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No refuge from booze in Tokyo, paradise for alcoholics in denial

by William Bradbury

It’s halfway through January and finally the yearend excuses to drink are done with. There was Christmas, then New Year’s Eve, then shōgatsu (Japanese-style New Year), which is more or less a three-day period of constant drinking. At this time, it’s customary to try to cut down on alcohol as we recover and contemplate our lifestyles.

Many of us foreigners living here know deep down that we and many of our friends are at least mild alcoholics, masking each other’s addictions, and the allure of alcohol is not an easy monkey to get of your back. It’s difficult in any city, though living in Tokyo provides its own unique set of problems

There are number of reasons for this. One is the Alice in Wonderland effect: Away from family, peer groups and all those usual things you use as benchmarks for normality, you find yourself not really held back by pressure to be “normal,”‘ as it doesn’t exist anymore — at least not as you knew it. After all, you’re not just an ordinary guy, you’re the “traveler”; not only that, but you’re living a holiday. You drink and soak it all in, and there is a joy to feeling that you can create your own rules.

And Tokyo is a city that welcomes or at least accommodates any lifestyle you should wish to lead. There may be judgments made about your behavior, but they are almost always made in silence. If a drunk were to scream at the top of his lungs at midnight, chances are he wouldn’t be told to shut up by anyone other than the police, and even that’s unlikely. Once, a man opposite my apartment rolled home with a bottle of whiskey in hand, couldn’t get into his apartment, tried to smash his own door in with an umbrella and then set off the emergency fire alarm in the building, yet nobody called the police. Nobody did anything. The judgment on yourself is down to you.

The second reason is that with the ability to drink 24/7, temptation lies on every corner. Convenience stores are always there for a quick one on your way out or back home. Bars stay open to service bartenders in the morning, and if you live in a small neighborhood, you only need walk down the side streets and it seems as if everyone except you is drinking.

Of course, there are also people in coffee shops, studying at home and doing other things, but the intake of alcohol is always visible on a nighttime stroll, no matter what weekday — or even what time — it is. It’s easy to justify the terrible argument that “Well, everyone else is doing it” in Tokyo because with the population being so large, someone somewhere is always doing everything.

In other countries, people might feel uncomfortable about breaking social conventions by buying alcohol at irregular hours, but in Tokyo the convenience store staff talk like droids, and change so regularly that you don’t have to worry about being considered the town drunk. The closest I came to that feeling was when a convenience store staff member didn’t ask me if I wanted a bag with my beer. In a country that routinely provides separate bags for hot and cold drinks, I must have somehow just looked like a street drinker. But that’s OK; in Japan it’s legal — even socially acceptable — to go for an afternoon walk, beer in hand. No brown paper bags required.

And then there’s literary expat Ernest Hemingway’s notion that the best way to experience a culture is to visit its bars. By day in Tokyo, it’s easy to feel like you’re just in your own head, with other people around also all existing in theirs. Bar-hopping in Tokyo is a way to break the ice, meet strangers, make friends, practice Japanese. It’s not the only way — you can teach English or join clubs — but the iron curtain so many put up to hide their thoughts and feelings finally comes down if enough alcohol is consumed.

It’s not just the alcohol that can become addictive but the chance encounters and exploring new haunts. But after a while you start to feel it might be beneficial to spend a bit more time in the books than on the bar stool. After all, being “the foreign guy” at the local bar with low-level Japanese is fun the first time you go but the act suffers from the law of diminishing returns. And if you’re drinking alone in a tiny Tokyo apartment, the chilling thought can occur that you aren’t so different to a hick in his trailer with his Bud.

You can’t blame Tokyo — that would be like blaming a rock for being thrown at someone — but in a city that allows you to explore almost any vice freely, it’s advisable to start looking at yourself through the eyes of others once in a while.

You could aim for moderation for the year, or at least until the springtime hanami blossom-viewing binge comes around.

William Bradbury is a freelance writer and musician living in Tokyo. Foreign Agenda offers a forum for opinion on Thursdays. Send all your comments and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp.

  • Larry Fuji-San Frady

    Excellent discussion, and a great reminder that moderation is key without having an accusatory tone.