Are you planning to purchase or drink alcohol on your next trip to Japan? Apart from the legal parameters regarding the drinking age in Japan, you also need to learn the various rules and etiquette around alcohol in the country. While the drinking age is to ensure you aren’t breaking any laws, the local rules guarantee you’re following all social norms and customs.
Ready to sip and soak in Japan? Keep reading as we update you on everything you need to know about Japanese drinking culture!
Drinking Age in Japan: All You Need to Know
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The legal drinking age in Japan is 20 for locals and foreigners. Those of and above 20 years of age can both purchase alcohol and consume it by simply showing a valid ID. For foreigners, a residence card or passport will work.
Interestingly, Japan revised its Civil Code in 2022 to lower the age of adulthood from 20 to 18. However, this change wasn’t reflected in the country’s minimum drinking age.
On the whole, the regulations around drinking in Japan are quite lax. For example, you can drink anywhere and purchase or drink alcohol at any time. There’s also no strict ID checking anywhere when you try to buy alcohol, but that doesn’t mean you should travel without an ID if you are planning to drink.
Penalties for Underage Drinking in Japan
The penalty for underage drinking in Japan is having your information taken down by the police. The authorities then inform your parents, school, or workplace about the unlawful behavior. You may also receive disciplinary or administrative action from the authorities.
While this punishment may not seem too severe, it will leave a mark on your record. And if you ever indulge in unlawful behavior again, drinking or otherwise, the fact that you have an existing record will result in a much harsher penalty than if it was your first infraction.
In addition to underage drinking, there are other instances where you may get into legal trouble for drinking. Here’s a quick look at them:
• Making a scene, disrupting social order, or engaging in disorderly behavior
• Selling or providing alcohol to underage persons
• Drinking and driving (including bicycles)
• Being aware that the driver of your vehicle is under the influence of alcohol
Social Norms and Etiquette for Drinking in Japan
The many occasions for drinking in Japan can seem unavoidable if you’re invited along. Refusing an invitation to go out from friends, coworkers, or even fellow tourists may be considered impolite, and you may not always be able to avoid drinking at these gatherings. It is best to prepare yourself to experience one of the most casual drinking cultures in the world.
It is quite normal to drink for hours or drink until someone – or everyone – in the group passes out. And you may even find people passed out on the streets due to having drunk too much.
Drinking is central to Japan’s culture and society, and if you tour the area or work or study there, you’ll come across many occasions that are centered around drinking.
This naturally results in a long list of rules and social norms that must be followed when drinking in Japan. However, they are contextual and are subject to change depending on the situation, occasion, relationship with the people you’re partying with, etc.
Here’s a quick guide:
a. Drinking Venues
Japan has a wide variety of venues for drinking. From budget and alcohol quality to entertainment and social gatherings, there are different locations for various purposes and activities you want to enjoy while taking a sip of your favorite drinks.
The most popular one among such venues is the Izakaya. These are small bars or pubs with an informal vibe. They are the ideal spot to visit if you’re looking for a drink and want to chase it down with some delicious tapas-style dishes. They also offer a bottle-keep service.
Apart from Izakaya, you can also drink at regular clubs, bars, and restaurants. However, if you want a unique Japanese drinking experience (or are trying to stay within budget), check out venues offering Nomihodai deals. These are all-you-can-drink options for a set price within a set period.
Karaoke is another popular venue for people to drink. Here, you can have drinks with a small group while you all take turns singing to your heart’s desire. You can also order snacks and meals in many karaoke establishments. The best part of karaoke nights is that you don’t need to be too conscious of other parties in the establishment, as you’ll be having the time of your life in a private room.
There are four million vending machines in Japan, and some of them also have alcoholic drinks. But because vending machines are unmanned, you’ll often need to scan an ID as proof that you are allowed to purchase alcohol.
b. Pouring Drinks
If you’re visiting a restaurant for dinner and drinks, you’re more likely to come across Japan’s unique drink-pouring etiquette. To put it simply, a person usually doesn’t pour their own drink when drinking with someone in Japan.
So, who pours the drink?
In some instances, it is the waiter that pours everyone’s drinks at the table. When you’re in a group, one person may pour everyone else’s drinks or take turns to pour for those sitting next to them. According to social norms, the younger or lower-ranking person in the group will take the first turn at pouring a drink.
Most of the time, you don’t need to follow the etiquette throughout the dinner and can relax for the rest of the evening after one or two rounds.
c. Refusing Drinks
If you’re a non-drinker, you can simply order non-alcoholic beverages at the beginning of the evening.
On the other hand, if you’ve hit your limit and can’t drink anymore, your best option is to leave your glass full after it’s been poured in the previous round. This is a signal to those around you that you’re done drinking.
Of course, if someone does raise their glass for a toast, you may still have to show politeness and take a sip from your final drink. Although, you can simply feign a drink and leave your glass full.
Toasts are typically made after every person on the table has been served. In most group settings, the drinking will only begin after the most senior person or the host of the event makes a toast. In Japan, it is considered rude to take a sip before everyone else.
e. Drinking with Colleagues
Japan’s strict work culture often leaves very little opportunity for employees to get to know each other or socialize in the office. This is why drinking with colleagues after a day of work is considered to be an important activity that everyone is expected to participate in.
The main purpose of these gatherings is to build bonds with people whom you’ll be spending a lot of time with in a professional setting. However, with remote work and greater turnover in offices, this tradition is slowly being left behind.
f. Drinking in Public
Drinking in public isn’t necessarily frowned upon in Japan like in other parts of the world. And there are no strict legal restrictions for this, either. However, there are certain social norms to follow and things to remember.
For starters, everyone is expected to respect those around them and not make a scene. This means it is best not to flaunt the fact that you’re drinking. You’ll often find groups or individuals having alcohol in public near convenience stores, but keeping a low profile is still important.
Secondly, drinking at certain locations, like temples, is frowned upon. The only exception is when temple authorities themselves are selling alcohol.
Similarly, drinking on public transport is a no-no. An exception is the Shinkansen, or the bullet train, which is fine since it’s a significantly longer commute than other public transport options.
Safety and Precautions to Take When Drinking in Japan
Even though Japan is one of the safest countries in the world, you don’t want to let your guard down completely, especially when going out drinking.
You want to be mindful of your drink at all times. Do not accept drinks from strangers, and do not drink anything that has been left unattended, even for a few minutes.
If you have little to no knowledge of Japanese drinks or alcohol brands, it’s best to avoid those. For example, StrongZero is a brand of chuhai with high alcohol content (approx. 8% ABV). It can get you intoxicated within a few rounds – not the best option if you have a low tolerance.
Those traveling to populated areas like Shibuya or Roppongi should keep an eye out for scammers. They lure unsuspecting foreigners into bars and clubs where they’re served alcohol at exorbitantly high prices.