Magazine article The Spectator

Land of the Rising Elbow

Magazine article The Spectator

Land of the Rising Elbow

Article excerpt

THE PROFESSOR - an expert in mediaeval Welsh literature -- darted his chopsticks into the plate of raw blowfish and lifted a morsel to his lips. `Delicious!' he hooted, chewing the delicacy, which, if prepared wrongly, can be poisonous, even lethal. Then a gasp. He clutched his throat and collapsed onto the tatami mat, writhing in agony. The other professors, kneeling around the low table, chortled with laughter. The Welsh expert looked up, stopped gasping and resumed his position, guffawing insanely.

The scene, at the best restaurant in an obscure farming town north of Tokyo, was my introduction to the peculiar role of alcohol in Japan. I had no idea of what was going on. To a newly arrived and very junior English teacher, pretending to die of blowfish poisoning seemed a pretty puerile joke at best. But all normal rules of judgment were suspended, all bets were off, for one reason: the profs were plastered. Or, I should say, were capable of getting plastered. Because the mere presence of booze, of ice-cold bottles of Kirin lager among the raw fish and miso soup, meant we had entered another world. Alcohol unlocked the door. We could drop the normal forms of Japanese society which had kept us bound with excruciatingly detailed rules of precedence, politesse and formality. Now, anything could go, and most of it did. Which is why a group of elderly academics were hugging each other, insulting each other and speculating about the availability of the library ladies. As the Japanese would say, we had forgotten our tatemae, the outward form, and revealed our honne, the real truth of our hearts.

It's no wonder that booze is big in Japan. Alcohol has an honoured role in traditional culture stretching back to ancient times. Huge straw casks of sake line the approaches to Shinto shrines on festival days. Marriages are solemnised not by the exchange of rings, but by drinking sake together. In one of the great kabuki scenes, the heroic servant Benkei proves his manhood by emptying a sake bowl about the size and shape of a satellite dish. For Japan's modern corporate warriors, being drunk is no disgrace. One top businessman is much admired for his habit of visiting at least eight bars on his way home after a formal dinner. The sight of a blue-suited salaryman splayed out insensibly on a station platform, briefcase at his side, is so commonplace in Tokyo as to be hardly worth noticing. Kindly station attendants help them crawl onto trains home and long-suffering wives roll them into bed at the other end. Even television ads celebrate the joys of insobriety. In one recent commercial for shochu -- a type of cheap and often vile spirits - a couple imbibe freely and then pass out on the living-room floor. Their young son then snaps a cheeky picture of his paralytic parents.

Cute. Or perhaps worrying. Gradually, Japanese society may be waking up to the realisation that there may be a hangover after the party. Unlike most other industrialised nations, alcohol consumption has increased consistently in Japan in the postwar decades. The Japanese still drink as much sake and shochu as ever, but they are knocking back growing quantities of foreign drinks like whisky, taken either mizuwari de (watered down) or on za rokksu. Red wine, because of its health benefits, is becoming both more popular and cheaper. But beer is easily Japan's top tipple, thanks in part to frenzied marketing competition between the four big brewers.

Although total alcohol consumption is relatively low, it is highly concentrated. Roughly 45 per cent of the Japanese can hardly drink at all. …

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