It's cherry blossom time in Tokyo and the thoughts of Japanese turn to . . . drinking.
Throughout the country, Japanese have gathered night after night, surrounding cherry trees everywhere. In Tokyo's Ueno Park, crowds exceeded 100,000.
Groups of office workers spread out mats on the ground, doffed their shoes and sat on the ground or pavement, popping open cans of beer or rice wine and inviting passers-by, including a conspicuous number of foreigners, to join them for a drink and a chat.
Laughter, singing, clapping and boisterous chatter filled the night air in Ueno Park and throughout Japan. But very little time was spent viewing the new cherry blossoms. The petals were just an excuse for the parties.
It's not that the Japanese really need to look for excuses to drink. In addition to the hanami-zake (flower-viewing) parties, there are welcome, farewell and job-transfer parties at work, repeated nights on the town with colleagues and customers, endless receptions, forget-the-old-year parties and welcome-the-new-year parties.
While alcoholic consumption in Western countries such as the United States, France and Italy is dwindling, it continues to rise in Japan.
One reason is that Japanese culture is bathed in traditions sanctified by alcohol, said Dr. Hiroaki Kono, director of the National Institute on Alcoholism in Kurihama.
In Shinto rites, parents sanctify a baby's birth by drinking. Marriage vows are sealed with sips of sake. And funerals, too, include ceremonial alcohol.
"From long ago, Japanese, unconsciously, have believed that even the gods enjoy alcohol," Kono said. As a result, "convivial drinking--sharing joy together--has an overpowering attraction," he added.
Folklore glorifies such characters as Shosuke Ohara, a feudal lord reputed to have lived a life of joy filled with drink from morning until night. And even today, drinking ability is considered a badge of merit.
Disclosures of excessive drinking that might cause a scandal in the United States help endear the social elite to the common man in Japan.
When Yasushi Mieno was named governor of the Bank of Japan in December, 1989, for example, public relations officials of the central bank handed out information that described Mieno as a consummate drinker. His predecessor, Satoshi Sumita, drank only wine, whiskey and brandy, but not Japanese sake, whereas Mieno "drinks everything," the PR men said with pride.
Similarly, at a funeral for his predecessor as governor of the Bank of Japan, Haruo Maekawa eulogized his old friend as a man who "liked alcohol and was very strong at drinking."
"When he drank, he was really delightful," Maekawa told the mourners.
Although the old custom of passing sake cups back and forth has all but disappeared, a companion refusing to drink is eventually branded as tsukiai ga warui-- no good at fellowship--"the most fearful thing that can be said about a person in Japan," Kono said.
Tolerance of boisterous behavior, or worse, caused by drunks has won Japan a reputation as a "heaven for drunks."
"No one worries about reprobation for raising a commotion while drinking in a group. It's like crossing (a street) against a red light in a group," Kono said.
A joint U.S.-Japan study on drinking habits revealed more generous attitudes toward drinking in Japan in all but two areas--drinking before driving and drinking on the job, Kono said. In fact, drunk-driving accounts for only 1.1% of the traffic accidents in Japan, he added.
Patience toward the intoxicated, many authorities say, goes back to the days when Japan was a rural society and festivals often offered the only occasion in a whole year for farmers to drink.
"The feeling that drunkenness occurs as a result of a rare binge tends to make Japanese willing to overlook its abuses even today," Kono said.
At times like the flower-viewing sake parties, forbearance reaches its peaks. In one group in Ueno Park, a young man and a young woman played the traditional paper-stone-scissors game, the loser stripping off one piece of clothing each time, until the man was down to his shorts. And police were nowhere to be seen.
Like people elsewhere, Japanese regard alcohol as a stress breaker. But they also find in it a solution to cultural conflicts.
Indeed, nothing is considered so effective an icebreaker in often-stilted human relations as alcohol. "Alcohol levels the ground," crumbling the rank and hierarchy of Japan's "vertical society," the Leisure Development Center, a private organization, noted in a report.
Problems that bosses and workers wouldn't dream of discussing while sober at the office melt away over drinks in the evening. And stiff-collar Japanese who wouldn't be caught humming in the daytime belt out songs in front of dozens of friends and strangers in the conviviality of singing bars at night.
Conviviality, however, is gradually threatening to cause trouble in Japan, Kono said. He estimated that "problem drinkers"--alcoholics or persons whose behavior resembles alcoholics--now number 2.2 million.
Out of a population of 123 million, the number appears small. One reason, according to Kono, is that two-thirds of the volume of alcohol consumed in Japan is beer, which he said is less conducive to alcoholism than hard liquor. In 1989, Japan ranked 27th in per capita consumption of beer.
Although no nationwide survey of alcoholism has ever been done, one isolated study by the Health and Welfare Ministry of 569 ordinary hospital patients found that 29% of the men and 6% of the women have serious drinking problems.
And the drinking population is also expanding in all age groups and sexes.
In particular, more young women, for whom drinking once was socially unacceptable, and more retired people now indulge.
The latest available statistics show that per capita consumption--expressed not in conventional terms of the quantity of alcoholic beverages ingested, but rather just the pure alcohol content of those beverages--was 2.3 gallons for the adult population in 1988, up 50% since 1965. In the same period, the number of drinkers more than doubled to nearly 55 million adults.
The Leisure Development Center estimates that 85% of adult men and 53% of adult women drink.
A survey conducted by the National Institute on Alcoholism of 7,000 high school students identified 14% of the boys and 13% of the girls as "alcoholic abusers or alcoholic-like drinkers," Kono said. Kono said he was concerned that teen-age drinking could become an even bigger problem.
In Japan, alcoholic beverages are even sold in vending machines. And Kono has targeted the 180,739 machines that do so.
He also complained about the "imbalance of information" about alcohol. While the government spends nothing on measures to combat alcohol, alcoholic beverage manufacturers saturate TV with advertising, he charged.
Masahide Kanzaki, a Suntory spokesman, acknowledged that advertising expenditures by Japan's leading whiskey maker are huge--and increasing. Last year, Suntory devoted $273 million, or 5% of its sales, to advertising, he said.
Kanzaki also said "marketing efforts" and promotion of new drinks have helped push up consumption in Japan. But he noted that the alcoholic beverage vending machines are operated by local shops licensed by the Finance Ministry, not by the manufacturers.
Two years ago, moreover, alcoholic beverage shops were required to shut off their machines at 11 p.m. to uphold the spirit, if not the letter, of a law barring sales of alcohol to minors--19 or younger in Japan.
At the moment, corporate executives and managers are the biggest problem group. More than 60% of them drink more than four days a week, the Leisure Development Center report said.
"Drinking has become part of their work," it added.
Only recently, however, have some large corporations started dealing with alcoholism among employees.
"Usually companies are too lax with employees at the initial stages of alcoholism and too cruel with those for whom it gets out of hand. The opposite approach is necessary," Kono said.
Combatting alcoholism is not easy anywhere in Japan.
The Women's Christian Temperance Union set up shop here in 1886, but most Japanese haven't even heard of it. Alcoholics Anonymous is reported to have only about 3,000 members. The Japan Abstinence Federation has attracted larger numbers by carrying out its counseling of alcoholics in family groups, rather than with people who are strangers to each other. But it claims only 45,000 members nationwide.
Japan's culture is a "culture with alcohol," Kono said. "We need a new subculture without alcohol."
But could there be a flower-viewing party with tea?
"Tea is for meditation," scoffed Keiko Asakura, 43, who, with her 12-year-old daughter, had joined a group of trading company workers at Ueno Park. "Alcohol is for fun."
Hoisting a Glass in Japan
Japanese celebrate the cherry blossom season with beer and sake parties during the evening in Tokyo's Ueno Park. Japan leads the Soviet Union in the consumption of alcohol.
In Gallons, per capita, 1989
Total Pure Country Spirits Beer Wine Alcohol United States 0.6 23.5 2.1 2.0 Japan 0.6 13.1 0.3 1.8* Soviet Union 0.5 5.3 1.7 1.0
* Including sake.
SOURCE: World Drink Trends, 1991