How to avoid a hangover in Japan

Many people in Japan claim that in order to build good relationships, they need to go out drinking with their colleagues after work.

But as someone who is cautious around alcohol, I’ve been wondering if it’s really necessary. After all, most of my successful working communication in Japan (and elsewhere) has been done over a cup of tea. I don’t thrive professionally when I am drunk!

I’m grateful to the blogger Tim Sullivan for providing me with some insight into Japanese drinking culture. Tim writes a very enjoyable blog called Intercultural Twilight Zone – Connecting Japan with the World.

Kikubari beer games

Tim drew my attention to a Japanese concept based upon the art of anticipation, known as kikubari. This noble concept is based on the idea of “distributing one’s spirit” and proactively taking action.

Tim says the best examples are observed after dark in izakaya style pub-restaurants, as Japanese men engage in a dangerous beer-pouring ritual. Each man around the table stays on the lookout for half-empty glasses, then takes the initiative to pour beer from a bottle for their friends. He does this without being requested to do so. Tim says: “An uninitiated – and very drunk – American friend of mine once quipped to me in slurred tones after a night out drinking with some Japanese men: “I had 53 half glasses of beer but I didn’t pour a single one!”

Fear of foreigners

Tim’s friend discovered that foreign visitors to Japan are typically treated with great courtesy and hospitality. But although I have observed many exceptions, I think it is fair to say that the majority of Japanese people find close dealings with foreigners something of a strain. Japanese men seem to sense particular unease when they are around foreign women, who they rarely date or marry. Perhaps they fear being being regarded as inferior. This can lead some men to behave in a way which strikes women as arrogant or boorish, particularly when they are drunk, and this further undermines their romantic attraction.

One might assume that social discomfort with foreigners motivates Japanese men to get roaring drunk when they socialise with us, although I have noticed that they are quite capable of rowdy drunkenness without any international support!

One sniff is enough

Many studies have been undertaken to try to find out if there is some unique psychological aspect of the Japanese digestion system which makes the impact of alcohol stronger than it is on other races. I am not medically qualified to comment but it seems to me much more likely that in a culture in which emotion is often suppressed, the arrival of alcoholic drinks upon the table signal that is acceptable to temporarily abandon inhibition. For that reason, some people seem to become drunk as soon as the top is removed from the first bottle of beer or sake.

The good news for anyone wishing to abstain is that the mood of the group does not depend on all the guests getting drunk. You can join in the laughter while remaining sober.

Any excuse

In most countries, drunken behaviour, particularly on a repeated basis scars one’s professional reputation. In Japan however, public drunkenness does not seem to carry any particular stigma. The phrase “I was drunk at the time” is used an excuse to get out of all kind of trouble – including breaches of all the normal conventions of politeness, privacy and hierarchy which dominate office life.

However, women are generally displeased by such debauchery. One Japanese lady told me that she considers her husband’s drinking sessions with his colleagues and bosses to be “very troublesome.” She believes it would be much better for them all to go for an occasional coffee instead of late night sessions in the izakaya before another long day in the office.

She also thinks it is a waste of money. As a precautionary measure, she now asks her husband to hand over his pay packet to her so that she can handle the family finances. However, there is an unspoken understanding that a few thousand yen for the beer fund will be removed from the envelope before she gets her hands on the cash.

Don’t punish economic animals for imaginary sins

I have been fortunate enough to meet many Japanese CEOs, including the bosses of huge multinational companies like Toyota, Nissan and Sony. I am often bemused when business leaders claim that they are “economic animals” but perhaps this dehumanisation helps them cope with the beatings by the foreign media, which are frequent and painful.

When Japan’s economy is in a period of recession or low GDP growth, stories appear in the international press scolding it for its moribund, weak, ailing and disappointing performance. Powerful men are humiliated by this pejorative language, which is often associated with moral failure.

Misjudging the mood

Critical words are churned out in response to even minor setbacks, such as small falls in the value of shares on the Tokyo Stock Exchange or surveys which suggest a temporary blip in business confidence. Such data is barely scientific and has little bearing on the national mood. But foreign journalists – unfamiliar with the Japanese emotional repertoire – tend to misread the signals.

Japanese journalists then sift through the foreign press, curious to know how their country is being perceived. When they find negative opinions voiced by foreigners, they use them as the basis of stories for their own newspapers and social media. The often misplaced criticisms of the foreigners are sometimes taken up as rods to beat the politicians, central bankers and business leaders.

Delusion and distortion

The former Tokyo Bureau Chief of the Financial Times newspaper David Pilling told me his experience of working in the media in Japan led him to question the habit of judging a society’s value on the basis of its GDP numbers. In his new book The Growth Delusion he addresses statistical flaws.

David told me: “I was a reporter in Japan for the Financial Times from 2001 to 2008, the Koizumi years. From the point of view of the FT, Japan was a total disaster because there was little or no GDP growth. When I was talking to London from Tokyo, the tone of the conversation would be: “What’s gone wrong? There must be terrible social deprivation. Are there lots of people outside on the streets sleeping rough?” And, of course, there are some homeless people in Japan but it was a not a huge number. The misconceptions were born of the fact that nominal GDP in Japan hadn’t budged for 20 years.”

David concluded that the GDP numbers gave a distorted sense of reality. He told me about the time he showed a foreign politician around Tokyo. “He was just amazed at the activity, the sophistication, the level of service, the money that was there and said, “Well, David, if this is a recession, I want one.” It turned out that the numbers are telling you one thing; your eyes, ears, common sense is telling you another.”

Precious memories

Why then, I asked him, is the concept of GDP held so dear?

David replied: “It was invented in the 1930s as a barometer of the US economy after the Wall Street Crash. President Roosevelt used it to decide how much money he should spend to revive the economy. At that time, there was really no single tool to measure the economy. You had things like freight car loadings, the stock market, the rate of unemployment, but you had no single number. So the concept of GDP was clever. It managed to compress everything that we do as humans – and something that we defined as “the economy” – into one number. Clever things tend to last.

You can read more about David Pilling’s ideas in The Growth Delusion: Wealth, Poverty, and the Well-Being of Nations published by Bloomsbury and Duggan. He has also written an excellent book on Japan called Bending Adversity, published by Penguin.

Is North Korea setting a trap?

If the organisers of the Winter Olympic Games awarded medals for cheerleading or propaganda, North Korea would have walked away with double gold.

The champion attention grabbers were the two hundred North Korean women who performed synchronised cheers throughout events which involved athletes from their country, playing alongside people from the host nation, South Korea.

At one point, the North Korean women raised masks to their faces which resembled Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of current dictator, Kim Jong-un. It was a moment which thrilled the press photographers, who sent their pictures around the world and set social media ablaze.

Afterwards, Kim Jong-Un, who did not attend, basked in the reflected glory. He used state media to unciously praise South Korea for its “very impressive” and “sincere” efforts in hosting the Olympics and spoke of a “warm climate of reconciliation and dialogue”.

Heading Due North

Only a few months ago, the same state media threatened to turn Seoul, Tokyo and Washington to dust. Yet South Korea’s President, Moon Jae-In – the son of North Korean refugees – longs to meet Kim Jong-Un face-to-face. At the Games, he was presented with an invitation to the North, which he will almost inevitably accept. Before agreeing to the trip, though, he is likely to press for a hiatus in its missile testing.

“The North Koreans used the Winter Olympic Games to try to shape an image of a country which is not isolated from the international community. The focus was on humanising and normalising their country’s image, even though it strives to be a nuclear state,” said Scott Snyder who directs the US-Korea Program at the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington.

“We see athletes and cheerleaders and people doing taekwondo and we think these are normal people. We don’t think about the barbarity and cruelty that many North Koreans experience at the hands of the North Korean leadership,” said Mr Snyder.

Abe’s Dilemma

The Olympics created a dilemma for another of Kim Jong-Un’s threatened targets, the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Mr Abe wanted to promote Japan as a friendly nation and also to support Japanese athletes, especially as Tokyo will host the Olympics in 2020.

Yet he was wary of being drawn into the propaganda campaign or to be seen as “going soft” on North Korea. He also has issues with South Korea, which often stirs up bad memories over the period when it was occupied by Japan.

Symbolic meetings

At the start of the games, Mr Abe met South Korea’s President Moon. He also briefly met with the ceremonial head of state of North Korea, Kim Jong Nam, who is, according to Scott Snyder from the Council on Foreign Relations “a staunch defender of the North Korean regime.”

Mr Abe’s aides told reporters that during that short meeting he raised the issues of missile tests and abducted Japanese citizens.

Japan’s Foreign Minister Taro Kono later outlined to the Kyodo News Agency the reasons why Mr Abe attended the Olympics.

He said: “Without being swayed by North Korea’s smile diplomacy, Japan will firmly coordinate with the US and South Korea towards the ultimate goal of denuclearisation the Korean Peninsula.”

Mr Kono noted that North Korea conducted a military parade on the eve of the Olympics. “Its intention regarding nuclear and missile development has not changed,” he warned.

Professor Stephen Nagy from Tokyo International Christian University says: “North Korea has not shown any shift in its security calculus of attempting to consolidate its nuclear strategic deterrent. In fact, we have witnessed an acceleration in the scope and breadth of its program under Kim Jong-un, especially since the Trump election.”

Royal scandal shows the power of the tabloids

Freedom of speech in the media sometimes carries a heavy price Japan. It gives great power to the tabloid press, as the Imperial Family have found out to their cost this week.

Japan’s Princess Mako has announced she will be postpone her planned marriage to her fiance Kei Komuro for two years. This follows a report in the tabloids about Mr Komuro’s family background. Magazines have claimed there has been a dispute about money between Mr Komuro’s mother and a former partner.

The officials who represent the Imperial Family claim that the change of date for their marriage is unrelated to the tabloid reports but few people believe this.

Tabloid attention

Princess Mako and Mr Komuro announced their engagement last September and originally planned to wed in November this year. Since then, the tabloids have been trying to obtain stories about Mr Komuro and his family.

A magazine called Shukan Josei (Weekly Woman) first reported on his mother’s financial dealings with her ex-fiancé in December. A rival weekly, Josei Seven, suggested that the Imperial Household Agency did not run proper background checks on the Komuro family.

TV drama

Another person targeted by the tabloids recently is the TV news presenter Junichi Tosaka, who worked at NHK for 20 years. He planned to switch to the rival channel Fuji TV soon but has stepped down from that role because of allegations in a tabloid about his alleged sexual behaviour.

The most famous weekly tabloid magazine Shukan Bunshun has accused Mr Tosaka of sitting next to another newscaster at a restaurant, before “touching her knees as if he was rubbing her” and whispering to her to “sneak out of the restaurant together.”

This has some strong echoes of the allegations of sexual impropriety by men which have been highlighted in many countries by the “Me Too” social media campaign. Many powerful men have been named as predators.

Power not proof

Tabloids like the Shukan Bunshun can print almost any allegation without much proof and although most respectable people say they do not believe all things they read in gossipy magazines, they do hold considerable influence.

Their reports spread like wildfire online and are often picked up by the mainstream newspapers and broadcasters. Sometimes the international media picks them up too, as was the case with the story about Princess Mako’s fiance.

In a country where most people are very respectful towards privacy and hierarchy, the reporters from the weekly magazine often break the rules to get the stories. The greater a person’s fame, the more the tabloid magazines will dig for anything which connects them to scandal. I met some reporters from Shukan Bunshun in Tokyo and I asked them if they pay money for information and they told me that they do not.

However, the greater attention their stories receive, the more kudos the reporters earn. And the people they write about have few weapons to fight back. Even if they are not true, allegations in the press can ruin a person’s reputation, career and relationships.