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Better a ban on work drinks than a ban on workers drinking

by Philip Brasor

On July 6, the president of Fuji TV, Ko Toyoda, held a press conference and apologized for a June 9 segment of the variety show “Mecha Mecha Iketeru!” in which a group of celebrities had a drinking contest. Three citizens organizations, including a group of parents of children killed in drunk-driving accidents, complained to the network, saying that the 45-minute segment promoted “alcohol harassment” in social gatherings. Toyoda said that the point of the segment was to show how people could “open their hearts to one another” by drinking together. However, he added that the producers now realize the segment might have sent the wrong message and vowed to “enlighten our employees” about the dangers of binge drinking.

On the program in question, long-time regulars sat down with the new recruits for the purpose of getting to know one another. As one of the comedians said, the relationship between the two factions hadn’t gotten off to a good start, so maybe drinking together would help. But, of course, they couldn’t just leave it at that and so they had a contest: Whoever remained awake at the end of the night would be declared the winner. The drinking started at 6:30 pm and the winner was declared at 4 am.

Before the pouring and joking commenced, the emcee pointed out that everyone could drink “at his own pace,” meaning no one would be pressured into overdoing it. As the segment continued the participants became noticeably drunk and loosened up accordingly. No one was violent or abusive, and we didn’t see anyone pressure anyone else to drink more. Still, to anyone who has accompanied work colleagues on a company-sanctioned bender after work, the scenario seemed familiar: We’re all here to lose our inhibitions and get to know one another. It’s called nomyunikēshon, a compound neoligism containing “nomu” (to drink) and “communication.”

Nomyunikēshon was the indirect target of Fukuoka mayor Soichiro Takashimaya’s recent drinking ban for city employees. On May 21 Takashimaya “demanded” that all public workers not drink outside their homes for one month. The informal prohibition was made in response to a series of assault arrests of city employees who were drunk at the time. The ban ended June 21 at midnight with only one city employee having been caught (the snitch was an onlooker, not a colleague). He was reprimanded but not punished.

The mayor called the experiment a success, but starting this month any city employee who causes a problem “related to drinking” will be punished severely. The union representing the employees told the Asahi Shimbun that it “understands the reason for stricter punishment” if local residents believe it is warranted — the mayor claimed that 70 percent of Fukuokans supported his directive — but nevertheless thought the matter should be studied further.

Anonymous city workers told various media that they tend to drink because of job stress. Fukuoka has the lowest public employee-to-resident ratio of all major cities in Japan, and their workload has only increased since the personnel budget was cut. In the past, says the Asahi, stress was often accepted as an excuse for public drunkenness, but lately it appears that more people are becoming less tolerant of shuran (sloppy drunks), especially when they get violent.

The trend can be seen in the reaction to the “Mecha” segment, but, according to an expert interviewed in the Asahi article, it also has to do with the fact that people who don’t drink are becoming more assertive in their objection to the illogic of the usual rationales — overwork, nomyunikēshon — for forgiving uncivil behavior due to intoxication. Encouraging people to drink so that they can cope with job stress simply adds fuel to the fire, while insisting that alcohol makes relationships smoother sounds counter-intuitive. Alcohol breaks down inhibitions, which means latent resentments are likely to emerge after a few belts.

Fukuoka’s situation bears this out. According to the Nishi Nihon Shimbun the assaults that led to the arrests of city employees occurred after drinking sessions with colleagues, and in at least one case the recipient of the violence was a colleague. In fact, last week a Kagoshima fireman was arrested for drunkenly assaulting a fellow firefighter — by setting him on fire.

Media commentary on this less accepting attitude toward drunkenness has been accompanied by scientific studies showing how a substantial portion of East Asians, including Japanese, lack an important enzyme that breaks down alcohol in the bloodstream. People who lack this enzyme tend to get sick rather than drunk. According to the weekly Aera, 30-40 percent of Japanese people lack the enzyme, and one-sixth of those who don’t lack it tend to have a “slower rate” of alcohol analysis, meaning they can’t hold their liquor very well.

Some experts think this physiological intolerance explains why Japan’s overall alcohol consumption is relatively small, about 8 liters a year per capita, compared to 9.7 in the U.S. and 14.8 in South Korea. But when you break the numbers down by region, you find something interesting. The amount of per-capita alcohol consumption in Tokyo is 9.5 liters a year, while in neighboring Saitama it’s only 5.5. Why the huge difference? It’s because many Saitama residents work in Tokyo and therefore drink there as well, likely with their colleagues, thus inflating the volume of alcohol consumed in the capital.

So if the mayor of Fukuoka really wants to prevent city employees from making fools of themselves in public, maybe he should just ban arranged after-work konpa (parties) among city workers. Not only would it give non-drinkers some peace of mind, but, more significantly, it would make it possible for all city employees to go straight home after work without feeling guilty. When you force someone to bring his job into a bar, you’re just asking for trouble.