A Non-Drinkers Take on Japanese Drinking Culture

Drinking Culture in Japan
I’ve never been much of an alcohol drinker. Truth be told I tasted beer for the very first time when I was 28 years old, when I came to Japan…and I hated the taste. Sorry, no offense to those of you who do drink. A buddy of mine said that a lot of people don’t usually drink beer for the taste but for buzz.

Why am I not a drinker? I don’t really know, but my mother and father aren’t drinkers either. I think I’ve seen my father drink beer only one time in my entire life…and he didn’t even finish it.

But, I have tasted a few different types of alcohol here in Japan that tasted pretty good. One was Mozart, an imported chocolate liqueur that was literally lip-smacking good.  Umeshu (梅酒 |うめしゅう) , Japanese plum wine was also quite good.

At times I wonder if being more of a drinker would be a good thing, but then I remember that drinking can sometimes get to be an expensive habit for those who do it often enough.  I also think about the physique goals I’m trying to reach in the gym.  So this dialogue in my head always ends we me thinking “Nah, I’m good with not being a drinker.”

Drinking Is A Often A Standard Social Activity…

However, in countries the world over, alcohol seems to be a “social facilitator.” Peoples’ inhibitions are lowered and even the shyest of people can become a bit more socially loose.  Nowhere is this more true, in my opinion, than in Japan. Drinking just seems to be a part of life here. In a society that has a reputation being more reserved & conservative, for people being overworked, where people are so devoted to their jobs, it seems like a common form of release. When I talk to many of my students and ask what they did over the weekend. It’s quite common for me to hear that they went to a drinking party of some sort.

Beer is generally the weapon of choice at izakyas (居酒屋|いざかや) – Japanese taverns or pubs, at welcome parties, at farewell parties, nearly any social gathering you can conceive. But sake is also quite common. At the parties I’ve been to here in Japan, my Japanese students are always so polite.  When your glass is low, they fill it for you, they make sure everyone’s glasses are always full of beer, or in my case ginger ale (yeah, I know it’s not “manly,” but it tastes good). I thought maybe this was just because we were teachers, or foreigners, but it seems pretty standard etiquette in Japanese social gatherings.

Then the Alcohol Kicks in…

Seeing students get tipsy or drunk is pretty normal. For the most part things, even in these situations, I haven’t seen anything too crazy…well, crazy is relative ain’t it?

No! Please!!!Of course you get all of the different drunken personas: the sleepy drunk, the happy drunk, the giggly drunk, the aggressive drunk, the hot-woman-student-that-is-all-over-you-and-tempting-the-hell-out-you-but-you-don’t-want-to-do-because-you’ll-feel-bad-about-it-the-next-day drunk, the no change drunk, the social butterfly drunk, the loud drunk, and the violent (the last two are a bit more rare in Japan, a lot more common in America).

As a non-drinker (97% of the time), the ability to remember things can be very beneficial, or detrimental depending on the situation. Why? Because the memories stay with me and I can write posts like this one.

Like this one time, there was a farewell party where one student in his late fifties had a bit too much to drink and, I kid you not, proceeded to start humping my leg. I’d say that falls into the unusual category.

Or there was the extremely pretty Japanese student who decided she would randomly sit on my lap and start grinding at a student-teacher karaoke session.  While I can’t say I minded that so much, but is was hard to keep my cool (see what I did there?).

How about the time I went to a bonenkai (忘年会|ぼうねんかい), end-of-year party, with my karate school?  I’ve never in my life seen men who could consume these levels of alcohol with out keeling over and dying shortly thereafter.  My teachers could REALLY put it away! This party got a little strange when one of the students (mid to late 40′s brown belts) got a bit lit and decided he wanted to start randomly punching other students…FOR REAL!  He got me once, and me being sober and all I felt every knuckle. It hurt enough for me to let him know “Do that one more time and see what happens…”

I can’t say these were the most comfortable of situations, but looking back these are great fodder for stories.  I don’t know if they’re ones for the grandkids or not, but they were entertaining experiences.

From a non-drinkers perspective, it seems like initially, drinking culture in Japan is much more polite, and follows a slightly different set of customs than America does. But after people get going…it’s generally all the same (less the fighting in Japan, though). Drinking is a social an event as eating can be, while the effects are markedly different and often a lot funnier…as a non-drinker I can see the appeal. I can’t say I’ll ever get into it, but I think I get it.

But enough about my perspective! I wanted to get some different opinions on the drinking culture in Japan.


In your opinion, how does the drinking culture here in Japan differ from drinking in your hometown? Do you have any funny stories? I want to hear them! :)

Please post in the comments section below. Feel free to write as much as you like because I seriously want to know what you think.

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Donald Ash is an ATLien expat who has been living in a Japanese time warp for the last six years. While in aforesaid time warp, he discovered that he absolutely loves writing, blogging, and sharing. Donald is the creator, writer, designer, editor, programmer, and occasional bad artist of thejapanguy.com blog (that's just way too many hats, dude). Wanna know more about this guy? Check out his "What's Your Story" page.
  • dipta

    In Japan, I only went drinking with co-workers or friends, so very “respectful” environments (not prone to get very lewd, like if you were at a club where people go for something else…).

    Anyway, there are differences between after-work drinking and drinking with friends, right?
    If it’s with friends, people tend to drink to forget, go crazy, enjoy the night and, if so, complain about work or eventual partners…
    In after-work drinking (Japanese company), people get crazy as well, but in weird ways… People fill each others glasses to no end, compliment each other forever… Everything is cool, everyone seems friendly, but by no means hierarchy is forgotten, and tomorrow is another day. You can always feel the tension, and people not really wanting to loosen up.
    But if boss is the one filling your glass, you’ll get drunk even if you don’t want to, laugh away, stumble, fall, become a clown, you name it.
    Many people are quite boring drunkards though, they just sleep deeply, lol

    Apparently, I’ve a high endurance to alcohol compared to other people here so, like you, I end up remembering everything. Kind of a curse most of the times, IMO.
    Seriously, I don’t know how all of these stumbling people get home safely and if needed be up to work in the morning the next day!

  • John Joyce

    Hi there. Found your blog through a YouTube video. I was having trouble with the washing machine…

    As for the drinking culture, I’ve long been more of a drinker, for sure. As much or more than in most places drinking culture seems to be a great facilitator here. But the real vehicle is just joining in with the group in any activity and suffering all the same stuff together. That wins friends and respect like nobody’s business here.

    People are pretty understanding about non-drinkers though, as the majority here are actually at least partially alcohol-intollerant and a fair number simply don’t drink because of severe alcohol-intolerance.

    Nobody disrespects it much (except some of the hardcore drinkers) because they’ve probably all had to carry-around, take care of, or otherwise manage some friend who had way more to drink than their own body allowed.

    hmm… well, especially, living in Tokyo, it’s a lot like a lot of major cities: heavy drinking.

    • Donald Ash

      Thanks for your input John. Even though I’m not really a drinker, a lot of the stuff you’re saying makes a lot of sense. I think people do gain friends and respect by experiencing things together here; in most places I’m sure it’s the same. I haven’t had anyone hassle me for not drinking, which is good. Sometimes, just being there is all you need to enjoy the night. I must say, though, alcohol (from the outside looking in) seems to make situations just a bit funnier and just a bit more over the top.

  • Hello! I am a fellow non-drinker (23) currently living in Japan. My own experience has been similar to yours.

    For the first few months, members of my research group did seem a bit confused by my refusal of alcohol. I think it helped that I was the only girl in an otherwise male-dominated group. People did not really pressure me and in general were pretty understanding. The exception being one professor who continues six months later to tell me that I cannot drink in Japan because I am too weak to handle Japanese alcohol.

    I would definitely encourage people, even if they do not drink, to attend drinking social events. Everyone relaxes and it is a great chance to get to know your co-workers better. Just be sure to order some kind of drink for the konpai! ^_^

    (If you want to hear more about my adventures in Japan, please check out my blog!)

    • Donald Ash

      I second that. Going to the parties can at least be a way to meet people, right? Even if you’re a non drinker. It’s a great conversation starter if you say you don’t drink, because people seem genuinely surprised.

  • sally

    I live in southern Minnesota. I have so many stories I don’t know where to start. One of the bars here has tons of those crappy plastic resin chairs n this guy was sitting on one right next to the bar. There were about 4 of us women standing by him (not really noticing him) but what caught our eye was he was kickin back on it on the back two legs of the chair kind of rocking it back n forth. My girlfriend kept sayin to me “that f’ER is gonna give!” As we stood by waiting as he really thought he was getting our attention (and he was but not in a good way) suddenly the two back legs buckled! He fell flat on his ass/back! Poor guy was so embarrased he ran out the front door so fast cuz the whole bar was laughing. ooy

    • Donald Ash

      Damn! That sucks for him. I’m sure you felt bad for him, but it had to be hard (even if only a little) not to laugh. Great story, Sally.

  • coolguy

    I live in Manchester England, drinking’s quite a big thing here. I can’t really compare to anywhere else because I’ve only lived in one place but going out and getting wasted is a big part of youth culture I think. I came to the article wanting to know if the Japanese can handle their drink as well as westerners, I’ll keep looking.

    • thejapanguy

      Hey coolguy,

      That’s a question worth looking into. I’m really not sure. I’d need to do a bar experiment of some sort to test it. I’d have to get people of equal size and weight maybe who don’t drink very much. Hmm…

  • Brian

    As an exchange student that studied in Japan for a year as well as conduct an anthropologic enthography there, I have a lot of stories for ya! I am also a huge drinker and worked part time at a bar. One time at an izakaya, my friend got so drunk off of atsukan, took off his pants, pushed me down and kissed me. The most interesting part is how students (mostly males) drink until they puke, on purpose, and continue drinking and eating again!

    • thejapanguy

      Oh yeah, I’m sure you have some great stories. I’ve had my leg humped by a 60-year-old Japanese man. I looked down like “What the hell!?” hahahaha.
      Yeah, you find people passed out drunk on the sidewalks early in the morning. It’s really different here, huh? I’m sure you have all kinds of cool stories.

  • Alise Oz

    It was an interesting post!!

    I don´t like to drink and I am wondering how things would be if I want to go to Japan for a while (to study). With my friends I didn´t have problems, they knew I didn´t drink and they didnt mind, they would still invite me to parties… I would only drink mayble lemonade or something else.

    But if their culture is that its easier to socialize while drinking, wouldn´t they see you weird if you dont want to drink? How do you refuse drinking without being annoying or rude…. (like she doesn´t drink…lets not invite her or something) maybe it´s depending on the people rather on the culture?

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