Drinking in Japan: An Introduction. On Izakaya and Red-Faced Revellers

Whether you’re drinking the locally brewed beer of Hokkaido, the fine sakes of Kyoto and Hyogo, or the grain liquor shochu of Kyushu and the awamori firewater of Okinawa, the party will no doubt be hopping.


The Japanese love to drink alcohol, and not simply for the pure, hedonistic fun of it, though they are no slouches at having a good time. Alcohol is the great social lubricant that sets the Japanese free from the intricate web of social and familial obligations that hounds them from cradle to grave. It gives them a socially valid excuse to boot society’s rules into touch and have fun.


This ‘let’s party’ determination gets intensified in the presence of guests, not least foreign visitors. Don’t be surprised if you’re invited to join someone’s party, end up drinking all night, then not pay a thing. As a general rule, the Japanese are inordinately generous to guests, and this is especially true in situations where some drinking is involved.

DrinkingThe Japanese might like to drink, but there is scientific evidence that they are actually not too good at it. Japanese people tend to get drunk quickly. Japanese researchers attribute this to a deficiency in a component of the aldehyde dehydrogenation enzyme that aids the processing of alcohol. This is said to afflict 40% of the Japanese population. Thus, it is not unusual to see Japanese drinkers lit up like the red chochin lanterns that adorn downtown izakaya, restaurants and nomiya – literally the ‘drinking shop’ – bars. 

However, it is fairly unusual to meet obnoxious drunks. Over-friendly sometimes, yes, but rarely aggressive.

Solitary drinking is not the norm. The Japanese love to cement those group relationships at nomikai drinking parties, the most famous being those held al fresco during the spring hanami cherry blossom viewing season, and at year-end bonenkai parties, and New Year shinnenkai festivities. For the specialists among you, October 1st is the nation’s official ‘Sake day’, during which the ‘national drink’ is celebrated at specific across the country.

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