Getting Drunk With Hello Kitty

Japan is a country which seems very boozy. Its obsession with alcohol goes back centuries and is tied up with religion. Somehow, women are expected to keep up a cute appearance, even when they’re out drinking in bars with men.

This week’s guest blogger on Japan Story Tomoko Parry shares her views on the gender divide in the bar rooms. 

As a translator, I am interested in the relationship between the English and Japanese languages. Some ideas in English which are expressed by two distinctly different words share the same word in Japanese. For example, the word gohan means both cooked rice and meals in general. 

One may therefore surmise that rice must be something very special within Japanese culture. Indeed, rice was once used as a currency, and in the era of feudal Japan, a farmer could pay his tax by using rice. One of the best known Shinto gods, or kami, is Inari – the goddess of rice.

The word sake means Japanese wine, made from fermented rice and it also means alcoholic drinks in general. Intriguingly, the word is often preceded by an honorific “o” as in o-sake, again suggesting a link to holiness or religion.  

Today sake remains tremendously popular in Japan, which is a country with a distinct drinking culture. Anyone who has spent some time there has probably experienced the call to go drinking with colleagues after work known as nomikai

During a nomikai, there may be a breakdown of the rigid rules of politeness which tend to control relationships in the workplace. Another guest blogger on Japan Story, Mac Salman, has recently posted an interesting account of his experience of the lapse of rules at a karaoke parlor.

I would like to offer my personal female perspective on drinking culture in Japan. Women are often expected to be kawaii or cute and nothing expresses the kawaii image more clearly than the internationally famous cat, Hello Kitty. 

The Hello Kitty brand has been used to market many products, including wine. It seems to be aimed at men who are encouraged to buy drinks for women. I suppose the guys hope their kawaii dates will let their defenses down after a few glasses. 

But they should be aware of the feline qualities of Japanese girls. We know the art of neko wo kaburu or literally “putting on a cat” to give the impression of naive innocence. However, we can also disappear like a Cheshire Cat when we wish to. What an irony it is while Cheshire Cat leaves its grin behind whereas Hello Kitty does not have a mouth to start with! So, gentlemen, beware!

I suppose there are some Japanese women who enjoy sipping pricey wines branded with the face of a cat. But after spending much of my life in the United States, I have developed a different taste. When I go out drinking with male or female friends, I begin by saying toriaezu biiru de – “Let’s start with beer!”  

I have also noticed that Hello Kitty herself remains sober at all times. She cannot get drunk as she has no mouth. 

About the writer

Tomoko Parry was born and grew up in Japan. After graduating from college, she quickly realized a BA in English Literature wouldn’t get her anywhere in the real world so she joined a start-up translation company, learned the ropes of the industry and then relocated to the United States, where she currently works as a freelance translator and interpreter.