It might be fair to say that this year in booze could be summed up by the giant pile of puke I stepped over on the train platform last night. Though consumers were willing to spend less money on their end-of-year parties, the results witnessed throughout Japan’s transport network during December are much the same as last year: troops of unconscious party victims lying prostrate over the seats of platforms and trains.
Despite this carnage, there have been efforts by the alcohol industry to encourage sensible drinking. 2009 was the year that saw the three big beverage companies — Asahi, Kirin and Suntory — launch non-alcoholic beers, perhaps in response to raised public awareness of the problems of driving under the influence. Recent years have seen stiffer penalties for drinking and driving, and police are becoming increasingly aware of the problem of drunken cyclists, an issue which had been tolerated in the past.
But nothing fuels a good drinking session like threat of financial meltdown, and if consumer’s budgets were a little tight, the alcohol industry did their level best to provide intoxication at bargain-basement prices. Standing bars that offer cheap drinks and no table charge became less trendy and more ubiquitous, with some offering draft beer for the insanely cheap price of ¥300 a glass. We also witnessed some crazy nomihodai offers such as drink all the vodka you can in an hour for just ¥780.
On the home-drinking front, sales of dai-san (third category) biiru, fake beers that contains minimal malt content, almost doubled in February. Because the beverage circumvents heavier taxes on beer (at least for now), Suntory’s Kinmugi dai-san costs just ¥139 for 350 ml as opposed to the usual price of about ¥217. While the makers claim new technologies allow the dai-san to taste almost as good as the real thing, a tasting for The Japan Times gave a more honest assessment of the beverage’s charms, or lack thereof. Also, from November 7-Eleven began selling their own brand of wine for the ridiculously cheap price of around ¥600.
Tippling trends also continued to hearken back to leaner times. Take Hoppy, another beer-style beverage, which was developed in the late 1940s when most drinkers found beer prohibitively expensive. Though Hoppy is only 0.8% alcohol, it’s designed to be mixed with stronger shochu to give the traditional Japanese liquor a beery taste. Obviously attractive because of its cheap price (one bottle can be spread over three glasses of shochu), Hoppy also appealed to those wishing to imbibe in “Showa chic.” While other retro chic drinks such as Denki Bran, a mix of brandy, gin, vermouth and herbs similar to Jaegermeister, continued to thrive in 2009, it was the highball that really hit the high notes, largely thanks to Suntory’s marketing skills. To help reverse their flagging whiskey sales, the company launched an aggressive campaign featuring actress Koyuki that was aimed at convincing young drinkers of the highball’s coolness. Suntory also obviously succeeded in getting many izakaya to feature the drink on their menus. Part of the key to the campaign’s success was that young drinkers were perhaps more receptive to sipping the diluted product with meals rather than slamming the hard stuff straight.
Another notable trend this year was low-calorie drinks aimed at women. Asahi introduced Slat, a low-calorie version of chuhai (shochu mixed with carbonated water and fruit flavors), and Kirin launched Cola Shock Zero, a low-calorie version of their Cola Shock drink. Not all women welcomed the attention, however. Shufu Rengo (loosely translated as the League of Housewives) sent a letter to liquor companies admonishing them for commercials that depicted women enjoying a nice tipple on their own in the middle of the day. The association pointed out that the message seemingly condoned drinking alone during the day and expressed concern about an increase in the number of female drinkers in their 20s and 30s.
As the decade draws to a close, will Japan draw some lessons from the collective hangover of 2010? Although consumers are adopting more responsible attitudes towards drinking and driving, apart from campaigns on the trains aimed at reducing public drunkenness, there seems to be little public-health information on the dangers of binge drinking. The Metro manners posters read “Do it at home” but is this out-of-sight, out-of-mind message healthy? Will commercials encourage a generation of bored housewives to take secretive swigs from the cooking sake when nobody is looking? What’s certain from witnessing this month’s end-of-year party season is that binge drinking still has little or no stigma. and this can only be a good thing for Japan’s alcohol industry . . . though not so great for the nation’s health.