On Drinking Too Much in Japan

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.

1. Brinksmanship
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.

2. Nomunication
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.

3. Loneliness
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.

4. Tolerance
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.

5. Nomihodai
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!

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25 Responses to On Drinking Too Much in Japan

  1. Judith says:

    I’ve been here less than a year and I’ve already noticed the amount of alcohol I consume to increase dramatically. You’re pretty much right about everything. like the coworkers who never ever speak to me, but throw a few beers at them and they become my best friend. I think my students missed that memo about inner reflection though. They prefer to just reflect things ,like their fists, off of other student faces

    • owwls says:

      “They prefer to just reflect things, like their fists, off of other student faces.”

      Sounds like a sobering contemplation to me!

  2. Michael S. says:

    I’m an American at a Japanese university right now and you just addressed the one thing I’m really concerned about. I want to stay in Japan and possibly start a career, but I don’t drink much for athletic and religious reasons (I’m in the transition to eating a “paleo”-style diet for example). So far my Japanese friends have respected my decision but I’m concerned about working in a Japanese firm with people I don’t know too well.

    • Andrea O. says:

      I’d suggest not to mention any religious, philosophical or any other reason that if you wished you could ignore for a single night. Go for a medical reason: just say from the beginning that you are “allergic” to alcohol, that you can barely ingest the liquor in a chocolate for example, stick always to your rule, and you’ll be fine.

  3. Aimee says:

    Are those work-related drinking expectations for everyone, or just for men? Cause I am getting a hangover just reading about all of those shots.

    • owwls says:

      They’re for everyone. The good news is, the definition of binge drinking goes down to 4 drinks in two hours for ladies. So, you won’t have to drink as much and can still have a drinking problem!

      Women are typically excluded from the party after parties, though, and yes, even work functions have “after parties” and yes, the men are essentially obligated to go, and they have to keep going until the boss goes to bed.

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  5. germanymarie says:

    absolute truth. I never drink nearly as much as I do when I’m at my Japanese seminars with my Japanese leader. But when that happens, I am happy to reign supreme. Skip the beer, direct to sake and karaoke, thank you!

  6. Sophie says:

    I’ve gained a huge amount of weight since moving to Japan. I couldn’t figure it out for months; my diet barely changed and I’m more physically active here. I eventually realised that it’s the alcohol. A night at nomihodai and I’ve chucked down more calories than in the preceding week. You’d think that would encourage me to give up on nomihodai… but I really truly do not have any kind of drinking problem ;)

  7. TJ says:

    By far one of the best posts I’ve read lately.

    I like not only the content, but how you presented it~
    I have read quite a few posts out there about drinking in Japan, but none quite as comprehensive or well-covered.

    I can honestly say that since moving to Japan and joining a Japanese company, that I consume much more alcohol per week than I probably consumed monthly back home.
    And since I live in Tokyo, I rarely need to drive… which provides even more opportunity to enjoy this Japanese national pastime…
    I worry… lol

    Thanks again for the great post~

    • owwls says:

      Thanks TJ. And good luck! It’s actually something of a challenge to avoid alcohol in this country… thank goodness for Oolong Cha.

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  9. Mark says:

    I guess im one of the exceptions. I have found myself drinking way less while I have been in Japan. I am self employed so that might have something to do with it (no peer pressure). It also might be due to the scarcity of good beer. I definitely see the herds of salarymen pouring onto the street every friday night full of liquid joy. Makes me smile every time. I just think to myself. Good ol Japan.

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  11. debby says:

    i just think about making this phenomenon in my research plan. but as long as i think, alcohol usage is such a tradition. I’m an outsider of Japan. i think this is really good plan but it also the worst. when we want to change the tradition, we need the society too right? it means that decreasing alcohol consumption need much power, much money, much people that aware this is wrong. what do you think?

  12. Archana says:

    Oh god – the drinking! Thankfully, i didnt care what people thought of me when i declined an alcoholic drink and my husband would have a drink to be polite and then decline, saying his wife will be angry. Some of his colleagues made fun of him but thankfully he was helped out by the female colleagues admiring his care towards his wife’s feelings etc.

    Drinking is basically taking a legal shot of poison – it isnt good for you. The Japanese are not doing themselves any favours by drinking heavily and encouraging this behaviour to perpetuate – and foreign workers are damaging their own health. Play the foreign card – say you can’t drink so much because it damages your body. You are a teacher at a school. Can they really fire you or make things difficult for you?

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  15. Donald Postway says:

    Thanks a lot for this column. I started researching this topic out of curiosity and I had expected my search for meaningful information took far less time than I expected since I found your article first. After watching a lot of Japanese programming in America, I started to notice the huge culture differences in the view of alcohol and drunken behavior and I was wondering how much of it was just the tropes of Japanese storytelling (e.g. nosebleeds from pretty women) and how much of it was a true reflection of Japanese society. Your article supported a lot of my guesses to some of the cultural reasons why this would be the case. At any rate, thanks for a great article and I look forward to reading more of your work.

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  17. Jurgen Pagel says:

    I think I would fit right in . Drinking a 12pack in 2 hrs or less makes me very very happy . Cheers .

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  20. I know the number one reason I drank so much in Japan was the cost! It costs me like 80 bucks to get drunk at a bar in Canada, but like 2000 yen to get drunk at a bar in Japan. They even sell booze in convenience stores!! (In Canada, only licensed liquor stores sell booze). It’s just so… available!

    I stopped drinking sometime during my second year in Japan for health reasons, and my decision was respected, but people would still ask me every time we went out why I wasn’t drinking, and I’d have to pay for nomihoudai at every nomikai even if I was only having water. That’s part of the culture that pressures you into drinking, I think… you have to pay for the booze even if you’re not drinking! It feels like money’s going down the drain every time. The number one reason I hated nomikais was the cost, man. It was like at least 4000 yen every time because the ossans wanted expensive food and nomihoudai. What a waste.

    I feel like the whole nomikai culture is just serving the ossan culture. Like none of the younger people like doing it… they just feel like they have to and the ossans don’t care about what the younger people want, they just want their kouhais around to stroke their egos. Sometimes I would pull the gaijin card and say I want to leave early and I’d harass my supervisor into driving me back. She said it was bad to leave every time, but I know she secretly wanted to leave too (she doesn’t drink, either, and I knew other women who said no. I think it’s easier for women to say they don’t want to drink… none of that macho oneupmanship) so I gave her the excuse!

    The gaijin circles are just as bad, though. So many gaijin just go to Japan to party, so you get pulled into that scene and you’re out drinking three nights a week, man.

    I’m sick of drinking, though… in Japan or out of it. I don’t need an excuse to act stupid… I can do all that stuff when I’m sober! I think it’s sad that Japanese people are so inhibited that they can’t ever tell people their true feelings unless it’s over a bottle. No wonder the country is full of lonely singles.

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