Raw Japan

Slices of Japanese business, politics and life

Calling time on Japan’s alcoholics

November 18, 2009

When Japanese civil servant Yoshiyuki Takeuchi started to lag his colleagues at work, he joined a growing number of his countrymen looking for solace from their problems in the bottom of a glass. 

“People who started after me would go further in their careers just because they finished college. I tried to stop that sense of ‘why always me?’ by drinking,” said the 50-year-old, who quit university as his family couldn’t afford it.


With liquor consumption growing sixfold in the last 50 years in Japan to match the country’s economic affluence, alcoholism has become an increasing — but poorly grasped — problem in a nation where booze is readily available from convenience stores, where evening television is awash with liquor ads and where bonding with workmates is typically done over a few cold ones.

Economic losses from drinking problems top 6.6 trillion yen ($73 billion) a year and some 800,000 people, or 0.6 percent of the population, are estimated to be alcoholics. The rate is smaller than the United States or Europe, but is rising as more women and elderly become addicted to drink.

Despite the growing number suffering from the condition, alcoholism is not seen as a disease and there is no systematic approach to dealing with it. Methods of prevention and intervention are usually viewed as lacking in Japan, and even medical professionals often fail to understand that merely fixing physical ailments caused by alcoholism won’t stop patients from drinking.

Katsuya Maruyama of Kurihama Alcoholism Center, a leading hospital for treating alcohol dependency, said Japan is overly tolerant when it comes to drinking too much. “There is no proper teaching on how alcohol can be dangerous, so no one knows alcoholism as a disease,” he said.

JAPAN/Some experts say recent high-profile cases could help raise recognition that alcoholism is a serious illness. Shoichi Nakagawa, an ex-finance minister who quit his post after being forced to deny he was drunk at a G7 news conference in February, died in October.  Some media reports said the 56-year-old may have mixed alcohol with sleeping pills, and doctors have said he likely suffered from alcoholism. 

And Prince Tomohito, the 63-year-old cousin of the emperor, told the country in 2007 that he was an alcoholic.

“Alcoholics were seen as people with personality problems (after high profile cases emerged),” said Tetsutaro Tatsuki of self-help group All Nippon Abstinence Association.  “They were proof that it is not an illness just for a handful of people, but that anyone could become alcoholic.”

Photo credits: REUTERS/stringer

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