None for the road: Japan finally takes a sober look at alcohol abuse

by

Staff Writer

Katsuhito Honda would stare into the mirror as he finished off another “shochu.”

He swore with each cup of the distilled spirits that it would be his last. But he couldn’t stop and didn’t know why.

Honda, 55, said that in the beginning he was just a social drinker. But when his company started to have problems, he started drinking heavily. Eventually he couldn’t go without alcohol in his system.

He would get up and sneak out of the house at dawn and drink in a nearby park.

It took a stint in the hospital, many visits to a clinic, losing his job and a diagnosis of diabetes before Honda finally quit drinking. And to stay off the bottle, the recovering alcoholic maintains a strong link to a peer support group.

“I knew that if I didn’t quit then, I would die. Near the end, I was drinking nonstop and then I spent all night throwing up. I was just one step away from death,” he said.

Alcohol is considered an integral part of Japanese culture. From drinking sake at traditional ceremonies for newborns to after-work “nomunication,” a portmanteau word that combines “nomu” (drink) and communication, alcohol gets a positive, fun spin.

With its cultural affinity toward drinking, Japan for a long time has looked the other way when it comes to the negative aspects of alcohol, particularly addiction.

But that is changing. The government is finally taking alcoholism seriously and starting to take action — beginning with an alcohol abuse awareness week that kicked off Monday.

To spread the word, 250,000 posters explaining the dangers of alcohol will be put up nationwide in convenience stores, liquor shops and schools ranging from the elementary level to universities.

A symposium was scheduled for Monday in Osaka and another is slated for Wednesday in Tokyo. Guest speakers include actress Chizuru Azuma, whose father was an alcoholic.

“Japan is quite tolerant when it comes to alcohol, like the concept of nomunication, and most (people) are unaware of the harmful effects. Our intention isn’t to completely (condemn) alcohol but to let people know the various problems it can cause,” said Jun Kanda, an official in the Cabinet Office’s Director General for Policies on Cohesive Society.

According to a health ministry research team led by Susumu Higuchi, director of the National Hospital Organization Kurihama Medical and Addiction Center, an estimated 1.09 million Japanese were battling alcoholism in 2013, up from 800,000 a decade ago.

An estimated 10 million people were meanwhile found to have potential dependency issues — drinking more than 60 grams of alcohol a day, the equivalent of three midsize bottles of beer. But only around 40,000 seek treatment, Higuchi said.

“Alcoholism is actually a pretty common disease, but people in Japan aren’t really aware of that. In fact, if you look around, the people you regard as just heavy drinkers are more often than not battling the disease,” Higuchi said.

The awareness week is part of a national effort under a basic law that took effect in June to deal with alcohol-related problems, including alcoholism, driving under the influence, physical and mental health, underage drinking and suicide.

“There is still a lot of stigma and misunderstanding when it comes to alcoholism. People see it as a sign of a weak character instead of as a disease that can and needs to be treated,” said Tomomi Imanari, chairwoman of Alcohol Yakubutsu Mondai Zenkoku Shimin Kyokai (ASK), a nonprofit organization that for more than 30 years has worked to spread awareness about the dangers of over-drinking. It also has a hotline and conducts surveys related to alcohol issues.

Fearing discrimination, many people in Japan hide their illness or refuse to acknowledge they have a problem.

Some, including the late Prince Tomohito of Mikasa, a cousin of Emperor Akihito, and Tottori Prefectural Assembly member Yutaka Fukuma of the Democratic Party of Japan, have come out about their battle with alcohol, but most people remain silent.

“If more alcoholics came out and acknowledged their abuse problems, people would see that even if you fall, you can always get back up,” Imanari said. “But right now, most people don’t even seek help until they become terminally ill — and by then their families are also torn apart.”

Honda said it took him about seven years before he finally sought help.

“I know now that alcoholism is a disease, but back then I had no idea. Alcohol is the same as illegal drugs — I wanted to quit, but I couldn’t.”

While he was drowning himself in alcohol, his wife, Yoko, was desperate to find a way to stop him, also not knowing that what he had was a disease.

“My husband had always been so nice and gentle, but when he drank, he was like a different person. I spent seven desperate years trying to get him to stop drinking, but nothing worked,” she said. “And I had become isolated too because no one could understand what I was going through.”

Then she found out about the All Nippon Abstinence Association (Zen Nihon Danshu Renmei), a support group for recovering alcoholics. The group has branches all over Japan and holds meetings where recovering alcoholics and their family members attend and share their experiences.

Honda joined the group when he was 43, and for more than 12 years he has remained sober.

Honda and his wife still attend about 10 meetings a month and he is now head of the group’s branch in Sumida Ward, Tokyo.

“I just want to live a normal, healthy life with my husband. I am hoping we still have a long life ahead of us, and I am just grateful that he was able to quit alcohol before it was too late,” Yoko Honda said.