Americans are of course known for our insular view of the world, which so often places the U.S.A. at the center of the known universe—we have an unfortunate tendency to think of our own culture, its norms, and our laws as a sort of global standard, against which all others are compared and judged. On some level, this is inevitable—the U.S. is a very large country, sundered by great distances from the likes of Europe and Asia, which makes international travel more difficult. Coupled with the general lack of priority our educational system places on teaching multiculturalism, it means that the average U.S. citizen who hasn’t traveled extensively tends to end up with very little conception of how the everyday culture of other countries differs from our own. This is true of many aspects of global culture … including alcohol culture.
One nation with a particularly fascinating drinking culture is Japan, particularly in the sense of how that culture is shaped by the federal laws that govern it. Simultaneously more lax and sometimes far more strict than most alcohol laws found in the U.S., the laws governing the consumption of alcohol in Japan may look truly bizarre to many Americans on first inspection. In short, you probably won’t believe some of the places that people are legally allowed to drink in Japan, or how strict the dividing line can sometimes be between what is legal and what isn’t. Also hard to believe: The fact that the Japanese federal government is currently in the process of trying to convince its younger residents that they should drink more, in an effort to revive the flagging domestic alcohol industry.
Therefore, let’s examine below some of the major ways that Japan’s drinking laws differ from our own, and why its government is trying to promote an uptick in alcohol consumption.
How and Where Alcohol Is Consumed in Japan
Stereotypes of Japan do tend to include alcohol, particularly in the format of the famous hostess/host bars, frequented by the stereotypical “salaryman” as part of expected after-work socializing and parties. There are, however, myriad types of different bars in Japan, from establishments comparable to Western gastropubs to upscale cocktail haunts, whiskey-focused “shot bars” and even public bars that offer zero seating and dispense all drinks from vending machines. One has no shortage of options, in terms of places to drink.
Those options also include most public streets and parks, because both public intoxication and open containers are largely legal and socially acceptable in Japan. Want to bring your own booze to drink at a public park? Legal, unless it’s private property that explicitly forbids alcohol. Stumbling home from the bar at night? That’s perfectly legal as well. You can even sleep off that stupor on a public bench or alley—if the police come across you, they may offer assistance, but they won’t be writing you a citation or hauling you off to the local police station, unless you’re being belligerent or disruptive. In general, public consumption of alcohol doesn’t carry much of a stigma in Japan.
However, the idea of “public consumption” in Japan goes even further than you’re probably imagining. Drinking in public transportation, for example, is also legal—booze is sold on the famed shinkansen system of high-speed rail, and it’s not illegal to swig from a hip flask on the train, or even a public bus. Perhaps most astoundingly, though, drinking on modes of private transportation such as cars is also legal for everyone but the driver. That’s right: You can be cruising down the highway with an open bottle of whiskey being passed back and forth between all the passengers, and that is legal under Japanese law. Pretty hard to fathom for most U.S. drinkers, right?
At the same time, however, Japan does possess sharp lines of demarcation between “legal” and “illegal.” Although your passengers can get buzzed, anyone who has to drive shouldn’t even think about letting a bottle touch their lips. Driving under the influence is an even more serious offense in Japan than under U.S. law, with thresholds to define “intoxication” that can be as low as .03 blood alcohol. Penalties, meanwhile, can include a $10,000 fine and as much as 5 years in prison for a first-time offense.
It’s also quite easy to sell booze in Japan, as selling alcohol for consumption on premise actually requires no specific license from the Japanese government. Opening a restaurant and want to serve beer, wine and liquor? No problem, go right ahead. This stands in sharp contrast to many U.S. markets, where a limited number of liquor licenses exist, meaning that new bars or restaurants must acquire an existing (very pricey) license. There are a few exceptions to this rule in Japan: A special license is needed to continue serving alcohol after midnight as a “late night” bar, for one. Also, any business that intends to “vend” alcohol (sell unopened packages to take off premise) must acquire a standard license. Still, the thought of being able to open a bar without technically needing a liquor license is a pretty unbelievable one. Additionally, package store owners can also sell “tastes” from open liquor bottles if they choose—a pretty nice feature for consumers, because it means you can often taste an expensive whiskey before committing to the purchase.
With that said, despite the vast array of options for drinking, per capita alcohol consumption in Japan has been slowly and steadily declining for the last few decades, a phenomenon that has also largely happened worldwide. The pandemic only accelerated these trends, especially among younger consumers, as culturally exemplified by the “sober curious” movement. Globally, there are more people experimenting with not drinking than ever … and that’s a problem for Japan in particular, which historically generated significantly more of its tax revenue from alcohol sales than the likes of the United States. According to the New York Times, 1.7% of Japan’s tax revenue in 2020 was derived from alcohol taxes—that’s down from 3% of overall revenue in 2011, and 5% of overall revenue back in 1980. Meanwhile in the U.S., only about .2% of overall revenue comes from excise taxes on alcohol.
This loss of revenue was no doubt the driving force behind the National Tax Agency’s decision to host a contest, inviting people between 20-39 to submit ideas and slogans for a campaign to encourage young people to consume more alcohol. The project, dubbed “Sake Viva!”, aims to “revitalize the industry,” but runs counter to the government’s repeated efforts throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to discourage drinkers from patronizing restaurants, bars and clubs. Now the powers that be are effectively pulling a 180, out of economic necessity. The agency goes out of its way to clarify that it in no way wants to promote irresponsible alcohol consumption by young people, but still, when is the last time you heard of an arm of the national government bureaucracy encouraging people to drink more?
You’ll have to forgive me, though, if I’m a little incredulous about any government ad campaign somehow convincing Japanese millennials and Gen Z members that drinking is cooler than they realized. It seems rather more likely that prevailing trends will simply continue—some folks will choose to drink, and some won’t. Some will crack open a beer from their pocket on the bullet train, and others will stick to tea. And that’s alright. Just remember, if you’re blacking out on your way home from the hostess bar: That alley probably isn’t the most comfortable or safe place to sleep, but there’s technically no law against it. And in the moment, that’s the important thing.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer and liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.