All About Japan

A Non-Drinker's Take on Japan's Drink Culture

Izakaya Alcohol

I’ve never been much of an alcohol drinker. Truth be told, I tasted beer for the very first time when I was 28 years old, when I came to Japan—and I hated the taste (No offense to those of you who do drink).

Why am I not a drinker? I don’t really know, but my mother and father aren’t drinkers either. I think I’ve seen my father drink beer only one time in my entire life—and he didn’t even finish it.

But I have tasted a few different types of alcohol here in Japan that tasted pretty good. One was Mozart, an imported chocolate liqueur that was literally lip-smacking good. Umeshu (梅酒, above) , Japanese plum wine, was also quite good.

At times I wonder if being more of a drinker would be a good thing, but then I remember that drinking can sometimes get to be an expensive habit for those who do it often enough. I also think about the physique goals I’m trying to reach in the gym. So this dialogue in my head always ends with me thinking, “Nah, I’m good with not being a drinker.”

Drinking Is Often a Standard Social Activity…

Drinking Is Often a Standard Social Activity…

However, in countries the world over, alcohol seems to be a “social facilitator.” Peoples’ inhibitions are lowered and even the shyest of people can become a bit more socially loose.

Nowhere is this more true, in my opinion, than in Japan. Drinking just seems to be a part of life here. In a society that has a reputation for being more reserved and conservative, for people being overworked, where people are so devoted to their jobs, it seems like a common form of release. When I talk to many of my students and ask what they did over the weekend, it’s quite common for me to hear that they went to a drinking party of some sort.

Beer is generally the weapon of choice at izakya (居酒屋, Japanese taverns or pubs), at welcome parties, at farewell parties, and at nearly any social gathering you can conceive of. But sake is also quite common.

At the parties I’ve been to here in Japan, my Japanese students are always so polite. When your glass is low, they fill it for you; they make sure everyone’s glasses are always full of beer—or in my case, ginger ale (yeah, I know it’s not “manly,” but it tastes good). I thought maybe this was just because we were teachers, or foreigners, but it seems pretty standard etiquette in Japanese social gatherings.

Then the alcohol kicks in…

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