge that alcoholism is a thing). While you certainly won’t be pressured to drink as if being at a college keg party, you should be prepared to defend your ground. Here, all you need to do is just be very clear that you NEVER drink alcohol. Thanks to my episodes of sobriety, I’ve found that following an initial bit of pushing, the locals eventually relent once they realize that you’re not fronting. Be firm, order an oolong tea, the de facto “I-am-not-drinking” beverage of choice, and all will soon blow over.
  2. The Excuse: I’m Driving Tonight
    While the honesty stance is generally sufficient for nipping the alcohol issue in the bud, it also requires that one show a bit of backbone. Occasionally, yet rarely the case, forgoing a drink may leave a sour taste in the dejected party’s mouth as he or she struggles to grasp your choice to pass. Here, despite the fact that I’ve never driven a car in my life, my go to excuse is to simply state that I’m driving. Unlike North America, Japan is down right draconian when it comes to driving under the influence of alcohol. In fact, you’d probably be better off losing a kidney than you would be paying the exorbitantly high DUI fines. Note that these damages also apply to bicycles. Should you not be able to run the driving line, just say that you came by bike!
  3. Deception: I’m Allergic to Alcohol
    Have you ever heard of the Asian glow before? You know, that phenomenon where people turn bright red after downing but a single beer? Unbeknownst to most, that crimson hue is actually caused by a genetic predisposition to having a limited ability to process alcohol. To quote the Wikipedia entry, “the reaction is the result of an accumulation of acetaldehyde, a metabolic byproduct of the catabolic metabolism of alcohol, and is caused by an acetaldehyde dehydrogenase deficiency.” Biomechanical nerdgasms aside for the moment, before you go thinking that this condition is rare, know that as much as 36% of the East Asian population suffers from sensitivities to alcohol. As such, no one is going to question you if you say you’d like to partake in the boozy fun but simply can’t.
  4. Sleight of Hand: The Full Glass
    This tip won’t save you if you’re out drinking with a bunch of other tourists but on the other hand, if you happen to find yourself at a group dinner with Japanese here’s your cover. The play is simple; just ask for an alcoholic beverage and also order a water. From here on out, all you need to do is ensure that the glass containing the booze is full at all times. The reason this tactic works has to do with the manner by which Japanese often serve each other drinks. Rather than pour one’s own, it’s customary for the person having lower status to serve the higher who then in turn reciprocates the favor. By always having a full glass, you sneakily avoid having to drink up. To dodge any possible suspicions, I suggest you bring the glass to your lips every now and then for a pretend sip. No one will be the wiser to the fact that you’re actually not partaking. What’s more, you get to enjoy all the fun without getting trashed!
  5. Abstinence: Go to F@$#ing Bed
    For my final tip on drinking, I have a bit of advice that certainly isn’t going to be popular. Are you ready? Go the F@$# to bed! Yes, you read that right. As a naturally bred night owl and former DJ, it breaks my heart to write this but a lot of the action in Japan starts in the early morning. When exploring Japan’s major cities, it’s best to avoid the hordes of tourists by getting a head start and visiting the popular attractions first. Not only will you be able to get the perfect selfie but you’ll also not have to suffer through a terrible hangover. Then again, as they say, no good story ever started with the word “salad” so I’ll leave the choice in your hands…

Until next time travelers…

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Donny Kimball
Donny Kimball

I'm a travel writer and freelance digital marketer who blogs about the sides of Japan that you can't find in the mainstream media.

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