NARA — Since the days of Prince Shotoku in the early seventh century, Japanese have been encouraged to respect “wa,” or harmony in a group.
So it is no surprise that when people go to a bar with colleagues or friends, they often feel obliged to join in and gulp down a beer, even if they don’t want to.
This holds true even today, at a time when youngsters are thought to be more likely to express their individuality.
“That is because Japanese society itself depends on alcohol to function properly,” said Shinji Shimizu, a professor of human life and environment at Nara Women’s University. Shimizu specializes in alcohol-related problems.
“Although younger people are less inclined to consume alcohol, the society’s dependence on alcohol and the group pressure for someone to chug down a drink will not cease — at least not for a couple of decades,” he predicted.
Chugalug drinking, or “ikki-nomi,” became popular — especially with college students — in the mid-1980s. Although nowadays the term is obsolete, the practice continues at group gatherings, according to Tomomi Imanari of ASK, a nonprofit group dealing with alcohol-related problems.
Binge drinking can lead to acute intoxication and even death. The problem was highlighted in 1996, when one victim’s next of kin filed a criminal complaint against the people who had encouraged the man to drink, alleging that his peers inflicted injury resulting in death. It was the first suit of its kind in Japan.
“As far as we know, the number of deaths from acute alcohol intoxication has been decreasing since peaking at eight in 1990. Only one person died last year,” Imanari said.
“But the number of ambulance calls for alcohol poisoning has been increasing every year, suggesting that chugalug drinking has not ceased but that people are taking quicker action if a colleague suffers acute intoxication.”
Abusive drinking becomes most frequent in April and May, when company workers hold welcoming parties for new hires and students celebrate entering school. Chugalug drinking becomes a ritual for newcomers pressured by old hands.
Shimizu, of Nara Women’s University, believes Japanese depend heavily on the role alcohol plays as a social lubricant because most are unable to argue, apologize or even establish a relationship without drinking.
“I think only in Japan do people pour drinks for each other and care how fast and how much their companions imbibe. So what matters is not the alcohol but the human relationships,” he said.
And in such a society, because the act of drinking itself is a human bond, the practice of pressuring someone to binge drink will not die out easily.
Although the rights of nonsmokers have come to be recognized in Japan, leading to more no-smoking areas in public venues, the idea of nondrinkers’ rights is inconceivable, Shimizu said.
“Drinking is accepted at home. The number of women drinking every day at home, mostly with their husbands, is on the increase, while smoking is mainly only a man’s habit in the house,” he said. “In addition, smoking has been proven to be harmful to nonsmokers. That’s why nonsmokers’ rights have gained social recognition.”
Alcohol consumption rose rapidly after the war, but then leveled off in the 1990s. This has been attributed in part to the lackluster economy but also to changes in lifestyles as people became more health-conscious, Shimizu said.
“People have many more recreational options besides drinking, and thus, even if the economy gets better, they will be drinking less,” he said.
However, Shimizu predicts that chugging and acute intoxication will remain a fixture unless the nature of human relationships changes.
“While smoking is now seen as a matter of individual choice, drinking is not seen as such, but rather as a matter of ability. It is still regarded as better and more convenient to be able to drink alcohol than otherwise.”