At 3 a.m. on July 28, 2012, Toshihiko and Takako Takahara were jolted awake by the sound of their home phone ringing. It was the call every parent fears — a person on the other end of the line was calling to inform them that their 21-year-old son, Akira, was dead.

An autopsy showed Akira died of alcohol poisoning after a heavy drinking session with members of his University of Tokyo tennis club. He had been a bright, outgoing and athletic young man who had been accepted into the college of his dreams. By the time his parents got to the hospital, he had been dead for almost four hours.

“Our son was already cold when we arrived at the hospital,” Toshihiko Takahara says. “His body was stiff because rigor mortis had already set in.”

Akira is just one of many young victims of alcohol poisoning. Time and time again, college drinking parties in Japan descend into a free for all and it usually isn’t long before an ambulance is dispatched.

In July 2015, the Takaharas filed a civil lawsuit worth ¥169 million in damages against 21 students who were present on the night Akira died.

“Our suffering doesn’t end because our son is dead,” Toshihiko Takahara says. “We know that the lawsuit isn’t going to bring us any sort of comfort … but there is so much that we still don’t know about that night and we want to know the reason why he died.”

Akira had been a sophomore student at the University of Tokyo and as konpachō (party planner) of the tennis club, he was in charge of organizing the group’s drinking parties. It was his job to attend every single practice session as well as the parties that typically followed in the evening.

On the evening Akira died, the second-year student and about 40 other male members of the tennis club and its alumni gathered at Sumida Park for an all-night event to secure a good spot for the sports group to watch the Sumida River fireworks display the following evening.

What followed, however, was a prolonged session of hard-core drinking.

As the group’s party planner, Akira kicked off a traditional drinking ritual called “makiba,” in which club members are encouraged to sing and dance in a circle while 2.7-liter bottles of shōchū (distilled spirits) are passed around.

Akira drank an estimated 1.1 liters of shōchū before he passed out by 10 p.m. Four hours later, somebody in the group finally called an ambulance after Akira appeared to be unresponsive. By then, however, it was too late — medical experts believe Akira had died around midnight.

“If someone had called an ambulance instead of just leaving my son there unconscious, Akira might have lived,” Takako Takahara says. “I just don’t understand why they didn’t call an ambulance. These people have something wrong with them.”

Peer pressure

The legal drinking age in Japan is 20, an age when many young people attend university. Drinking typically forms a major part of college life and students can be found drinking heavily at seasonal events throughout the year.

According to nonprofit group Alcohol Yakubutsu Mondai Zenkoku Shimin Kyokai — which is more commonly known by its abbreviated name, ASK — 33 college students have died in incidents related to alcohol since 2001.

Already this year, an underage male student from Kyoto’s Doshisha University was found in a state of cardiac arrest at a hotel in Hyogo Prefecture in February. The student had been drinking heavily with members of his dance club during a training camp session.

ASK Chairwoman Tomomi Imanari says it is not uncommon for students to be reluctant to seek help.

“They understand that someone has passed out from drinking and are obviously concerned, but they are more worried about getting into trouble and will hesitate to call an ambulance,” Imanari says. “This hesitation, unfortunately, is what often leads to death.”

Tokyo Fire Department says an increasing number of people have been taken to hospital in an ambulance as a result of alcohol poisoning in recent years. More than 14,300 cases were reported in 2014, a sharp rise from the 11,661 reported in 2011. An overwhelming number of people in those cases — both men and women — were in their 20s.

No nationwide data is compiled on the number of deaths that occur annually due to alcohol poisoning. However, data collected by Ikki Nomi Boshi Renraku Kyogikai (Liaison Council to Prevent Binge Drinking), a citizens group that was founded in 1992 and is made up of parents whose children have died of alcohol poisoning, suggests that at least 154 minors and young people in their 20s have died since 1983.

Representative Noriko Ishitani says that there is a social stigma against parents who have lost a child in such circumstances because some believe their child’s death was caused by his or her own recklessness.

“The manner in which the children die is viewed quite differently from children who die in a car crash,” Ishitani says. “People view alcohol as a form of recreation and think the children are at fault. I wish I could make people understand that they lost their lives because they were forced to drink.”

Ishitani’s son died in 1995 of alcohol poisoning during a trip with his university’s travel club in Yamanashi Prefecture. He had been being forced to drink 0.9 liters of shōchū. Ishitani only learned details of how her son died by reading a report on the incident that was published in a newspaper.

“Many parents who have lost their children this way prefer to keep the truth about their deaths a secret,” Ishitani says. “There are probably grieving parents out there we don’t even know about. Parents (lie to protect) their children’s honor.”

Many of these drinking sessions occur off campus, making it difficult to assign responsibility. In most cases, Imanari says, universities investigate the matter internally and rule that, after talking to participants at the event, the victim was not forced to drink. Besides that, grieving parents are left to investigate the matter on their own.

“It may be true that a student wasn’t physically forced to drink by his or her friends, but that’s not the point,” Imanari says. “Organizing such drinking sessions creates an atmosphere in which participants are under peer pressure to drink.”

Working with university associations and alcohol manufacturers, Ikki Nomi Boshi Renraku Kyogikai has attempted to prevent dangerous binge drinking sessions among students for more than two decades. Since 1993, the group has organized an annual campaign each spring to spread awareness about the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption.

The group designs posters and fliers each year that are distributed to universities nationwide. The theme of the posters for 2016 utilizes the slogan “Aru-hara shima-sengen” (“I pledge to avoid alcohol harassment”) as a way to drum the message home.

Drinking responsibly

Nonprofit organizations and bereaved families are not the only ones trying to change drinking behavior in young people.

Pernod Ricard Japan, the domestic arm of one of the world’s leading wine and spirits manufacturers, has run a “No ikki!” (“No chugging!”) campaign since 2011.

According to Public Affairs Manager Julia Mizubayashi, the local office realized that college students, in particular, were at risk.

Every year, Pernod Ricard Japan distributes a total of 2,500 paper lunch-tray mats to five universities, including Waseda University, the University of Tokyo and Hokkaido University, printed with the words “No chugging!” The mats are placed on the trays at the schools’ cafeterias for a month. Pernod Ricard Japan also distributes “No chugging!” leaflets at school festivals and provides paper cups featuring its most recent campaign logo to schools that permit alcohol at the events.

“As a global alcohol manufacturer, we have a strong sense of responsibility to tell our consumers that wrongful drinking can lead to dangerous accidents and health hazards,” Mizubayashi says. “Part of our responsibility is to tell young people from early on how absurd binge drinking is and that it should be completely avoided.”

Pernod Ricard Japan also works directly with some of the students. At the University of Tokyo, it has collaborated with a dance troupe called Wish whose members wear “No chugging!” T-shirts during the college’s annual event at a club in Tokyo to welcome freshmen. The company has also been participating in a project called Gochi-kai, collaborating with restaurants and university students to promote special menus at reasonable prices that are not based on all-you-can-drink options.

“No chugging!” is an important campaign but it is also a bit condescending,” Mizubayashi says. “We wanted to expand our activities to offer alternative ways to enjoy alcohol and really change the mind-set of young people.”

Officials in Japan have shown themselves to be extremely tolerant of alcohol abuse (in comparison to illicit drugs), and reform has been slow. With the enactment of a law in 2013 to establish measures on alcohol-related issues, however, experts are hopeful that things will begin to change for the better.

In May, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet is expected to approve a comprehensive plan outlining measures to be taken toward alcohol-related problems.

Every year during the spring season, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology issues a reminder to universities and other higher education facilities nationwide, asking them to take specific measures to prevent alcohol-related incidents from occurring. Government officials also remind school administrators to take similar measures.

However, Yusuke Shoji, unit chief of the Student Support and Exchange Division at the education ministry, says it has been hard for the government to take a more drastic approach without being more totalitarian. He says he has run out of ideas.

“Unlike (compulsory education), universities have the right to freedom of education and autonomy from the state,” Shoji says. “It is extremely difficult for the government to order them to do things in a certain way. At the same time, however, I do believe that social interest (on alcohol-related issues) is growing. I feel that the country as a whole has come together to tackle problems related to alcohol and is moving in a positive direction.”

While there does indeed seem to be a silver lining on the education front, what about parents who have lost their children?

Lawyer Susumu Asano, who has represented a number of parents who have lost children to alcohol poisoning, says most of those who have stepped forward have no other choice but to settle in or out of court. He adds that some parents have filed criminal complaints but, to date, no one has faced an indictment.

“People and society still think it was the victim’s fault for drinking in the first place,” Asano says. “In court, anyone filing the complaint has to prove that their child was in an environment where they had no choice but to drink. Unfortunately, however, it is difficult to prove that any illegal acts took place.”

Asano and fellow lawyer Yuichiro Yamamoto, who are representing the Takaharas in their civil lawsuit over Akira’s death, say the case is a typical example of a tragedy that occurred as a result of heavy drinking. Akira’s tennis club was known for its rowdy behavior, they say, and two complaints about the group had been filed with the police on that day.

Yamamoto says the club was notorious at the university for its wild drinking sessions and ambulances are believed to have been called on a number of occasions at other events in the past. After Akira’s death, the university ordered the club to disband.

“In a way, everything ended with my son’s death,” Takako Takahara says. “If he hadn’t died, some other younger student would most likely have been next.”

Three and a half years later, Akira’s death continues to haunt his parents. They have created a shrine in their dining room at their home in Saitama Prefecture that includes photographs of Akira and messages from his friends. Akira’s ashes sit in the center of the space — the Takaharas aren’t ready to part with his remains just yet.

“There isn’t a day that passes which isn’t difficult for us,” Toshihiko Takahara says. “We will never forget. A parent should never have to hold their child’s cold body.”

Offering sensible alternatives to inebriation

On an unusually chilly evening in March, three young women raised a glass of sparkling wine at a small bistro near Tokyo’s Iidabashi Station to toast a small accomplishment — the official launch of Grill Ohmura’s Gochi-kai.

Gochi-kai, which references the Japanese phrase “gochisō-sama” (“That was delicious”) that is typically said at the end of a meal, is a project initiated by university students who are tired of the drinking culture that typically pervades college life in the form of all-you-can-drink sessions supplemented by plates of fried chicken and potato chips.

The students, all members of an inter-college club called Soshokukei Kanji, have been visiting restaurants in Tokyo in an attempt to encourage them to create menus for young people that are attractive without having to rely on an all-you-can-drink hook.

Waseda University student Ayano Yoshino first heard about the club through the school’s free paper.

“It seems that people going to drinking parties are simply drowning themselves in liquor for the sake of getting drunk,” Yoshino says. “I like to drink, but I also enjoy eating as well. Gochi-kai offers a real alternative … without that choice, I think it is easy to get swept away by the moment.”

In 2015, wine and spirits manufacturer Pernod Ricard Japan began supporting Soshokukei Kanji’s activities as a part of its corporate campaign to raise awareness about alcohol to young people in the country. Pernod Ricard Japan is using its network to reach out to other restaurants that might be interested in participating in the program.

One such restaurant proprietor is Seiji Ohmura, owner of the Italian bistro bearing his name. Before opening his own place, he worked at a wine bar in the Kabukicho entertainment district and saw countless inebriated college students passed out in the streets after heavy drinking sessions. Ohmura wanted to try a different approach and and began working with Gochi-kai in March.

“I think adults have a responsibility to teach young people how to drink alcohol and Gochi-kai is a great way to do so,” Ohmura says. “If they can learn how to handle alcohol, they’ll be in a much better position to appreciate good food and drinks.”

At present, 13 restaurants have agreed to participate in the Gochi-kai project. Each outlet creates its own set of menus, with party plans that feature a limited number of drinks usually priced at around ¥3,000 per person. Some restaurants may charge extra for customers who are no longer students.

The project is still trying to widen its reach and Tokyo Gakugei University student Mika Aizawa, who attended the launch at Grill Ohmura, sees merit in expanding such initiatives.

“Many university students seem to think that drinking cheap alcohol and getting drunk is the best way to have fun,” Aizawa says. “When I joined Gochi-kai, I realized that there are numerous ways to communicate with others through good food and drinks. Our goal is to spread the Gochi-kai culture — to let others derive pleasure simply from enjoying a combination of good food and drinks.”

Kaori Kubo contributed to this report.

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