Yumiko Miyata started drinking when she was 15. She was an inherently shy girl and found that alcohol helped her make friends. When people discovered she could hold her liquor, she then became the center of attention. At first she thought it was harmless fun. Eventually, however, her life started spinning out of control.
“I didn’t think much about drinking in the beginning,” Miyata says. “It was fun and I liked the way alcohol tasted. However, I started relying on it to deal with stress. Once you start using alcohol as a way to solve your problems, you can’t control the way you drink anymore.”
Miyata got married in her 20s and gave birth to two children. However, she never stopped drinking — not during her pregnancy, nor when she was breastfeeding her newborn babies. “In one hand, I was breastfeeding my baby; in the other, I had an alcoholic drink,” says Miyata, who is now 65. “I look back now and am horrified at what I did.”
Miyata is one of tens of thousands of women suffering from alcoholism in Japan today. According to a 2013 survey conducted by a research team for the health ministry, there are an estimated 140,000 female alcoholics in Japan at present, almost double the 80,000 women who could be seen to be struggling with a drinking problem in 2003.
Susumu Higuchi, director of the Kurihama Medical and Addiction Center in Kanagawa Prefecture, says the increase in the number of female alcoholics is in part caused by the rising number of women in the workplace. Put simply, these women are more exposed to drinking socially.
In addition, Higuchi says, alcohol manufacturers have been specifically targeting women in an attempt to capture that share of the market. A wide variety of sweetened, low-alcohol, low-calorie drinks are available in convenience stores and liquor shops across the country. What’s more, television airs a number of commercials that depict women quenching their thirst with a wide variety of beer.
Higuchi, however, warns that women should be aware of the dangers of alcohol.
Women, he says, are less tolerant of alcohol than men because generally they have smaller bodies and internal organs. A moderate amount of alcohol for a man is about 20 grams of alcohol — the equivalent of two mid-size beer bottles, Higuchi says. A moderate amount for women, he says, is about half that amount. “It’s quite alarming,” Higuchi says. “Women’s bodies are smaller and that makes the blood alcohol concentration go up faster.”
Historically speaking, however, alcoholism in Japan has been dominated by men. Support groups are often full of men, and women find it hard to talk openly about their issues during such meetings. Higuchi’s hospital provides a separate program for women that includes group therapy as well as individual counseling because many women, he notes, have deep-seated private issues related to their families, husbands or even sexual abuse as a child.
Now, however, there is a growing number of support groups that have been established specifically for women across the country. First and foremost of these is Amethyst, which has branches in most prefectures throughout Japan. Amethyst comes from the Greek word amethustos, which means “not intoxicated” and is a symbol of sobriety.
On a sweltering summer day in August, seven women gather at a monthly dependency meeting in Tokyo. Their ages range from their early 30s to 60s. One by one, the women share their stories.
One woman in her 50s talks about the unbreakable chain of alcoholism that haunted her family. Her parents had been alcoholics, she says, and even though she had told herself that she would never be like them, she ended up doing to her children exactly what they did to her.
“They say that the family of an alcoholic will forgive, but never forget. That’s true because I still can’t forget what my parents did to me,” the woman says. “And now, I don’t even remember what I did to my own children because I blacked out from drinking too much. I wasn’t a good parent.”
Miyata, who heads the Amethyst branch in Chiba, has been sober for 28 years. She has been in and out of hospitals five times and suffered from hallucinations every time she quit alcohol. Her husband left her, but she says that she is glad he left their children with her because they gave her the strength to quit drinking once and for all.
“I abandoned my role as a mother a long time ago,” Miyata says. “I didn’t give my children the love and attention they needed because I was distracted by alcohol. It is hard to make up for that but all I can do now is continue my sobriety and show them my true self.”