Oct 4, 2017
How to not drink in Japan
The Japanese cultural concept of wa (harmony) requires unity and conformity within a social group in which the members are expected to prioritize the group’s harmony over their personal interests. This practice can be beneficial to both the members of the group and to the pertinent community but it can sometimes make it difficult to adhere to one’s individual values and choices. For example, whether you live and work in Japan, or are just visiting on business, you will quickly find out how difficult it can be to turn down a drink at the company nomikai (drinking party). A lot of the office communication happens here and it is seen as an opportunity to build closer relationships with your colleagues and a couple of drinks are just what most people need to take the edge off and loosen their tongues. Perhaps this is also true in other countries but in Japan it is so prevalent that it can almost seem like policy and combined with the Japanese wa culture it is difficult to not participate. As non-Japanese, the language barrier and possible over-tiredness from jet-lag and perhaps long working hours may leave you even more vulnerable to the pressures of the group. A couple of keywords that will allow you to participate without drinking and without any pressure from your colleagues or peers are
1. アレルギー (arerugi-)
2. ドクターストップ (dokuta-sutoppu)
The first is the English word “allergy” written in katakana (Japanese phonetic alphabet) and when used in a drinking situation, such as a nomikai, it means that you are allergic to alcohol. This may seem strange but in Asia it is estimated that over 30% of the population is physically allergic to alcohol, sometimes with quite severe reactions like facial flushing, nausea, and headaches. The second word is also from the English language written in katakana and literally translates to “doctor stop”. This indicates that your doctor has told you that you may develop a serious health condition if you drink alcohol and most people will not question you further and will accept that you are not drinking because of your doctor’s direction.
Problems not drinking in Japan are not confined to the office party. Sometimes life in Japan can lead to heavier drinking habits. Loneliness, due to isolation created by language barriers, tiny box sized apartments that limit socializing at home, and long distances between places making it difficult to hang out with friends or build community, are some of the factors that can make an expat turn to drink. Add to this the 24-hours-a-day supply of alcohol available from conveniences stores on every street corner and you have a potentially lethal combination. If you think you are drinking too much and need some help breaking that habit then there is support available for you in Japan. Tokyo and other major Japanese cities have English speaking meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. The hotline telephone number and the outreach email address are on the contact tab of the website at I want to stop drinking!.
For whatever reason you are wanting to not drink while in Japan I hope the above information will help you enjoy your stay.
Helping other non-Japanese stay positive in this sometimes-tough-to-survive-in but amazing country.
By the way, there is non alcoholic beer too :)
@KevinC Good point Kevin! Thanks for reading and for the feedback.