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Do Japanese Businessmen Really Drink As Much As I've Heard?

by Justin Sevakis,

Leafy asks:

I keep hearing about how Japanese businessmen would go out to bars for talks and such and that it's a major part of their culture, and that if one invites you to drink, it's very rude to turn it down (which, I would guess, burns bridges). That makes me wonder: What does a person who does not or cannot drink alcohol do in these situations, where they go to meetings and conversations in bars? Do most bars have non-alcoholic options for them? And are alcoholism and drunk driving major problems in Japan?

For such a buttoned-up country, Japan's drinking tradition is really something to behold. Drinking is something virtually every adult does (when appropriate), but the biggest drinkers by far are the salarymen. In virtually every company, being invited out with the team or the boss for after-work drinks is an important bonding ritual. Since so much of office life is about being polite and not saying what you really think, getting drunk together is an essential tool for venting frustrations and letting it all hang out, as they say. Attendance is not literally mandatory, but not joining in can be a surefire way to torpedo your career because nobody will like you after that. Especially not your boss. The same goes for showing up and not drinking alcohol.

The ritual, which also seems to be a pattern at any kind of get-together that could conceivably happen at a bar or izakaya, goes something like this: a large bottle of beer or sake is ordered for the table, and the kohai keeps his senpai's glass filled. The senpai usually pays the tab, but the kohai isn't really allowed to leave (or stop drinking) until senpai has had enough. Conversation, while not completely open, is a lot more free and easy once drunkenness sets in: you can get away with a lot more. Depending on the boss or the senpai, you might even get away with telling them off! Unless they're actually really insulted, what happens at the bar stays at the bar.

That's just one place alcohol pops up in Japanese society, though. Young adults go on 2-hour all-you-can-drink benders. Women go out drinking with friends and coworkers too. As the commuter trains and subways begin shutting down for the night around midnight, it's not uncommon to see EXTREMELY drunk people passed out. (On one of my trips to Tokyo, I was able to witness conductors literally stop the train to shake a drunk guy back into consciousness.) On the streets in neighborhoods with a lot of nightlife, there are puddles of yack here and there. Miraculously, it all seems to get cleaned up by the next morning.

Japan's drinking culture is storied, and it comes with a cost. In a country where it's the societal norm to push people to drink as much as possible, and where beer and canned cocktails are available in many vending machines and most convenience stores, there is almost nothing there to keep someone from developing a real addiction. If you're one of the unlucky people who is predisposed to become an alcoholic, it's hard to imagine a way around becoming one. Especially because, for many people, there simply is no socially acceptable alternative to drinking. For a country that comes down so hard on illicit drugs, alcohol (like cigarettes) are given a free pass.

In 2013, a government study estimated that 1.09 million Japanese people are battling alcoholism, but the total number of people who could conceivably have a problem is estimated to be ten times that. Worse yet, many people who are struggling don't seek out treatment, due to a social stigma that anyone who has so little self control is a total degenerate. Only 40,000 to 50,000 people are undergoing treatment -- most of whom already hit rock bottom, according to one researcher. Those who are openly known to have a problem face all sorts of discrimination, which can make it impossible to have a good job. The societal expectation that you need to drown with your coworkers in a potentially addictive substance after hours but if you ever develop an addiction you're weak or lesser-than is pretty brutal.

Drunk driving, on the other hand, is a problem that Japan is taking extremely seriously. Due to a combination of crackdowns and public awareness campaigns, the number of drunk driving accidents fell from 25,400 in 2001 to just 5,029 in 2011. Drunk drivers are now legally required to seek a medical test to determine whether they have an addiction problem. For comparison's sake, Pennsylvania had 11,805 alcohol-related accidents the same year. But one must remember that Japan has far fewer drivers, since most people in cities take mass transit.

All of this isn't to say Japan is a nation of alcoholics, or that their drinking culture is somehow fundamentally wrong - but the stories you've heard about Japanese salarymen have not been exaggerated or fabricated. The statistics surrounding Japan's drinking culture are a little eye-opening if you're not particularly familiar with them.

Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!) animenewsnetwork.com.

Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap, and check out his bi-weekly column on real, strange stories from the anime business, Tales of the Industry.

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