Alcohol appears in the earliest historical records. 3rd-century Chinese records describe the inhabitants of Japan as being fond of their liquor and this remains little changed today. Consumption of sake was overtaken by that of beer around the beginning of the 20th century. In recent years, beer and its cheaper relations happoshu and so-called "third-category beer" account for over 75% of alcohol consumption. Overall, per capita alcohol consumption has been in decline from a peak of 80 liters - that's more than 21 gallons - a year in 1999 and was around 74 liters in 2006.
Kirin Lager Beer varieties
Asahi Super Dry - can or bottle?
Happoshu - Fake Beer?
A generation of young Japanese had grown up in difficult economic times and were inclined to go for cheaper drinks or avoid alcohol altogether. But there are still a huge variety of different places to go out for a drink. Most are also places to eat as the western idea of the stand-up pub is relatively new to Japan.
When is a Beer Not a Beer?
Japanese major beer brands - the top two are Asahi and Kirin, followed by Suntory and Sapporo with a quarter of the market between them - are known worldwide. The biggest breweries produce a range of top-selling beers, such as No.1 seller Asahi's Super Dry, Sapporo's Black Label and Ebisu, Kirin's Lager and Ichiban Shibori and Suntory's Malts. In addition, they sell dozens of 'seasonal' brands for a few months at a time. These are generally lagers and easily outsell other brands such as stout (black beer). Appealing to the increased health consciousness of the Japanese consumer, terms like "zero calorie" and "low alcohol" have become marketing buzzwords.
Happoshu (low-malt beer), has become more popular recently due mainly to the fact that it's significantly cheaper than regular beer. Happoshu typically retails for ¥30-40 less for a standard 350ml can because the low malt content puts it in a lower tax category. Sales of happoshu accounted for over a fifth of the beer market in recent years thanks also to heavy marketing. Taking a growing chunk of the market is "third-category beer." Made with malt substitutes like soybeans, corn and even peas, it has a taste close to that of regualr beer but at an even cheaper price thsan happoshu. Economic worries have led more Japanese consumers to consider price more carefully, and as the new alternatives are considerably cheaper, they have seen their share of the beer market grow to almost 30% in 2009. Korean-made third-category beers such as Muginosuke or Prime Draft can be had can be had for less than ¥100 a can. Meanwhile regular beer fell below the 50% market share level for the first time ever.
The bigger breweries also produce other alcoholic beverages such as whisky, wine and shochu as well as soft drinks.
Label for Chiyonosono sake from Kumamoto
A few varieties of sake
Traditional sake set
In Japanese, the word sake is also used as a generic term for alcohol. The correct term for refined Japanese rice wine is seishu, or more commonly nihonshu. Like wine made from grapes, there are regional variations and good and bad years but sake is not usually stored for more than a year. Good sake is produced all over the country and with thousands of small breweries, finding one to suit your palate shouldn't be too hard. There are different grades of sake depending on the milling process used on the rice and what additives are used, if any. The production cycle takes about one year: Autumn rice is used in the brewing process, which starts in winter and ends the following spring. The sake matures during the summer and is finally bottled in the autumn. Sake has an alcohol content similar to wine, around 16%. It can be served either warmed or chilled. The cheaper varieties are usually served hot (atsukan) straight into a glass in cheap drinking establishments like izakaya or yakitoriya. Otherwise it is served in an earthenware bottle (tokkuri) and poured into small cups (sakazuki).
Being the more "traditional" Japanese drink, the name of a sake brand is often written in obscure kanji characters. But don't worry - these are usually accompanied by romaji, or western alphabet, to help you remember the name of that sake you had too much of last night.
Shochu is a distilled liquor made from grain and averages around 50% proof, although there are large variations depending on the ingredients and region. It is most commonly drunk in a mixture with ice and things like oolong tea (oolon-hai) or citrus juices (lemon-hai). These drinks are available ready made in cans. Ready-made cocktails have also become popular recently. Whiskey and other distilled liquors tend to be popular among middle-aged men.
In terms of worldwide reputation, Japanese whisky may struggle to compete with Scotland, Ireland, the U.S. and others. But in recent years, that has been changing as Japanese distillers have succeeded in creating world-beating whiskies. Major company Suntory has probably the highest profile in the market, thanks largely to its use of foreign celebrities to hock its wares. This was famously parodied by Bill Murray as a Hollywood actor promoting the brand in the movie "Lost in Translation." In 2007, Suntory Hibiki was recognized as the world's best blended whisky, a title it retained the following year. Another product of the northern island of Hokkaido is the whisky of the Yoichi distillery. In 2001, the Yoichi Single Malt Cask Strength 10 Year won the "Best-of-the-Best" award from Whisky Magazine, and Yoichi 20 Years Old (photo) was voted the best single malt at the World Whiskies Awards in 2008. The Yoichi distilery was established in 1934 and is one of two malt whisky distilleries run by Nikka Whisky Distilling Co.
Like its whisky, Japanese wine is not well known outside the country and the reason is simply that Japan is not ideally suited to viticulture. High humidity and rainfall during the growing season, acidic and fertile soil and simply a lack of flat land space mean that it has remained a small industry. And most of the local brands sold around the country are cheaper table or cooking wines. The main area for wine-making is Yamanashi prefecture, near Mt. Fuji. The area has relatively low rainfall, making it less suitable for growing the staple crop, rice. The country's first commercial winery was established in Katsunuma, Yamanashi in 1875, and it is still run by Mercian, the second largest winemaker in Japan.
As long as drinking is done in moderation, seeking help for alcoholism help is unnecessary. So hopefully no one reading this will actually need it, but help is available in Japan for those who go overboard on the alcohol front. The website of Alcoholics Anonymous of Japan has information about English meetings.
Some other pages you might enjoy:
- Ready to go out for a drink? Read our guide to Japan's various drinking spots
- The basics of Japanese food
- Japan's most popular food dishes