Japanese Drinking Culture & The Expatriate

In 2013, a survey was conducted on attitudes toward drinking in 40 different countries.  The question:  is drinking alcohol morally acceptable?  Japan topped the list for the percentage of participants responding that it’s “acceptable” (66%), and had lowest percentage of participants responding “unacceptable” (6%).

As an expatriate living in Japan, it’s very important to be mindful of the Japanese drinking culture and how it can impact you.

Japanese Drinking Culture – Etiquette

The “Kanpai” (i.e., “Cheers”) is very important when you begin drinking with a friend or coworker, and is often accompanied with “Ostukaresama,” which is a way to acknowledge a hard day’s work.  These are very important actions and words.  They symbolize a transition; coming from a professional, more restricted emotional state, to a more relaxed, less guarded state.  The association between alcohol and this transition is very strong.  And, in a sense, alcohol is at the center of it, giving one permission to make this transition.

In some social environments, it’s also important to pour others’ drinks for them, and allow others to pour your own.  In short, everyone is looking out for one another, which usually means glasses are rarely, if ever, seen empty: your glass is poured; you drink about half or maybe 2/3; then it’s refilled by someone else.  In Japan, and in the group setting, it’s very easy to lose track of how much you’ve been drinking because your glass seems to be always full.

Then there is the “Nomi-hodai,” which is an all-you-can-drink option, and can be found at most establishments serving alcohol.  Combine the pressure of time that “Nomi-hodai” brings (and maybe the pressure of getting one’s money worth), with the pressure of a group intent on releasing the day’s stress, it becomes fairly easy to lose yourself in the moment.

Japanese Drinking Culture – Stigma (or lack of)

“There’s seemingly no stigma attached to being drunk,” which can be viewed as consistent with the findings of the 2013 survey on attitudes towards drinking:

Compare this with the attitudes for other things compared to Western countries like the United States:

1.6% of Japanese have tried an illicit drug in their lifetime


9.4% of American have tried an illicit drug in the LAST MONTH


1.2% of Japanese have tried marijuana in their lifetime


44 – 49% of Americans have tried marijuana in their lifetime

In Western countries, and in general, alcohol is still seen as a drug, but as a lesser evil when compared to other drugs.  And attitudes towards each individual drug, is viewed differently; ranked perhaps according to the common perception of how addictive and lethal the drug is.

In Japan, however, it’s more black in white.  In one category you have alcohol and tobacco (not really considered drugs), and in the other category, you have drugs.  It’s that simple.  There aren’t “soft drugs,” or drugs that are really addictive and dangerous, and others that are more socially acceptable to experiment with.  Many Japanese, in general, simply view them all as dangerous and something to be avoided, with exception, of course, to alcohol and tobacco.

This is very general, and it should also be noted that it has been reported that drug use in Japan is rapidly increasing (though still extremely low relative to the West).

Given social stigma and heavy consequences for using drugs besides alcohol, when it comes to using substances to relieve stress in Japan, alcohol, is really the only option.

It’s also very easy to over indulge in Japan.  Efficient trains, capsule hotels, and “Daiko” services (a taxi service that drops both you and your car off at your destination), make the logistics of going out and letting loose, that much easier.  Not to mention that drinking in public is legal (though not always socially acceptable).

Japanese Drinking Culture – The “Flexible Self”

In Western cultures, in general, being the same person across a variety of different social environments is seen as mature.  A “consistent self” is respected and often a sign of being a true adult.  “To the Westerner, it makes sense to speak of a person as having attributes that are independent of circumstances or particular personal relations.  This self, this bounded, impermeable free agent, can move from group to group and setting to setting without significant alteration” (Nisbett, pg. 53).  The Japanese “self,” however is different.

The Japanese “self,” is more dependent on context; that is, it’s relative to the situation he or she is currently in.  “A study asking Japanese and Americans to describe themselves either in particular contexts or without specifying a particular kind of situation showed that Japanese found it very difficult to describe themselves without specifying a particular kind of situation showed that Japanese found it very difficult to describe themselves without specifying a particular kind of situation; at work, at home, with friends, etc.  Americans, in contrast, tended to be stumped when the investigator specified a context, ‘I am what I am.’  When describing themselves, Asians make reference to social roles (I am Joan’s friend”) to a much greater extent than Americans do” (Nisbett, pg. 53).

Why is this important?  Because Western expatriates are often shocked by the drastic difference between how coworkers act at work versus the izakaya.  In general, Westerners often report Japanese being “immature,” because of the extreme differences they observe from the same person in different settings.  The Western “self,” on the other hand, is less extreme, and more consistent.

Japanese Drinking Culture – Being an Expat in Japan

Our environments impact and influence us more than we’re aware.  And being in new environments, we are particularly vulnerable:  we lack our typical social support network, we lack full understanding of social cues and language, and we often make up our own theories on how our new environment works (some correct, some very far off from reality).  In addition, we also come with our own assumptions about this new environments.

Given Japan’s view towards alcohol, expats can easily find themselves relying on alcohol more than they normally would back at home.  Some expats even get the feeling that drinking is an obligation in Japan, that is, if one wants to succeed socially and professionally.  Though drinking is not a requirement, the drinking spirit is definitely in the air, and something that can’t be ignored.

This article is not about determining whether Japan’s view on alcohol is good or bad.  It’s also not argument in favor of one culture over another.  The intent is to bring more awareness to the culture we choose to live, and examine our own values, and how those values interact with the general values of our current environment.  Because without awareness and examination, we’re really just running on autopilot.


    Nisbett, R. E. (2003). The geography of thought: How Asians and Westerners think differently– and why. New York: Free Press.

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