When someone assures me, with profound sincerity, that they don’t have a drinking problem, I assume they have a sincerely profound drinking problem.
Yes, as an expat in Japan I may just happen to drink with greater frequency and to greater excess than I have at any other time in my life. But I assure you, with profound sincerity, that I don’t have a drinking problem.
What I have is a Japan problem. If it weren’t for cars, the nation’s chief manufactured export would be bottles of self-expression, extracted from the pent-up anxiety of Japanese office workers. Red-faced men cracking open a beer takes on the symbolic airs of a ritual: The crack and pour of a social release. There’s emotion pouring out of that bottle.
This is a culture where drinking parties are job requirements. It’s a place where you can market a product that lets you consume more alcohol while getting less drunk.
Think about that for a minute: You pay 100 yen for a product that lets you consume more but feel it less. This only makes sense in a culture of competitive, shot-for-shot drinking, where keeping pace with your coworkers and superiors is rule ichiban.
According to one study:
“Sixty percent of problem drinkers are salaried businessmen who claim that getting drunk with clients or coworkers is part of their job and a mark of company loyalty. To refuse a drink from the boss is a terrible insult that can damage a career. And although alcohol consumption is now decreasing in most industrialized countries, it has quadrupled in Japan since 1960.”
The typical Japanese person consumes 6.5 liters of alcohol per year. The typical Japanese person also contains about 6.5 liters of blood.
This isn’t exactly crazy, given that Korea, the United States, Canada and Great Britain all beat Japan in per-capita drinking games. Japan is sixth in the world for beer consumption, under China, the U.S., Germany, Brazil and Russia.
It’s not that the Japanese drink more than any other country, it’s that most of it seems to be consumed in single sessions.
There are a lot of good reasons to have a drinking problem in Japan. Here are 5 of them.
The Japanese are terrified of failure, and perhaps no failure is worse than failing a drinking game.
The rules of the Japanese drinking game are as follows: Every time you see a co-worker at a work party, take a shot. If that co-worker is a superior, take two. You play this game at every single work party, or enkai, in Japan.
The etiquette of the enkai demands that you accept a drink when it’s poured for you. To refuse the pour is to refuse the conversation about the pouring. Unless you have to drive, there’s no reason to say no to a refill, and enormous social pressure to say yes.
People will refill your drink regardless of how empty the glass is, and so you have to take a shot to make room for the new pour. It’s just polite.
If you stop playing, the consequences are pretty real. In the States, we’d say you’re a healthy, reasonable person that employers would want to hire and promote. In Japan, it shows a reluctance to trust your co-workers with inebriated openness. If you really liked us, you wouldn’t worry about losing control.
Not drinking skips out on the shared joy of the night and the shared misery of the morning after. Many mandatory drinking parties aren’t even scheduled on weekends – they’re scheduled on Thursdays, with the idea being that on Friday, you’ll all continue to cement the bond of the night before by working through a hangover. Together. It’s a team-building exercise.
In Japan, openly discussing a problem is part of the problem. You’re bound to spill into messy accusations or assumptions, someone’s face will get lost and their day, ruined. So people wait until they’re drunk to say anything at all.
What’s said while drunk is always forgiven, under the same don’t-discuss-the-problem rules that create the problem in the first place. The expat term for this is “nomunication,” a portmanteau of “nomu,” meaning “to drink” in Japanese, and “communication.”
Nomunication is actually one of the most effective ways to get an office conflict resolved in Japan. You drink with the person you don’t like, until you are back-slapping familiar, then you say what pissed you off in a single sentence, then how sorry you are about mentioning it for the next ten. It’s the Japanese version of the “I love you, man.”
Generally the dialogue won’t ever be mentioned again, but whatever was bothering you will be magically fixed.
Japan is a country of introverts. Children are raised to cultivate reflection and present a very specific kind of face to others, regardless of their inner state. That face should be calm, collected, dignified and friendly, with very specific events that call for very specific exceptions.
People don’t approach each other, and so you have people working side by side for hours a day (often more than 10) who don’t know much about the other.
Alcohol helps people ease quickly into personal interactions with little shame, the safety net of alcohol catching their many falls into social awkwardness.
This tends to be especially true of expats, usually young and otherwise unaccustomed to 12-hour workdays and Japanese rigidity. When and if the “weekend” comes, alcohol accelerates the descent into relaxation and “cutting loose.” You skip right to a 2 a.m. feeling by 8 p.m. and, given how long a work day is, that leaves extra time to sleep.
There’s no social stigma against alcohol in Japan. There was never a prohibition era, and Japanese drunks tend to stay polite up to and beyond vomiting on someone (and surprisingly, being vomited on). The consequences of drinking in the west – violence, drunk driving accidents, etc – are mitigated by Japanese restraint and an excellent public transportation network.
Drinking doesn’t have a stigma, so restrictions on alcohol are pretty loose – at least to Americans – and so beer vending machines or train passengers holding open cans (though rare) quickly lose their shock value.
There’s even a product called “Kid’s Beer.”
It’s basically carbonated apple cider, but I’m from a country that banned candy cigarettes.
“Nomihodai” has been covered here before: Bars, Karaoke Booths, or restaurants offer up as much alcohol as you want for a set price and time, usually meaning about five or six drinks over two hours.
“Binge drinking,” according to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, is the consumption of five or more drinks in two hours.
In other words, Japanese establishments advertise and promote “binge-drinking specials.” At one party, a tired wait staff simply handed over several pitchers of Gin and Tonics, rather than taking single drink orders.
Dealing With Drinking
For all this, Japan is surprisingly reluctant to the idea of alcoholism and treatment. Japanese researchers suggest that there are 2.4 million alcoholics in Japan, and that only 22,000 of them are seeking treatment.
The Japanese are more inclined to limit “alcoholism” to disruptions caused by drinking at inappropriate times, or violent or angry behavior (though not necessarily grabby-handed men). When that happens, it’s not so much seen as a disease as a failure to control oneself.
Alcoholism as we know it in the west – an addiction – isn’t an easy sell in Japan, where personal responsibility is everything. Treatment often comes down to scrubbing out the negative behaviors that come with drinking – rather than eliminating drinking altogether.
Case in point: The image at the top is a poster urging subway patrons to drink at home instead of the train. It’s like the thought hasn’t crossed anyone’s mind that you could, for example, not drink to the point that you pass out.
Take away the cell phone so the drunk guy can’t send awkward text messages, but pour him another beer.
You should totally just tell This Japanese Life how much you like her via Facebook RIGHT NOW. If you wait till ur sober you’ll just lose your nerve, brah!