to main page
Alcohol in Japan

See also:
See also: Nicotine (Tobacco), Amphetamines (Speed), Caffeine (Coffee).
See also: Hemp as a "drug"
See also: Drug risks: How dangerous are the most common drugs?

Alcohol is widely used in Japan. About 70% of all alcohol is consumed as beer, with the remainder used in the form of sake (rice wine), shochu, wine, fruit wines and spirits. Grapes were introduced by the Portuguese about 400 years ago because wine was needed for sacramental purposes by Christians. Beer only arrived in Japan about 100 years ago but has become by far the most popular alcoholic beverage.

4l bottles of 25% alcohol in a Tokyo supermarket

Hops and Hemp

We all know that beer is made from water and malts. There is an important third ingredient, hops, which acts as a preservative and as flavouring (it's responsible for the bitter taste in beers). Hops also contains a slightly psychoactive substance, lupulin. Few beer drinkers know that amongst all plants the closest relative of hops is cannabis hemp, marijuana. Most domestic Japanese hops is grown in Hokkaido, the Tohoku region or Nagano. All of these are former hemp growing areas, since both plants thrive in a similar environment.

In the United States and in Germany, some beers are brewed from crushed hemp seeds. They have a nutty taste and full flavour. The hemp seeds do not act as an intoxicant, only the alcohol.

In Japanese society alcohol serves an important function as a release valve for social pressures. Many business negotiations are conducted in bars and restaurants under the influence of alcohol. Getting drunk can be an integral part of one's career path. It can be difficult to avoid alcohol altogether and often there is pressure to drink to join a group.

Alcohol and women
Drinking used to be pretty much a male domain in Japan, but now sales of alcohol to men are so saturated that recent ads for plum wine and beer are specifically targeting young women. And there are a few young ladies around that go through a couple of bottles of wine a week. When they have babies they really have to change their habits or the babies may suffer from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. The baby might be mentally retardated. Alcohol should be avoided during pregnancy.

Alcohol is tolerated
Public drunkenness amongst men, especially late at night, is quite common (and unlike in the USA, legal) though unlike many other countries it is not often related to violence. There is no great embarassment involved in being seen drunk by other people, so as long as you don't make a fool of yourself all the time. You have to be a pretty hard drinker before people treat you as a nuisance.

What age limit?
Like cigarettes alcohol is available from outdoors vending machines that perform no age verification, so the legal barriers against under-age drinking are somewhat theoretical.

The problem drinkers
While most people who drink alcohol do so in moderation and without doing any damage to their health, a minority of alcohol users does get addicted. It is estimated that there are several million Japanese with a serious alcohol problem. The health damage from excessive alcohol use is largely ignored by Japanese society.

Organic damage
Habituation to heavy drinking is very harmful, as alcohol is a relatively toxic drug when used in higher doses. A blood alcohol level of about 0.4% is lethal. An adult can reach it by drinking from about 300 ml of pure alcohol (100%), equivalent to 0.75 l of spirits (40%), 2 l of wine or sake (15% ) or 6 l of beer (5%). Immoderate alcohol use causes damage to most internal organs including the liver, stomach, esophagus, bladder, nervous system and the brain. Esophageal cancer is the sixth leading cause of cancer deaths amongst men in Japan. About 36% of Japanese have an enzyme deficiency (ALDH2 deficiency) that makes it difficult for their body to process alcohol, which causes symptoms like reddened skin and nausea. If they drink anyway their cancer risk is much higher than for other alcohol drinkers. Alcohol can also cause Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in unborn babies of pregnant drinkers.

Alcohol and solvents
The only other group of intoxicant drugs that is so clearly linked to brain damage as alcohol are the solvents (acetone, toluene, etc. in glue, nail varnish remover, etc.). This is not surprising since alcohol (ethanol) and its metabolites in the liver are all substances that are used as solvents in the chemical and pharmaceutical industry. When alcohol is broken down in the liver it turns into a toxic substance that has the same effect as inhaled solvents. Chronic alcohol abuse is the major source of liver disease.

Especially during the year-end season the police gets very active catching drunk drivers. Alcohol affects the ability to operate machinery and operate motor vehicles quite seriously, more so than most illegal recreational substances do. It is involved in approximately 4000 traffic deaths a year in Japan, almost half of all traffic accident deaths in the country.

Withdrawal symptoms
One measure of addictiveness of a drug is the severity of withdrawal symptoms when drug use is stopped. By that measure alcohol can be quite addictive. If alcohol use is very heavy for an extended period then physical addiction, a serious medical condition, occurs. Sudden withdrawal of alcohol in an addict can produce physical withdrawal symptoms so severe as to be life-threatening. If the addict is not given either alcohol or valium he may die. Few other drugs, legal or otherwise, lead to life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. Sudden abstinence from marijuana, even after long term heavy use does not lead to any physical withdrawal symptoms.

Alcoholism and Smoking are our biggest drug problems
Talking about drug problems but excluding alcohol and tobacco is like talking about oceans but ignoring the Atlantic and the Pacific. Alcohol abuse is probably the second worst drug-related health problem after tobacco, in terms of disease it causes and premature deaths.

Of course with alcohol there are "drug overdoses" too:

See also: "Hanami" merrymakers hit by alcohol poisoning

"Cannabis or alcohol? Observations on their use in Jamaica"
UNDCP Bulletin on Narcotics, 1972, Issue 1, Page 2:

One of the striking features of the patient population of Bellevue, the large mental hospital in Kingston, Jamaica, is the infrequency of disturbances associated with alcohol. Of 600 admissions to one typical ward over a two-year period, less than 2 % suffered such problems; not a single case of chronic brain syndrome associated with alcoholism was seen and we encountered neither delirium tremens nor alcoholic hallucinosis. The few alcohol-linked disturbances that did occur were, moreover, in patients who contrasted sharply with the predominantly low-income ward population in that they were from higher income levels or were highly acculturated, having spent several years in England or the United States or Canada.

This picture is unexpected first because in Jamaica, a major sugar producing country, rum is relatively cheap; and second, because it is in marked contrast with what we know of most other Caribbean islands. For example, annual returns indicate some 47% of admissions to mental hospital in Nassau and 53% in Martinique are alcohol-linked [1] . Murphy and Sam-path [6] found 50% of admissions in St. Thomas (to general hospital psychiatric unit in an area without a mental hospital) were related to alcohol use. These figures may be compared to Chafetz's [3] estimate of 30% alcohol-linked admissions to American mental hospitals and 40 % to mental hospitals in Santiago, Chile [4] .

Although many of these statistics are approximate, such a gross contrast with Jamaica's 2 % of alcohol-linked admissions calls for some attempt at explanation. The hypothesis we wish to explore here is one that has already been hinted at by Beaubrun [2] . In his pioneer field survey of alcohol consumption in five Kingston suburbs, he found that heavy drinking was more prevalent in higher income groups. He suggested that for low-income groups "... ganja (marihuana) smoking is widespread ... and may play a role as an alcohol substitute."

Our hypothesis is that the use of ganja as a euphoriant by low-income Jamaicans is a benevolent alternative to alcohol and may protect them against the consequences of' alcohol consumption-alcohol addiction, delirium tremens, chronic brain syndromes, Korsakoff psychosis and physical sequelae such as cirrhosis of the liver.

To return to the comparison of hospitalized men with their neighbours in the community, it will be recalled that the percentage of heavy ganja users at large was, if anything, higher than the percentage of ganja users on the ward. This finding would support our opinion that ganja use is not a significant cause of psychosis. The so called "ganja psychosis" is schizophrenia occurring in a ganja-using population.

In general this study supports the view that ganja is used as an alternative to alcohol by low income Jamaicans. Whether it is a "benevolent" alternative is less clear: we found no evidence however that ganja was an important cause of mental hospitalization.

"Cannabis or alcohol? Observations on their use in Jamaica"
UNDCP Bulletin on Narcotics, 1972, Issue 1, Page 2

"The Cannabis Habit"
UNDCP Bulletin on Narcotics, 1963, Issue 1:

"In this light it is clear that the free availability of cannabis can be harmful, but it is not so clear that this is more harmful than the free availability of alcohol. The question arises, therefore, why cannabis is so regularly banned in countries where alcohol is permitted. One reason may be that, having little direct experience with the drug and hearing the alarming picture reported from countries such as Egypt, these other countries have decided simply to be on the safe side. Another reason may be that the causes of cannabis habituation are confused with its effects. A third reason may be that, because few other pleasures are available to a mass of the people in certain countries, recourse to cannabis there follows the disastrous pattern of the recourse to alcohol in eighteenth-century Britain. One cannot read Benabud's sympathetic description of the Moroccan urban proletariat without realizing that life offers such people very few inducements not to drown themselves in a cannabis illusion. However, there is yet another reason why, I think, alcohol is tolerated in Anglo-Saxon countries while cannabis is feared. It derives from the work ethic of Protestantism and its hostility towards inaction. In India, cannabis can be tolerated and even used by the Brahmin priesthood because social inaction can have a positive connotation, whereas alcohol, with its potential release of repressed impulses, is disapproved of as a disturber and distracter. In Anglo-Saxon cultures inaction is looked down on and often feared, whereas over-activity, aided by alcohol or independently of alcohol, is considerably tolerated despite the social disturbance produced. It may be that we can ban cannabis simply because the people who use it, or would do so, carry little weight in social matters and are relatively easy to control, whereas the alcohol user often carries plenty of weight in social matters and is difficult to control, as the U.S. prohibition era showed. It has yet to be shown, however, that the one is more socially or personally disruptive than the other."

"The Cannabis Habit",
Associate Professor, Department of Psychiatry, McGill University, Montreal.
Bulletin on Narcotics, 1963, Issue 1

See also:
See also: Nicotine (Tobacco), Amphetamines (Speed), Caffeine (Coffee).
See also: Hemp as a "drug"
See also: Drug risks: How dangerous are the most common drugs?

to main page
Back to main page