Text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
They drink. A lot. They drink at festivals, at restaurants and cafés, at karaoke parlors, at onsen, at bars, clubs, on the street, at home, with food or without food, when there is a pretext or when there is none. They drink so much that, if it wasn’t for different standards in the country and for lack of knowledge about it abroad, the percentage of alcoholics would perhaps be at the same level as that of Russia or the other Eastern European countries. And even though they are generally quiet drunks, there are times when their reactions are extremely intense; that they don’t degenerate into antisocial behavior is certainly to their credit and is obviously a result of the way their society is organized and of the strict behavioral control they are submitted to from their childhood onwards. But the spectacle remains sad: all flushed (because of a racial particularity related to the way alcohol is metabolized in their system), often incapable of standing on their feet, they vomit anywhere and barely manage to get home.
Certainly the correlation between alcohol and various aspects of social life –and even with religion (sake is very strongly related to Shinto)- is not exclusive to the Japanese society. But as often happens in many characteristics of Japanese life, the phenomenon goes beyond the limits of exaggeration: going out after work for “nomunication” (飲ミュニケーション), the very special kind of communication that comes when people have drunk enough to not care for the consequences of their words is almost mandatory, regardless of sex or position in the company hierarchy –the unwritten rule goes that what is said over drinks (between colleagues, employees and bosses or men and women) are forgotten the next day. These things are still said though because they need to be said: human relations often defy the rigidness of Japanese society’s “kata”.
As time passes and I watch how they live and how hard they try to keep the balance between their individuality and their society, I justify them more and more and hardly ever pay attention to their behavior when they are drunk; besides, as I wrote earlier, they rarely get aggressive (the only time I was the target of such aggression was after a festival in Koenji, six years ago and the incident was over before it even became an “incident”). But I’m really concerned about the long-term consequences this wide acceptance of alcoholism will have on their society: the most recent article I read on the subject was, I think, last year and it mentioned the existence of over one million alcoholics in Japan –and the scientists quoted were using as a measure the catalogue of symptoms given by the World Health Organization, not some arbitrary definition. On the other hand, for now the only consequence seems to be the image they present to an alien like me, so I wonder, do they actually have a problem?
(*) To misquote Frank Zappa
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes on the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years. For more information about his work and his writing, visit http://about.me/GrigorisMiliaresis and http://www.japanarekore.gr/ or see his interview in Tokyocheapo.