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Japan’s Toxic Drinking Culture No One Talks About

Japan has a problem but is too addicted to admit it.

By 19 min read

Japan is a booze lover’s paradise. For centuries alcohol has mixed into the local culture, creating friendships and sealing business deals on a daily basis.

A peek into the nation’s history reveals alcohol has always been a way of life—ancient Buddhist temples acted as the primary sake breweries for centuries and Chinese envoys in the third century wrote of the Japanese: “They are much given to strong drink.”

Yet, there are underlying issues mixed in with liquor’s storied legacy. Company employees often feel pressured to drink excessively with their superiors or else miss out on promotions. Walking through any metropolis at night without tripping over a passed out drunk is almost impossible. And alcohol isn’t regarded as a drug, nor alcoholism considered a problem by most of society—leading it to be abused by many.

From the photo series High Fashion by Paweł Jaszczuk.

It’s worth pointing out that Japan’s reputation as a place with a booze problem tends to be sensationalized. In 2014, an advertisement featuring passed out drunks in Tokyo went viral. Western media jumped on the resulting hashtag #nomisugi (meaning “drank too much”) even though the video never gained traction in Japan and was likely staged.

When the 2018 World Health Organization’s (WHO) “Global status report on alcohol and health” ranked nations worldwide on alcohol consumption per capita per year, Japan didn’t even come close to first place, ranking at 119 out of 189. However, WHO guidelines typically quantify one unit of alcohol as equal to 10 grams of pure alcohol; in Japan, a typical measurement is twice that at 20 grams per unit.

So, what’s the deal? Do Japanese people drink too much or not?

The truth is, the drinking culture in Japan is complex—a cocktail of excitement, anxiety, and harassment that can be hard to understand even with experience. For some, drinking is simply a fun and stress-free way to unwind and connect with peers; for others, it’s a crippling addiction.

I lived in Japan for six years and spent most of that time drinking. Many of my best memories (when I can recall them!) involve booze.

So do some of my worst.

In Japan, alcohol is everywhere

In Japan, alcohol is easier to find than a packet of gum. Hard spirits are sold in every konbini (convenience store) and these ubiquitous mini-marts never close. Liquor license laws for serving alcohol are lax, so booze can be sold for immediate consumption at just about any event or establishment.

People of 40 nations were asked if they believe drinking alcohol is morally acceptable, unacceptable, or not a moral issue. Japan topped the list by a ridiculous amount as the country most accepting of alcohol.

It’s perfectly legal to crack open a brew in public and drink on the street, so people often booze at the beach, in a public park, on their daily train commute…you name it!

A beer vending machine in Kyoto.

Even vending machines sell booze, and most of them can’t verify if the buyer is the legal drinking age of 20. ID checks are not exactly stringently enforced in konbinis, either, where it’s simply a case of pressing a button at the checkout till that says you are over 20.

Unlike the United States, for instance, there’s no concept of dry counties, Prohibition never shook the nation, and no religion discourages drinking. In fact, sake is an important component of Shinto, Japan’s indigenous religion, and some sects of Japanese Buddhism even allow monks to drink.

Sake barrels that have been donated to Meiji Jingu shrine in Harajuku, Tokyo.

Further supporting this deep-seated acceptance is a 2013 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center as part of their Global Attitudes Project. People of 40 nations were asked if they believe drinking alcohol is morally acceptable, unacceptable, or not a moral issue. Japan topped the list by a ridiculous amount as the country most accepting of alcohol. 66% of Japanese people said drinking is acceptable—the next highest nation was the Czech Republic at 46%.

The role of drinking in Japanese society

It’s clearer than vodka that drinking plays an important role in Japanese society. Nomikai (drinking parties), held nightly in restaurants and pubs called izakaya, increase both social and business bonds, and are attended on a regular basis by much of the population.

Drinking as a way to initiate and solidify relationships has become so common there’s a word for it: nominication (飲みニケーション). Nominication is a portmanteau of the Japanese word 飲み (nomi) meaning “to drink” and the English word “communication.”

For a society as famously reserved as Japan’s, alcohol is the perfect icebreaker. Getting drunk is the most acceptable way to openly act blunt, silly, or vulnerable.

Drinking as a way to initiate and solidify relationships has become so common there’s a word for it: nominication […]

Naoya, a 32-year-old Japanese man from Osaka, agrees drinking is an integral part of Japanese culture for this reason.

“It serves as one of the most important communication platforms,” he says. “Alcohol allows Japanese people to express their emotions as well as opinions more openly in this rather socially-regimented country.”

Noriko*, a Japanese woman living in Osaka, adds: “It helps to encourage people to communicate. Good bars are necessary to create a rich time for adults.”

Land of the rising blood alcohol level

Japanese drinking culture is about more than letting go, however. It’s also about excess.

Ryan, a 42-year-old American living in Ibaraki City, explains. “No description can really do it justice,” he says. “The breadth and variety of places to partake is truly breathtaking; the drinking experience can be just about anything you want it to be if you’re willing to explore.”

A convenience store shelf stocked with alcohol is marked “alcohol corner.”

“It should come as no surprise that the Japanese drink a whole lot,” he adds. “It’s becoming less of a salary-man thing to do, and more of a thing to do when you just want to meet down to earth, non-judgemental, everyday, real people, or hang in public and just chill. Or vent; believe you me, the work culture here is not for the meek.”

“No description can really do it justice,” he says. “The breadth and variety of places to partake is truly breathtaking; the drinking experience can be just about anything you want it to be if you’re willing to explore.”

Virginia, a 27-year-old woman from Canada, noticed many differences between the attitude her coworkers have towards drinking in her home country versus that in her new home of Osaka.

“Despite having a higher legal drinking age, the attitude towards drunk people seems much more lenient,” she says. Virginia enjoys being able to drink in public but has also noticed she’s never seen anyone cut off from or kicked out of a bar for being too drunk.

She also says she definitely drinks more in Japan than she ever did in Canada and that she can’t imagine nomihoudai (an “all-you-can-drink” special) being a thing in her home country.

From vibrant metropolises to minuscule towns, you’re likely to stumble upon activities like nomikai and nomihoudai every night of the week. Save for the most rural of villages there’s always an izakaya, karaoke joint, or “snack” (a type of hostess bar) open where salary workers and college students alike can get their drink on until the sun comes up.

Young people drinking in Yoyogi Park, Tokyo, under the cherry blossoms for hanami.

Plus, there’s all the public boozing. No public drinking event is bigger than the annual hanami (cherry blossom viewing) celebration.

“Drinking out with friends, family, or co-workers under the beautiful cherry blossoms indeed helps strengthen their bonding as well as working performances for the next day (alas, the latter doesn’t always seem to be the case),” Naoya quips.

Even religious rites, like welcoming the new year, involve drinking. You can’t escape it.

Not even at work.

Drinking with coworkers is a part of the job

No, salarymen and women aren’t sitting at their desks pounding chu-hais (cheap cans of flavored shochu that can have an up to 13% alcohol content). But when it’s time to leave the desks for the day, it’s not home laborers make a break for—it’s the bar. This practice is so common it may as well be in the job description.

Japanese jobs are infamously grueling. All that tension needs to be drowned at the end of the day, so it’s not uncommon for bosses to drag their employees to the nearest izakaya for a round (or twelve) in a ritual known as “enkai.

Drinking with coworkers is often a requirement of your job.

Getting plastered with coworkers is so socially sanctioned that anything a person does while under the influence is likely to be both forgiven and forgotten the next morning. People can literally do just about anything—strip naked, insult their superiors, puke all over the table—and be excused as long as alcohol was involved.

The only thing drinking isn’t an excuse for? Missing work.

That’s rare because the Japanese work ethic pushes people to go into the office even if severely hungover. I couldn’t count the number of times I asked a coworker “How are you?” when greeting them for the day and their reply was, “Hungover.” To be honest, I often went to work in the same state. When I was an English teacher, “hungover” was a word I explained to my adult students regularly so they could articulate how they felt in class.

People can literally do just about anything—strip naked, insult their superiors, puke all over the table—and be excused as long as alcohol was involved.

The trend of post-work drinking is ubiquitous. Noriko notes that izakaya are always full of businessmen, even on weekdays.

“Whenever I see these scenes, I imagine the young mothers who are tired of taking care of their children without their husband’s help,” she remarks. “This is one of the reasons why the issue of super low rate of childbirth is not solved in Japan,” she speculates.

From the photo series High Fashion by Paweł Jaszczuk.

In extreme cases, going drinking with coworkers is a choice between one’s job and health. Refusing to go to a nomikai or enkai can actually be considered an insult to one’s colleagues, or even to the company itself. Attending without imbibing is yet another heinous act.

“There is a lot of pressure to drink,” Virginia says. “I witnessed one coworker who didn’t like drinking repeatedly drink beer offered to him and look really sick as a result.”

I too have seen coworkers berated by their bosses at an izakaya and pressured into drinking more than they should.

But, there were a lot of good times as well. Singing karaoke with colleagues is a great way to bond…as long as things don’t go too far.

Noriko’s father took things so far she didn’t speak to him for over a decade. As a child, she remembers her father turning to sake after having to give up his struggling company. Once, her mother forgot to order liquor from the delivery man and her dad was “furious.”

“I remember that my mother and I went to the liquor shop on a winter day to buy sake due to his anger. The shop shut the door already. I don’t remember anything after that. I just remember how miserable I was.” She even came to hate her mother for not doing anything about the situation.

“I have mixed feelings about drinking culture in Japan,” she adds. “It is good people all over the world have an interest in Japanese sake. On the other hand, there are still some children who got damage from their parents’ drinking habits like me.”

Not-so-happy hour: The unspoken side effects of Japan’s drinking culture

Most of us are acquainted with negative effects of consuming too much alcohol like impaired judgment, blurry vision, nausea, going home with someone maybe you shouldn’t have, and, of course, the dreaded hangover.

However, there are less discussed issues. Like, how in the worst cases, too much alcohol can lead to stress, violence, and addiction.

But people in Japan aren’t talking about this much. In fact, people aren’t really talking about it at all. So, we have to look at statistics to see how bad it really is.

According to research, the rate of alcoholism in most developed countries is declining, but in Japan, it’s actually increasing. A 2013 survey conducted by the Japan Health Ministry stated that about 1.09 million people in Japan were alcohol abusers, but only 40 to 50 thousand were receiving treatment.

Japanese beer is cheap at around $3 for a 500ml single can.

In a country as booze tolerant as Japan, it’s little surprise alcoholism is an issue. What’s shocking is how few people are taking it seriously.

Alcohol is viewed as fun, medicinal, or sacred. People rarely see it as the depressant it really is.

Alcoholism, in the same vein, isn’t a disease that can afflict anyone, but rather the result of poor character—those affected are weak and careless, unworthy of attention or even treatment.

These views lead people to ignore alcoholics altogether—or worse, to ignore the symptoms building up in their own lives.

A sign close to the entrance of Shinjuku’s Golden Gai bar district in Tokyo.

A cocktail of causes leading to alcohol abuse

Living in Japan eventually drove Anthony*, a 31-year-old American and former expat, to alcohol addiction. Anthony lived in Osaka for seven years before leaving to go to rehab in his home country. He’s now been in recovery for over nine months.

Though he admits he had a drinking problem by the time he moved to Japan, living there apparently made it worse. In the beginning, he would have a couple drinks every evening and binge on the weekends; by the time he left Japan, he was chugging anything from beer to wine every day from the moment he woke up.

Alcohol is viewed as fun, medicinal, or sacred. People rarely see it as the depressant it really is.

I ask what about Japan drove him to drink so much more than he had at home.

“First thing that comes to mind is the accessibility factor,” he says. “How easy it is to buy alcohol there. Also how encouraged it is in the culture and how ignored it is in the culture. There’s no help offered for alcoholism and it’s even considered normal to show up at work hungover.”

Research shows there’s more to it than that.

In most nations, drinkers typically have more agency, deciding when they want to go out and pouring their own drinks when they do. Yet in Japan drinking is practically part of the job. Furthermore, others often pour your beverages as is custom, so you have less control over how much you’re drinking.

The safety of the country is also enabling. Widely available public transit means anyone going out rarely has to drive home. A low chance of crimes like assault and robbery lets drunks pass out pretty much wherever with few consequences. They often do, too—drunkards slumped over on a street corner or train seat is a common sight.

There’s even a popular Instagram account called @sleeping.tokyo dedicated to people passed out in public (though not all of them are drunk). Thankfully these defenseless targets are rarely bothered, but that doesn’t mean they feel good when they finally wake up.

I usually walked (or drunkenly shuffled) home alone at night without any issues, but the most intense public disturbances I did witness—a shirtless guy shouting at and shoving cops, a man dragging a woman across the pavement by her hair, another man hitting a woman in a park—were clearly influenced by booze.

Yet, not much can be done. Japanese law makes no mention of being drunk and disorderly as a crime. As Virginia pointed out, it’s rare for people to get called out for their drunkenness, even by bartenders.

“If you’re gonna be an alcoholic,” says Anthony, “Japan makes it really easy.”

The dark side of drinking in Japan no one talks about

Other taboo topics tie into alcoholism, making it even more difficult to openly discuss.

Underage drinking is a big problem in Japan. A large percentage of junior high school and senior high school students reportedly have some experience with alcohol. Because carding is rare—and beer vending machines aren’t—it’s ridiculously easy for teens to get their hands on booze. Underage drinkers don’t even have to hide much, as it’s perfectly acceptable to drink out in the open.

“If you’re gonna be an alcoholic,” says Anthony, “Japan makes it really easy.”

Domestic violence (DV) and suicide are controversial issues as well, and both are prevalent among heavy drinkers.

Japan continues to see a rise in reported cases of domestic violence, with police taking action on a record 9,088 cases in 2018. Physical spousal violence wasn’t considered a crime until the year 2002 (psychological abuse was later included in 2004). Combined with the fact that related crimes like sexual assault in Japan go under-reported, the reality remains bleak despite the law.

Suicide is an even greater scourge. Internationally, Japan even has a reputation for it—in 2018, it had one of the highest suicide rates among developing counties in the world. This is often attributed to the work culture, which is immensely stressful. Yet, people without jobs are also taking their lives—suicide is the leading cause of death among children aged 10-14 in Japan. Other possible precursors to suicide include loneliness, desperate financial situations, mental health issues, and even Japan’s history of ritual suicide.

From the photo series High Fashion by Paweł Jaszczuk.

So, how does alcohol relate to DV and suicide in Japan?

Intimate partner violence is connected to alcohol in many ways, according to a World Health Organization (WHO) report from 2006. Pointing out how alcohol reduces self-control, exacerbates problems, and increases aggression, the report sheds light on how problems in the home are aggravated once booze is added in. Another study notes: “Alcohol and drug use tended to increase the severity of physical abuse.”

When it comes to suicide, alcohol poisons the body in ways that affect mental health—anxiety and depression are closely tied to alcohol abuse. Even if alcohol isn’t the cause of situations that make people suicidal, it certainly doesn’t help if brought into the mix. According to a WHO study from 2004, 37% of deaths caused by alcohol were due to violent means, including falls, traffic accidents, and suicide.

The 2014 WHO report on alcohol and health goes into these issues even further if you’d like to learn more.

Alcoholism among foreign residents in Japan

Besides the Japanese themselves, folks who stay in Japan long term are more at risk to the adverse effects of too much drinking. The Tokyo Meguro Counseling Center even warns people coming to Japan: “The environment and culture of Japan can be a factor in the development of alcohol abuse or dependency.”

As someone who lived for many years in one of the country’s largest and wildest cities, I know what’s it’s like to fall a little too hard into this boozy lifestyle, both in my personal experience and by witnessing the behavior of those around me.

After-work drinking at a bar in Osaka.

Early on, I remember a coworker I was friends with getting caught with a bottle of booze in his bag at work, resulting in his termination.

Another time, a friend of mine got incredibly intoxicated at a bar. From what I heard, her impaired state was very obvious, but the bartenders never cut her off. It wasn’t until another friend had to call an ambulance that the severity of her state was even acknowledged. Luckily, after a night in the ER, she was able to go home with nothing more than a bad hangover.

As someone who lived for many years in one of the country’s largest and wildest cities, I know what’s it’s like to fall a little too hard into this boozy lifestyle, both in my personal experience and by witnessing the behavior of those around me.

Going out all the time in Osaka, I myself bonded with a lot of bar owners, bartenders, and other bar-goers. This resulted in a lot of free drinks, fun nights, and those notorious work hangovers the next day.

Usually, it takes something drastic to inspire someone with a drinking problem to change their ways, sometimes called “hitting rock bottom.” For some, this is getting arrested, divorced, or injured.

For me, ultimately the thing that brought home how much I was imbibing was the realization that I—and the people around me—drank more than I ever did in my hometown.

I’m from New Orleans, one of the few cities in the United States where public drinking is allowed, if not enthusiastically encouraged. You can go to a bar and get a to-go cup of alcohol and sip it as you stroll down the street. Bourbon Street in the French Quarter is the booze capital of the US. Drive-through daiquiri shops are a thing.

Yet, Japan felt boozier than New Orleans (and I was a college student, booze’s target demographic while living in the latter).

From the photo series High Fashion by Paweł Jaszczuk.

At the height of my alcohol consumption in Japan, I would justify it like this: “Well, I’m off on Mondays, then there’s Taco Tuesday, Wing Wednesday…then, of course, I drink on the weekends…oh, and there’s that work party on Sunday…” When it got to the point that I was drinking daily and hungover almost as often, I knew I had to cut back.

For Anthony, his wakeup call was losing his job for being caught drunk at work—twice. Yep, this happened at two separate gigs before he finally went to rehab.

What to do if you’ve already hit rock bottom and can’t get back up

If you’re caught in a spiral it might be too late to stop drinking on your own. Don’t panic—there are people and places you can turn to.

For example, you can get counseling. If you can’t find someone locally, turn to the internet for help. Many counselors have online services. There is also the English-friendly hotline TELL you can reach out to.

Another option is to join a support group. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) has a Japan branch that hosts English language meetings in a few cities, including Tokyo and Osaka. Japanese support groups include All Nippon Abstinence Association (全日本断酒連盟; Zen Nihon Danshu Renmei) and Amethyst (アメシスト), a group specifically for women.

To find a rehabilitation center in your area, search「アルコール依存症 作業療法」(arukooru isonshoo sagyoo ryoohoo aka “alcohol occupational therapy”) and your city name online. Keep in mind these may not have English-speaking staff.

Because alcoholism is such a difficult and taboo subject, it’s impossible to say just how many people do suffer from it in Japan. When revealed, the problems with alcohol could be worse than we have imagined or simply comparable to those of other countries. What’s clear though is that the nation’s lax attitude towards excessive drinking and the lack of information about treatment options for those with alcohol addiction has led many down the wrong path.

The first step to fully bringing this problem to light? To simply start talking.

Do you or someone you know suffer from alcohol addiction in Japan? We’re compiling an article with readers stories and resources on where to get help in Japan. Please share your experience with us by emailing editorial@gplusmedia.com. Sources will remain anonymous.

*Names have been changed for privacy.

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