A stiff drink of policy for Japan

The country’s alcohol problem needs a new approach

Bastian Harth

Health, Food & water, Arts, culture & society | Asia, East Asia

3 June 2019

Heavy drinking is leading to greater health problems in Japan. Despite the difficulties that lay ahead, the government must take strong policy action to protect its citizens, Bastian Harth writes.

Japan has faced increasing cases of obesity, cancer, and death caused by alcohol in recent years, yet its government’s policy attempts to mitigate these issues have so far failed.

Japan’s policy has ignored the social significance of alcohol and the perpetuation of alcoholic symbols in daily Japanese life. There are, however, paths the government can take to tackle these issues.

A combined approach that brings together licensing and advertising regulations, as well as a broader social awareness campaign focused on alcoholism, is the best way forward in addressing an issue that’s only worsening.

According to research conducted by Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare in 2013, 1.09 million Japanese are suffering from alcoholism, while an estimated 10 million are potentially addicted to the substance.

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Alcohol plays a crucial part in Japanese social networking. Employees go drinking with their colleagues after work for ‘nomunication’ – a portmanteau of the word ‘nomu’, which means to drink, and ‘communication’ – while young adults regularly join ‘nomikais’ – or ‘all-you-can-drink’ parties.

This problem is prevalent across several Japanese demographics. Aside from the salaryman stereotype, the number of women who drink regularly has gone up, and cases of underage drinking have increased too.

These cultural norms are causing alcohol-related problems in Japanese society, especially, in recent years, around health. Distressingly, Japan has done little so far to prevent the overconsumption and misappropriation of alcohol compared to other countries in the world.

It has, however, made some attempt at action though – however small. In December 2013, the government passed a law aimed at reducing health problems caused by alcohol recognising the close link between alcohol abuse and social issues such as domestic violence, suicide, and drink driving.

But this is simply not enough. A combined approach to Japan’s alcohol problems would need more concrete policy changes.

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Currently, in Japan, all-you-can-drink restaurants are common while there is no time restriction as to when convenience stores can sell alcoholic beverages.

In accordance with the Global Status Report: Alcohol Policy by the World Health Organization, all-you-can-drink options at restaurants which encourage people to drink large quantities of alcoholic beverages over a short period of time must be outlawed.

Further, around-the-clock outlets must be prevented from offering alcohol during all of their opening hours. Currently, Japan is famous for its canned cocktail blitz beers that contain up to 9 per cent alcohol and that are available at these outlets.

Similarly, commercials advertising alcoholic beverages are publicly displayed in public transport vehicles and on television, encouraging people to purchase the newest products in the alcohol market.

Japanese policymakers could learn from those in New York, for example, where advertising alcoholic beverages on trains and on television is banned to reduce people’s exposure to alcohol. Additionally, they should ban advertisements showing alcoholic beverages between 12pm and 8pm, while forbidding individuals under 25 years old from featuring in them.

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The final aspect should be concerned with changing social attitudes. By encouraging individuals, especially celebrities, who have experienced alcoholism to speak up about the issue, the Japanese government could influence the way alcohol is perceived in Japanese society. It should also support non-governmental organisations that tackle the issue of alcoholism while encouraging doctors to work closely with them.

There are several hurdles before such policies can be implemented. Japan’s legislation and policy implementation process are generally slow, and alcohol’s place as a token of Japanese culture might block enforcing stricter regulations. Overcoming these obstacles may take time and effort, but without doing so, Japan won’t be able to see any progress on its alcohol addiction problem.

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