Visitors to Japan just lost one of their favorite tell-the-folks-back-home anecdotes, the one that goes: They sell beer in vending machines here! Every guidebook mentions the fabled dispensers; sooner or later, every tourist gets photographed standing next to one. It is modern Japan’s answer to Mount Fuji. There are even beer-vending machines on Mount Fuji. Or there were. As of last week — provided liquor-store owners continue to comply with a voluntary ban on machine sales of alcohol — this national symbol looks set to become a museum piece.

Surprisingly, the public has not worked itself up into much of a froth over this. It is early summer, after all, and in the summer, as Lord Tennyson nearly said, a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of a brew. A lot of middle-aged and old men’s fancies do, too. Cold beer — like grilled eel, wind chimes, “mugi-cha” and mosquitoes — is one of the things hot weather is all about. When you think about it, June is an odd month in which to shut off self-service. And yet, according to an estimate by the All Japan Liquor Merchants Association, at least 70 percent of the nation’s 170,000 alcohol-vending machines were duly unplugged by last weekend, and life does seem to have gone on unabated.

Perhaps it’s not so surprising, really. This is not prohibition. Beer is still available inside the liquor stores that generally operated the machines, as well as in bars, pubs, restaurants, supermarkets and, increasingly, convenience stores. It seems safe to say that not too many people will be ailing for want of an ale. But this of course highlights the very problem the machine ban is designed to address. For certain categories of drinker (i.e., those for whom the pleasure of imbibing is a matter of volume rather than taste), alcohol is just a little bit too easy to come by in this country. Shut off the vending machines? Yawn. It’s cheaper in the shop, anyway.

That is not to say the ban isn’t a step in the right direction. The machines, according to industry spokesmen, were used mainly by two groups: salarymen leaving work after the liquor stores’ closing time at around 9 p.m. (but before the machines were turned off two hours later) and underage drinkers. Concern about the rise in alcohol consumption in general, and among teenagers in particular, was what initially prompted the idea of the ban. If the nation is to sober up, then the vending machine — which made it as easy to buy a beer as a Coke or a coffee — is clearly the place to begin.

It is important, though, that the industry recognize it as just a beginning. There is probably not much more that can be done about the homeward-bound office worker bent on having a drink or two . . . or three. Deprived of the machine, he (or increasingly she, statistics confirm) will either stop in at a bar anyway or have a drink when he gets home. The causes of alcoholism among overworked, middle-aged salarymen go far beyond the availability of alcohol. But there is something both obvious and simple that can be done about the budding teenage drinker, and that is to enforce much more stringently the existing law that prohibits selling — or publicly serving — alcohol to anyone under 20.

At present, as any gleeful teenager knows, the law is treated as a bit of a joke. Compliance is spotty at best, with boys and girls as young as 15 or 16 routinely purchasing beer or spirits without being asked for ID. Turning off the vending machines will not cause so much as a hiccup in these kids’ social lives. The only way to even begin to curb youthful drinking excesses is to ensure that any store, bar, club or restaurant found selling or serving alcohol to underage customers automatically loses its liquor license.

To its credit, the liquor merchants association appears to realize this. It is reportedly pushing to have a law proposed in the Diet that would crack down on underage sales and tighten restrictions on licenses. It is difficult to see why a new law is needed when better enforcement of the current one would suffice, but if that is what it takes to put some teeth into enforcement, then it is to be hoped that its supporters succeed.

Teenagers themselves and maybe even a few die-hard older drinkers may wonder what all the fuss is about. If you can legally drink yourself silly in public when you are 20, what harm does it do to get a little practice in when you are 18 or 19? The obvious answer is that, for most people, every year past one’s teens brings a little more common sense and self-restraint, a little less appetite for self-destructive bingeing. The law recognizes this; the beer-vending machine contradicted it. Colorful symbol or not, it is high time it went.

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