National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

Tolerant attitudes make Japan a drinker's paradise

by Mark Schreiber

Contributing Writer

If any doubts existed that Japanese people are exceptionally tolerant toward the imbibing of alcohol, those were erased in 2014, when the Pew Center, as part of its Global Attitudes Project, surveyed people’s views on drinking in 40 countries.

With 66 percent of Japanese subjects agreeing that drinking alcohol is morally acceptable, their country led the field by a whopping 20 points over second place, the Czech Republic. The top five were rounded out by Germany (41 percent), Britain (38 percent) and Venezuela (36 percent).

Equally significant, only 6 percent of Japanese respondents said they regard drinking alcohol as morally unacceptable. On this point, Japan was followed by Canada and Britain, Australia, Germany, the United States, and Poland and France at 9, 10, 14, 17 and 18 percent, respectively.

From direct observation, Japan’s culture clearly encourages the imbibing of alcohol, with little stigma against it. Even the quasi-governmental broadcaster NHK apparently sees nothing inappropriate about airing occasional prime-time, hour-long medleys of nostalgic enka (traditional ballads) about getting sloshed — think Yoshi Ikuzo’s 1988 mega-hit, “Sake yo” (English title: “Slipping and Drinking”), in which the performer reminisces on his life’s cruel vicissitudes while gulping down drink after drink.

It may be stating the obvious, but sales of alcohol make a major contribution to Japan’s economic activity. Business magazine Shukan Diamond (Jan. 12) covers this in a wide-ranging special feature titled “Kawarimasu! Nippon no Sake” (“Changing! Alcoholic beverages in Japan”).

Over 48 pages, the magazine attempts to answer the questions about who’s drinking; what they drink; where they drink it; and how much they spend. It becomes clear that with turnover counted in the billions of yen, the consumption of alcoholic beverages has far-reaching repercussions on everything from corporate entertainment to advertising, and that failing to grasp changing consumption patterns can spell life or death for many enterprises.

Despite the nation’s adult population remaining roughly unchanged for the past quarter century, per capita consumption of alcohol has been in gradual decline since 1994, a year corresponding to the collapse of the short-lived bubble economy. Among the hardest hit is beer, which accounted for 71 percent of all consumption in 1989, but which fell by more than half, to 31.3 percent in 2016. (Another 8.7 percent of the market is occupied by happoshu, a poor man’s beer that benefits from a lower tax rate.)

Supplanting beer were various types of liqueur, now at 24.5 percent of the total, and fruit-based beverages such as wine. Traditional Japanese sake fell from 15.7 to 6.4 percent of the market.

Marked changes have occurred in consumers’ demographic mix. From 1996 to 2016, consumption by males fell across the board, with particularly sharp declines in the 30-39 and 40-49 years age segments — who had formerly been the second- and third-largest consumer segments.

Whereas the male market has been drying up, consumption was partially supplanted through gains by females in the 40-49, 50-59 and 60-69 age brackets.

While beer consumption has declined overall, Diamond devotes several pages to Japan’s relatively new and growing market for craft beers. In 2017 alone, 114 companies applied for licenses to begin production (as opposed to 18 in all of 2014). The overall output last year, projected to exceed 45,000 kiloliters, is more than double the figure of five years ago.

International comparisons with such markets as the United States and Canada suggest craft beer in Japan has more room for growth. “The craft beer market will grow to around 5 percent of total sales,” Naoyuki Ide, president of Karuizawa-based Yo-Ho Brewing Co., told the magazine. “Within several years we hope to grab one-fifth of that.”

To Shukan Diamond’s credit, eight of the 48 pages were devoted to the “latest findings on alcohol and health.” Alcohol is believed to be the third-largest contributing factor in cancer, accounting for 9 percent among males and 2.5 percent among females. Recent figures for the number of alcoholics in Japan were not provided, although Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare figures in the past identified some 8.5 million people as “heavy drinkers,” of whom perhaps half could be described as having alcohol dependency.

Diamond devotes several pages to the genetic differences that enable some people to metabolize alcohol rapidly — making them “strong” drinkers — while others cannot. Interestingly, Japan boasts distinct regional variations: more people from Akita, Iwate and Kagoshima prefectures, for example, have a genetic predisposition to hold more booze, while those with the smallest capacity can be found in Mie, Aichi and Ishikawa prefectures.

Shinichi Fukuoka, writer of “Dr. Fukuoka’s Panta Rhei Pangloss” column in Shukan Bunshun (Jan. 17), asks, “Whose fault is it when a ‘sake no shippai‘ occurs?”

“Sake no shippai” may be translated as “a blunder while in one’s cups,” and Fukuoka readily admits he’s guilty of such mistakes.

“From numerous past blunders,” warns Fukuoka, “we middle-aged men know how much we’re capable of drinking. For younger people, however, it’s all the more dangerous. I want them to know, the moment they raise their glass, a myriad colony of bats take wing.”

And speaking of taking wing, police at London’s Heathrow Airport were alerted on Oct. 28 by the driver of a crew bus who smelled alcohol on the 42-year-old co-pilot of a Japan Airlines flight bound for Haneda airport, resulting in his arrest.

One month later, JAL was also forced to delay departure of a domestic flight from Kagoshima to Yakushima when its pilot was found to have exceeded the permissible limit.

JAL management’s immediate response was pull the plug on year-end partying. A message went out to all 33,000 members of the consolidated group ordering staff to “refrain from alcohol at all company-organized gatherings and year-end parties.”

The company’s public relations spokesperson told the Shukan Asahi (Dec. 21) that the president “sent a warning to the entire group conveying detailed guidelines aimed at changing each and every person’s awareness (toward drinking), but the details haven’t been made public.”

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.

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