Aug 23, 2017
Drinking in Japan: culture, place, practice and problems
It’s true, Japan isn’t a nation of George Bests capable of downing 15 pints of an evening and the next day taking to the field to slay the opposition with the style, grace and vigour of someone who’s been blessed by an omnipotent being. But the nation does like a tipple and any ideas that Japanese people can’t hold their drink are boring, and who cares anyway? Drinking in Japan is big business (at last check Japan’s third richest person was Nobutada Saji (& family), chairman of bevvie beast Suntory who’ve got a taste for whisky, beer and wine alongside a portfolio of soft drinks).
The legal drinking age in Japan is 20 and you’ll see people drinking openly just about anywhere in the country. In fact, just like convenience stores and dental clinics (Yes, dental clinics) one is rarely far from a bit of a sharpener on these shores.
What are the chances of getting ID’d in Japan?
Let’s address the important issues right off the bat then! Back home, this expat was getting asked for ID at the time of purchase well into their twenties. I haven’t once been asked to display any form of ID when acquiring drink in Japan (Yeah, check me out)! What can we put this down to, because it took me to pass 30 before I started looking even remotely like a weathered adult? Fear on the part of our hosts to ask for ID from a foreigner? The assumption that because we’ve made it this far there’s a fair chance that we are “of age”? A simple, and understandable, lack of willing to get bogged down in any awkward interaction? Probably a mixture of all three. Either way, I don’t know of any friends in Japan who have ever been subject to the stigma of a booze ID check so perhaps the baby faced drinker can breathe easy on these shores.
Not that we aren’t increasingly subject to cursory age checks when buying alcohol in Japan, but the human element is largely removed. In convenience stores these days, when products like alcohol and cigarettes are scanned, a massive “age check” button appears on the touchscreen panel that you have to hit before the transaction can be completed. It sounds a bit laughable initially, but it makes good sense on the part of the sellers, presumably protecting staff and business from potential charges of selling to someone who is underage. At least they asked.
I’ve had to produce ID to get into nightclubs from time to time in Japan, but this seems to have been more a standard policy directed at all club goers rather than this expat being singled out for having a pathetic amount of facial hair.
Where do people go drinking in Japan?
The options for heading out for a drink in Japan are myriad and, this being a bit of an introduction, we’ll settle now for keeping things brief.
Often labelled as Japan’s version of the “pub”, about the only thing an izakaya has in common with this western counterpart is that they are places where people go to drink. Izakaya really combine booze with food which is typically served in smaller portions and ordered in large quantities for everyone to dig in and share. At the lower end (or should that be their least pretentious end) izakaya are smoky, boozy, robust and loads of fun. Typically the remit of groups of friends rather than a place to go solo or take a date. There are some very fancy izakaya though that can take on the feel of a posh restaurant (with the prices to match). Increasingly, young families are turning to izakaya as a place to head out for a cheap meal, in large part because menus serve up such a variety of food that even the pickiest of eaters can find something to satisfy, and any noise from the kids will be more than drowned out by the drunken ramblings of knackered office workers.
Often appearing in the form of a British / Irish pub or some kind of sports bar but not always thus. “Gaijin bar” is simply a lazy term in Japan for a boozer popular with foreigners, and thus popular with Japanese people who want to meet them / us. Obviously the more urban the locale the greater the odds become of finding such places. Certainly, Japan’s large cities have loads of them.
Opinion varies on the “gaijin bar” - there are those that sneer at them, probably because they don’t want to be associated with the image of the expat at the bar, drunk out of loneliness and regretful of failed ventures back home. Still, it’s not all doom and gloom. If you want to meet fellow expats the gaijin bar is an easy place to do it and they are also a good option for the solo expat drinker. Some gaijin bars can be good resources for networking and getting the lowdown on jobs and other opportunities in Japan. And yes, they can be good places to hook up.
Japan probably has some of the smallest bars you’ve ever seen. In fact, “pint sized” couldn’t be applied better. In some cases you’ve got a counter with enough room to seat four or five punters with barely enough space to squeeze in behind. At the other end of the scale, bars in Japan can be as extravagant or as stylish as you can afford. Some larger urban centers in Japan have a strong LGBT scene, Tokyo being the best example. In some cases, Tokyo’s Ni-chome for example, options are myriad and it’s not necessarily the case that you can just rock up and be welcomed with open arms. Do some research before hand.
Japan’s nightclubs come in all shapes, sizes and themes such that there is little point describing them here. Where we might draw some comparison with other countries is that, in this expat’s experience at least, dress codes in Japan seem to be looser. Aside from turning up in flip flops and shorts, the clubber should be fine for all but the most exclusive of joints. As was touched upon earlier, be prepared to present some form of ID at the door, really just as a matter of course. Passport or “gaijin card” will do it. Larger nightclubs have lockers for storage.
The majority of the places above are table service, so outside of nightclubs, you won’t have to worry too much about fighting for space and attention to get served at the bar. Bliss!
Where you will be unlikely to go drinking in Japan
Pubs. Yes, pubs! It sounds like an odd thing to say and is probably something that has been well documented by now but it bears repetition. You’ll see the term “Pub” blazoned across many doors on the back streets of urban, suburban and even rural Japan. You can see from the off that they look nothing like the “pubs” you might be familiar with back home. These places are hobbit sized, typically have no windows, and often have doors that rarely seem to open. What usually goes on inside is chain-smoking, elderly salaryman types get liquored up, wail into a karaoke machine all the while being fawned over by an equally elderly (female) bar keeper and her busty Filipino assistant. Crashing through the doors of a joint like this will at best be met with a frosty reception. “Pubs” in Japan are by introduction only.
Drinking on the streets and out in public
As far as this expat is aware, Japan has no “open container” laws and it is common to see people in Japan drinking openly in public. Not that it’s cool to go walking down the street supping on a can of beer. Some parks may have their own rules about food and drink, but in principle it’s fine to crack open the cans in these green spaces, as it is on benches and communal spaces just about anywhere in Japan (although again, if it’s privately owned property there may be rules to look out for).
On occasion you’ll see people drinking on the trains in Japan. Invariably it’s older dudes and they almost always keep containers (poorly) concealed in plastic bags. Nobody ever says anything and I’ve yet to see signs on trains / in train stations appealing for passengers to not do this. That said, it would be the ballsy expat who starts drinking on the trains over here.
Fans at baseball games in Japan are kept well lubricated without having to leave their seats by an army of petit beer servers who look barely old enough to be serving the stuff.
Do they really have vending machines in Japan that sell beer?
Yes, they do. However, check your enthusiasm, they are not something you’ll be able to find at will. Beer / alcohol vending machines tend to be something you stumble across (no pun intended) when you aren’t looking for them and don’t need them. On rare occasions you might come across a collection of alcohol / cigarette / drink vending machines that are the base for regular street drinkers. A great example of this can be found in Tokyo’s Yurakucho district where a collection of vending machines has now become a nightly spot for the area’s office workers to kick back with some easy beers after a hard day at work. It’s one of the finest and most honest drinking experiences you can have in Japan. In summer especially, the vibe is almost romantic. Keep your eyes peeled.
Back in 2008, TASPO cards were issued as way of making the purchase of cigarettes from vending machines in Japan reliant on age verification. To this expat’s knowledge, the same hasn’t been applied to beer vending machines (certainly not the ones in Yurakucho).
Drunk in public
Japan has the patience of a mountain for just about anything other than wearing shoes in the home. So it is then that people over here rarely bat an eyelid when someone is throwing up on the train. They just move seats. It’s a fairly common occurrence, too. Common enough not to be surprised by it. Preventative measures typically include said drunk accompanied by two, plastic bag wielding supporters ready to catch any projectiles! Lovely!
Similarly, it’s also not uncommon to see streets littered with those sleeping off the effects of too much drink. While sleeping out in public so openly (and uncomfortably) can never be recommended, Japan is as probably as safe as a place in which one can do it and you’ll largely be left undisturbed unless the police find you, in which case they might wake you up, check you’re OK and move you on.
Street brawling, vandalism and all-out thuggery must happen in Japan, but I’ve yet to see a great deal of it and it’s not something that one need be overly wary off when heading out for a drink.
Now, there is an unfortunate caveat to all of the above - foreigners still stand out a bit in Japan, and will do so even more in the situations above.
Group drinking in Japan - rules and customs
When you’re drinking with a group of Japanese people, especially in a more formal / work setting, it’s often the case that the beers (and some other drinks) are poured from larger bottles into very small glasses. It’s custom in this case to wait for someone to pour your drink for you (and for you to do likewise - although being “foreign” will protect you from this). It’s sweet and all, but ultimately is a bit of a pain, not least because it encourages mingling (and I’m no good at that). As the evening wears on though, you’ll find that it becomes OK to pour your own drink as and when (the exasperated appeals to let someone do it for you become weaker and weaker).
I think I read somewhere that in these group situations it’s normal that everyone start on the same drink before diversifying. Not the case in my experience. What is true though, is that there will invariably be some kind of brief speech from a senior member of the group before drinking is permitted. Starting early doesn’t look cool.
In these “work drink” situations you will see colleagues loosen up and maybe even act a bit daft, but this is far from the Christmas office party back home - a certain level of decorum is best kept.
Drinking on the job
Back home when I was working in sales the good people upstairs, if they were feeling kind, used to take us to the local pub Friday lunchtime for a carvery and a pint before finishing off the last hours of the week in a more relaxed fashion. Looking back now, I can’t believe they did that, for as soon as we got back to our desks, heavy with roast beef and beer, it was all we could do not to fall asleep. When I tell Japanese colleagues about this, they find it hard to comprehend.
A foreign colleague of mine (in a previous job in Japan) once went out for a beer at lunch and came back to the office telling everyone who would listen that he had done so, in a jokey kind of way to test the waters. It didn’t go down well. It seems that lunchtime drinking in Japan is a no-go (and probably is back home these days).
Drinking and driving in Japan - Laws and penalties
Two definitions to be aware of ...
"Drunk driving" - where normal driving may be impaired by alcohol, and "driving under the influence of alcohol". They sound like the same thing but the potential penalties differ.
Penalties for "drunk driving" in Japan - up to five years imprisonment or fines of up to 1,000,000 yen, and 35 penalty points. It takes 15 points to have one's driver license revoked in Japan.
Penalties for "driving under the influence of alcohol" in Japan (breath alcohol content exceeding 0.25 mg/litre) - up to three years imprisonment or fines of up to 500,000 yen, and 25 penalty points.
Penalties for "driving under the influence of alcohol" in Japan (breath alcohol content exceeding 0.15 mg/litre) - up to three years imprisonment or fines of up 500,000 yen, and 15 penalty points.
As part of a tightening / clamp down on drinking and driving in Japan, penalties have also been put into place for "persons responsible for a driver's actions". There are two definitions here, each with differing penalties ...
1) Providing a vehicle to a driver who has consumed alcohol and is likely to drive under its influence ...
Driver commits drunk driving - up to five years imprisonment or fines of up to 1,000,000 yen.
Driver drives under the influence of alcohol - up to three years imprisonment or fines of up 500,000 yen.
2) Providing alcoholic drinks to driver or encouraging driver to drink alcohol despite the fact that the driver is likely to drive under the influence ...
Driver commits drunk driving - up to three years imprisonment or fines of up to 500,000 yen.
Driver drives under the influence of alcohol - up to two years imprisonment or fines of up 300,000 yen.
The above definitions and penalties come from the National Police Agency.
Does Japan have a drinking problem?
If the sentiment hasn’t been made clear already, Japan has a very liberal attitude towards booze … and almost equally, cigarettes. Deeply ingrained in post-work and corporate culture, advertised everywhere, available from vending machines, consumed openly on the streets, loose ID checks … all of these serve to mask the problems many Japanese people have with the drink.
A World Health Organization report estimated that 4.6% of male drinkers in Japan had “alcohol use disorders” and that 2.1% were dependent on alcohol (2010). The figures drop significantly for female drinkers who were estimated at 1.0% and 0.2% respectively. (The same report also states that there are no legally binding regulations of alcohol sponsorship, sales promotions, advertising and product placement.) By way of contrast, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (U.S.), in 2015 6.2% of adults (18 or older) in the U.S had “alcohol use disorder”.
There seem to be some mixed signals when it comes to information and reporting on problems with alcohol abuse / dependency in Japan.
The 2014 Annual Health, Labour and Welfare Report entitled “For the Realization of a Society of Health and Longevity” (produced by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare) tells us that the number of males who have drinking and smoking habits is decreasing every year (Are they dying?). The same report also tells us that among “specific actions for taking care of health” cutting down on alcohol and smoking comes behind “diet and nutrition”, “overwork / sleep / rest”,
“exercise” , and “regular medical screenings” as actions Japanese people take/address to improve their health.
In an article entitled, “Dealing with addiction: Japan’s drinking problem” (Japan Times, Aug 2014) we are told of an estimated 1.09 million people in Japan thought to be battling alcohol abuse in 2013, up 300,000 from ten years ago, with potentially 10 million having an alcohol dependency problem, and yet, only 40,000 - 50,000 addicts were currently in treatment at the time the article was published. The sentiment seems to be that the person in Japan with an addiction to alcohol is looked down upon and that the “disease” as a whole isn’t given much recognition on these shores.
In a sense though, whether or not “Japan” has a drinking problem isn’t really the point - Japan has a drinking culture and with this much alcohol readily available to service it, it would surely be ignorant of us not to have concerns about drinkers developing problems. Local or expat, we are all susceptible and would do well to be aware of this. Even the lightest of research on the net will turn up avenues of support for foreigners in Japan.
Thoughts on drinking in Japan - good, bad, ugly, heavy, debauched - let us know in the comments?
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