Kampai! Drinking Culture in Japan

Written by Jess

[Editor’s Note: Other Toasts ‘Round the World posts will have a more factual account of drinking culture in that country. Since I spent a significant amount of time in Tokyo, this one is written from my personal observations.]

Kampai! This is how you kick off a night of drinking in Japan. It was the first toasting word I used with drink in hand.

I turned 21 somewhere over the Pacific on the last leg of my three-part plane ride to Tokyo, where I spent my senior year studying abroad. This was especially anticlimactic for three reasons:

I achieved American legal drinking age in a country whose venture into adulthood starts at 20. This rite of passage so fondly dreamt about by many a teenager effectively meant nothing as my feet hit foreign soil.

If that weren’t enough, I was so blearily exhausted that all I wanted was some authentic ramen and a hot shower. I forgot to move my towel into the overnight bag I packed when I paid to have my luggage delivered, so half the night was spent frantically searching for a towel larger than my hand.

Oh yeah, and up until that point in my life, I didn’t drink.

Japan is a great place to start drinking because the country is safe, alcohol is readily available, and the cultural atmosphere is in favor of alcoholic debauchery. These same liberators also have their downsides, though. Here are the best and worst parts of Japanese drinking culture, as observed through my personal experiences.

Kampai Post Picture (453x449) (2)

To be honest, I liked cocktails and bubble tea (above) better than Japanese beer, although it grew on me after I came back to America.

The Good

1) Drinking in the park – and in most public spaces – is completely legal. Polite society frowns on extreme rowdiness, but many passersby are willing to  overlook a bit of drunkenness by the swing set after hours.

2) Nomikais, or drinking parties, are where it’s at for the bored college student, salaryman, and everyone else, really. These drinking parties take place at izakaya that often feature nomihodai specials, or all-you-can-drink for a set price and a set time limit, often two hours. They practically encourage you to binge drink to get your money’s worth! Most of these parties also include all the delicious Japanese bar food you can eat. The drawback is that the drink menu is limited and watered down. Choices include pitchers of beer, sake, shochu (Japanese distilled alcohol), or simple cocktails.

3) Beer vending machines. You heard me right, they have alcoholic vending machines. They aren’t as prevalent as nonalcoholic vending machines by any stretch, but if you’re jonesing for a brewski you can find one in most Tokyo neighborhoods.

The Bad

1) Homebrewing is illegal in Japan. Anything more than 1% alcohol cannot be brewed at home. I highly doubt anyone would get caught if they were to brew their own beer anyway – unless they tried to sell it – but that’s hardly the point!

2) Drinking culture makes it easy – and almost necessary – to drink too much, too often. Salarymen (office drones) are imprisoned within a strict professional hierarchy. It is common for workers to be pressured into drinking with their boss and coworkers after-hours, family time be damned. Not having worked in Japan I can’t say how often, but I’d guess it takes place several times a week.

To pour your own drink is bad form; instead you must fill a nearby companion’s glass so they can return the favor – whether you want them to or not. To say “no thank you, I’ve had enough tonight. Would you look at the time, I should get home to my wife and kids!” seems practically antisocial. Alcoholism isn’t widely acknowledged here so this behavior isn’t viewed badly.

3) There is a disappointing shortage of craft beers in Japan. Asahi, Sapporo, Kirin, and Suntory are the big four that reign over most of the beer trade, with almost no craft breweries braving the scene. The craft brews you do find are outrageously priced – at least double what a normal beer goes for.

I’d love to say the craft beer bug is waiting to bite over there, but I’m not so sure. Conformity and tradition are to Japan what independence and individuality are in America. Craft brewers here are free to experiment with whatever they want and each unique American is waiting for that beer that makes a statement about who they are. But in Japan, I have a feeling most brewers would rather stick with what they know and let the big boys do their thing rather than make waves.

On second thought, I’m not so sure I dig the drinking environment in Japan. I’d much rather sip a cold beer or glass of wine at my leisure over an enchanting conversation with interesting friends than chug as much alcohol down my gullet as possible before my liver begs for mercy. And although drinking in the park was fun, I wouldn’t trade in my craft brews just to kick back lager after lager on a bench. I’m probably just too much of an introvert to enjoy the warm party atmosphere of group drinking, though.

Have you gone drinking in Japan? What has your experience been?

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