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A Joyous Future Awaits a Japan which Doesn’t Get Drunk

A survey proves the majority of people are fed up with being pressured to have alcohol with colleagues. For the sake of women and families, corporate culture needs to change.



This may look like wine, but look again - it's a kind of seaweed tea - kombucha!



In the past when I used to go to bars, I sometimes heard a ghastly slur leveled against sensible, sober people.

I would be told: “Son, never trust a man who doesn’t drink.” 

This warning was usually voiced by strange men, who slurred their words and winked knowingly as they enticed me to clink their glasses in a toast.

I must admit I found the phrase attractive. It left the impression that getting inebriated is a noble act and a legitimate way of tearing down the barriers of pretense which hide our true souls.

It turns out that the aphorism was originally coined by James Crumley, who held visiting professorships at half a dozen American universities during the 1970s and 1980s.

It originally appeared in a detective book by Crumley in which a character says: 

“Son, never trust a man who doesn’t drink because he’s probably a self-righteous sort, a man who thinks he knows right from wrong all the time. Some of them are good men, but in the name of goodness, they cause most of the suffering in the world. They’re the judges, the meddlers. And, son, never trust a man who drinks but refuses to get drunk. They’re usually afraid of something deep down inside, either that they’re a coward or a fool or mean and violent.”


Drink and Drugs

The author of these words did cocaine six days a week and drank a bottle of whiskey every day, according to his friend and fellow writer Thomas McGuane. He also married five times, had many children and suffered years of ill health before an early death.

It is too late to know if Professor Crumley was regarded as “trustworthy” by his students and colleagues in academia. Detective novels are not peer reviewed, so his theories about non-drinkers were never scrutinized by sociologists before they spread around the bar rooms of the world.

However, in this day and age, it is unlikely that a person who is unrepentant of an addiction would impress the ethics committee of an institution such as a leading university. I am sure that boards are far more likely to favor “a man who thinks he knows right from wrong all the time” than a raging alcoholic. Prigs often get promotions.

Blurred Memories

I have now stopped drinking alcohol, although I still have blurry recollections of boozing in Tokyo, Osaka and on the Shinkansens which run between the cities. 

From my sober perspective, I am often puzzled as to why senior people in business in Japan still feel the need to get drunk with colleagues and associates, risking their reputation, as well as their good health.

I am not alone in considering alcohol an anathema to sensible social interaction. More than 60% of respondents to a recent online survey in Japan said they believe work-related get-togethers for drinking are “unnecessary.” 

This survey was conducted by Nippon Life Insurance Co in October and was filled in by nearly seven thousand people.

A party featuring Japanese sake.

No More 'Nominication' 

The company notes that those who shun so-called “nominication” — a portmanteau of the Japanese words for “drink” and “communication” — that often signifies work colleagues meeting up over drinks, overtook supporters of the practice for the first time since the annual survey began in 2017.

The most common complaint people used against their workmates was their “aversion toward needing to be mindful or attentive during drinking sessions”.

I take that to mean that folk don't like it when their boss acts badly when drunk and then tries to pretend nothing happened the following morning.

Of those who viewed nominication positively, some claimed it “closes the distance” with others and helps people “discover the true feelings” of colleagues, while others say trips to the bar serve as occasions to “gather information.”

I wonder if that “gathered information” includes videos made on mobile phones which would later be used as ammunition to destroy the career of a work rival.

Japanese tea with a great view

Women’s View

I expect that much of the pushback against the drinking culture is coming from women. Japanese companies are slowly trying to remove the obstacles to professional development which hinder women, and one of the most problematic is the expectation that teams should march off to an izakaya and listen to lewd, sexist jokes late into the night.

It is significant that the survey was conducted by Nippon Life Insurance. Chizuru Yamauchi, an Executive Officer at Nippon Life, is quoted on the corporate website as saying: “Our company has a workforce in which approximately 90% are women, so we have positioned women’s success in the workplace as a crucial management strategy and focused on creating an environment promoting women’s active participation.”

Furthemore, Nippon Life`s mission statements emphasise the importance of trust and building an organization which aims to “care for an individual and the well-being of their entire family, respecting the dignity of each person we serve.”

Aroma Cafe Moksha Chai Latte
Maccha, Gudetama Cafe Osaka

Time for Tea

In my view and those of many of the survey’s respondents, it's far better to use green tea and coffee instead of alcohol in nominication sessions. 

The bar room is not the boardroom, and I’ve never had a proper conversation about business development over booze. At least, I don't remember doing so. 

And in fact, the character in James Crumley`s detective novel who maligns those of us who like to be sober goes on to speak even more harshly of those who get drunk. 

“It’s damned hard for a man to take himself too seriously when he’s heaving his guts into a dirty toilet bowl,” he warns. And on that point, I fear that the author himself may have been something of an expert. 

Author: Duncan Bartlett

Duncan Bartlett is a regular contributor to JAPAN Forward. He is the Editor of Asian Affairs magazine and a Research Associate at the SOAS China Centre, University of London. Find other essays and reports by the author on JAPAN Forward at this link.


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