Oh, jeez. Of all the things I could be kicking off a brand new blog with, it just had to be this subject, didn’t it? What does that say about me? Well, to be more accurate, what does it say about Japan? Because there were other ‘A’ topics I considered to start with: Aisatsu, ALTs, Anpanman, and of course the almighty Anime. All of these I will come to in due course, but I really think that Alcohol has a bigger effect on Japanese society than any of the above.
Sound strange? Think about it: booze is indeed a drug, but it is a drug that serves as a ‘Social Lubricant’. Dirty puns aside, what that essentially means is that it makes normally tense and stressed people relax, slacken their tongues and get up to many a crazy antic they will in no way regret come next morning when they check their Facebook to see the dreaded “34 people liked a photo of you”.
But in Japan, it goes a step further. Not only does it serve this purpose, but the so-called ‘Enkai’ (literally ‘banquet’, though if you’re imagining a white tablecloth and silverware do, you’ll be disappointed when you step into that smoky bar under the railway arches) is semi-compulsory for the office worker, and even important work can get done after a few beers have been drained. One could plunder the reasons for this phenomenon for many essays worth of commentary, but essentially, the structure of a traditional Japanese business can be quite hierarchical and rigid, and juniors in the company don’t feel the confidence to speak their mind to their bosses – until they have downed a few shots of sake that is, and then it is all to play for. And that would a totally more rude wake-up call the next day when you find that your amazing idea to introduce Bacon-Flavored Air Freshener to the product line is actually being taken seriously.
As as with all social events in Japan, there is even a procedure to a drinking party. Firstly, you don’t pour your own drink: those around you will spot your empty or close-to-empty glass, and they will refill it for you while giving you an ominous troll-face. You will also be fortified with other glasses of magically-refilling booze, until eventually you end the night blasted off of your face and staring down at four of five still-full glasses. Another quirk that you will spot is that the heads on a beer are massive (see pic on the right); about one-third of the glass. Apparently this is how the Japanese prefer their beers , so when you take your first sup of the evening, be prepared to essentially faceplant into the bubbles before your lips touch any liquid.
Regardless of whether your poison is with friends or co-workers, there is the supply to meet the demand. The variety of drinks available can be quite daunting at times, and new ‘Limited edition’ drinks that are usually themed with the season come and go.
You have your standard beers (dominated by the ‘Big Four’ breweries, namely Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo and Suntory), but because of the taxes on malts, for cheaper alternatives there are also ‘imitation’ beers called Happoshu (発泡酒) that use replacements like soya, wheat and – yep – rice. There’s also Shouchu (焼酎), which is distilled spirits, the chuhai (a shorthand form of shouchu and highball), which is a fruity cocktail mix of shouchu and soda, and of course, sake (酒), the rice wine.
Speaking of wines, reds and whites, whiskeys and an all manner of international drinks are growing in popularity here too – a recent development is that Corona is now available in Convenience Stores, for example.
With all of this liqueur flying around, surely something doesn’t add up here, you might think: surely a stoic, formal nation like Japan would frown on such loutish behavior! Well, not really – true, if you really make a nuisance of yourself then you will wind up with a policeman in your face – but drunken behavior is more accepted here. For one, being intoxicated in public is not a crime, and it seems to be widely accepted as a release-valve for the stress built up through the day/week.
So drink up, enjoy, and “Kampai!” (But whatever you do, DO NOT say “Chin chin”!)