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Why are Japan’s millennials shunning alcohol?

by Mark Schreiber

Contributing writer

Some time before the coronavirus outbreak put a damper on this year’s hanami (blossom viewing) parties and other social activities, the media had already noted that the decline in alcohol consumption by younger Japanese has been accelerating. This phenomenon even made the front page of the Nikkei Marketing Journal (Feb. 21).

Citing data from Suntory Holdings in 2019, the article also noted that the market for nonalcohol and low-alcohol beverages such as beer and chūhai (cocktails made with neutral grain spirits and mixers) had quadrupled over the previous decade to 22.65 million cases.

The Kyoto-based distiller concluded that more people are drinking nonalcoholic beverages not merely as a substitute for alcohol — as would be the case among drivers or expectant mothers — but because they prefer it.

In a special issue on the food and beverage industry, Weekly Toyo Keizai (Feb. 29) reported that management of Hidakaya, a restaurant chain serving Chinese-style dishes, had noted changes in customer behavior between 2018 and last year.

The company noticed that young, salaried male workers, who make up a key segment of its customer base, had begun leaving their jobs at an earlier hour, which, in turn, led to a lower demand for alcoholic beverages accompanying their meals.

So what’s the story? Are Japanese people on their way to becoming a nation of geko (teetotalers)?

Actually the trend to imbibe less appears to be a worldwide phenomenon. Data from Health Survey for England, for example, shows that there is a strict generational pattern to regular drinking, in that every generation has drunk less regularly than the one that preceded it.

This topic was scrutinized in depth in “Ipsos Mori Thinks Millennial Myths and Realities,” a 2017 study of consumers in 27 countries in North America, Europe, Asia and Oceania conducted by the Paris-based Ipsos research organization. It concluded that “millennials are shunning alcohol at unprecedented levels,” which it qualified as “mostly, but not on all measures or in all countries.”

“Explanations for this range from being more health conscious or being too poor to spend money in the pub to being just plain ‘boring,’” the report noted.

In a separate 2017 study by Ipsos titled “Global Views on Vices,” respondents were asked to agree or disagree with how things will be 10 years hence. Japanese participants who agreed with the statement, “The variety of beer, wine and liquor available to consumers will be greater than today” were ranked lowest of all major markets, at just 27 percent.

What’s more, Japanese also ranked lowest, at 10 percent, in agreeing that “Consumption of beer, wine and liquor will be higher than today,” putting them a full 19 points below second-lowest Germany, at 29 percent. The average in all surveyed countries was 47 percent.

In 2018, Shukan Asahi (Sept. 22) ran a story with the headline, “What are the real reasons why young people are drinking less alcohol?”

It cited a 2016 survey on alcohol consumption by the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Labor, which found that the largest demographic for drinking was men in the 50-59 age group, of whom 46.1 percent said they customarily indulged. The percentage declined with each age segment: 37.9 percent for ages 40-49 and 29.0 percent for ages 30-39. Among those aged 20-29, only 10.9 percent said they regularly consumed alcohol.

“The biggest factor in less drinking is because there are more nonregular company staff who receive lower pay,” says Waseda University professor Kenji Hashimoto. “It’s not so much they can’t live without drinking but rather for them it’s a personal preference, and the costs associated with drinking are something that can be cut.”

According to labor statistics, this “underclass” of irregulars employed by worker dispatch firms or as part-timers numbered 9.29 million people in 2015, or roughly one adult worker out of three.

In addition to lower wages and fewer benefits, these individuals have scant opportunities to nurture personal relationships with their managers or supervisors, a practice referred to as “nominication” (coined from nomu, to drink, plus communication). They go straight home after work, which means fewer opportunities to drink.

“For many decades after the war, Japanese perceived their country as ‘a nation of 100 million members of the middle class,’” Hashimoto says. “This fostered a ‘drinking culture’ in which Japanese, and males in particular, indulged in beer or sake.” He sees that culture as now in danger — if you’ll pardon the expression — of drying up.

The laid-back after-hours atmosphere has fostered and sustained the “water trade” — the spirited night life that has endeared Japan to both longtime foreign residents and recent visitors. Will the time come when the neon lights flicker out, city dwellers pull in the sidewalks after dark, and workers head straight home to surf the web, play games or watch movies on Netflix?

“I really can’t see that scenario happening,” market research veteran William Hall, president of Ipsos Healthcare
Japan Ltd., tells The Japan Times. “With the younger generation, social media might partially serve as a replacement for in-person contact, but that will not be the case with most persons over the age of 35.

“Also, you need to look at the impact on overall consumption of the older segment, where there is an increase in drinking,” Hall adds. “Many of the over-70s head off to karaoke and other pursuits where they drink, often from the afternoon (and) not necessarily in a restaurant. A lot of such drinking is with cheap shōchū and mixed drinks. Buying a ‘bottle keep’ (where a patron can purchase a bottle of liquor and have the unfinished portion stored until a later visit) is relatively cheap, so they can enjoy camaraderie with their friends even while living on a pension.”

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

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