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The Japanese Plan to Get Young People to Drink More – Sake Viva!

As unlikely as it sounds to a university student in Scotland, where young people seem to drink beer as much as they do water, the government of Japan wants young people to drink more. Yes – more. 

And they’re serious about it. Japan’s National Tax Agency (NTA) has introduced its “¡Sake Viva!” campaign which, in short, invites ideas from people between 20-39 to boost alcohol consumption, including drinking at home. Why does the Japanese government feel the need to introduce the ¡Sake Viva! campaign at all?For one, alcohol sales have dwindled in recent years. According to the official ‘¡Sake Viva!’ website:“the domestic alcoholic beverage market has shrunk due to demographic changes such as the declining birth rate, aging population and lifestyle changes due to the impact of COVID-19.” 

The figures show this. Alcohol tax revenues have fallen from ¥1.13 trillion in 2013 to less than ¥1.18 trillion in 2021. The impact has been concerning. Reports indicate this is the largest decline in alcohol tax revenues since 1989.  This is particularly worrying for a nation for whom the liquor tax accounts for almost 2% of total tax revenue.  

Looking at these figures, it is important to understand that Japan isn’t a non-drinkers’ nation. Compared to the rest of the world, per capita, Japan drinks quite a lot, according to WHO figures.

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In addition, the alcohol industry presents a significant tax opportunity for the government. Japan comes 40th in the world for alcohol consumption per capita compared to, say, the USA in 41st. The UK comes in at 21st –  with Latvia and Ireland at the top of the list.

As Japan continues, like the rest of the world, to stave off economic recession and promote post-COVID growth, the alcohol industry and its liquor tax will play an important role.

But this all seems to fly in the face of #nomisugi – a hashtag meaning “drank too much!” which the Western media  was all over in 2014. In fact, Japan has had,  at one time,  a reputation (!) for its booze problem, made infamous by a 2014 ad featuring passed-out drunks of Tokyo. 

Alcohol culture in Japan is complex. On the one hand, laws are relatively lax- you can drink in parks, and at just about any event. Equally, alcohol is ubiquitous: just about every konbini (convenience store) sells alcohol, and there are even beer vending machines!

As a high-tax good, it is quite simple economic logic that Japan should want to find ways to increase tax revenue through alcohol sales. So why doesn’t Scotland try to promote drinking in the same way, instead of restrain it? 

In Japan, it is the hard-working middle-aged demographic most likely to be a #nomisugi. Japan is widely considered to have one of the most intense ‘work-hard’ cultures – and work hard entails a weekend of ‘play-hard’. The ¡Sake Viva! campaign is driven by the idea that young people, even if they are ‘playing hard’, are not consuming enough alcohol. In Scotland, on the other hand, young people are ‘playing hard’ – and alcohol does seem to be included. Japan, like Scotland, is trying to curb the wrong kind of drinking with its own alcohol awareness campaigns. 

There is one more salient difference between Scottish and Japanese attitudes towards alcohol. The Pew Research Centre recently commissioned a survey, asking people from forty different countries if they personally believe that drinking alcohol is morally acceptable. Japan topped the list with 67% of respondents answering yes. Just 40% of Britons agreed that drinking is morally acceptable. It is plausible then that it is this moral initiative, as well as the economic burden of alcohol-related health problems on the NHS, which has led the SNP to introduce laws to restrain consumption.

And of course – it would be remiss not to talk about the fun part of this story. What kind of ideas will actually get young people to drink as much? A conversation with my Japanese friends leads me to think that a simple American-style strategy is unlikely to work. In America, sex sells. Product placements with supermodels will bring sales up. But it seems not in a country like Japan, which has a very different culture around sex. Mariko, from Tokyo, says that “Japanese people like trends in a way we don’t quite in this country (Scotland); if an entrant to the competition can find some way to make a trend that young people will want to jump on, the campaign could be a success”.

The results of the ¡Sake Viva! campaign remains to be seen: the winners’ plans, currently under submission, will be revealed and financially backed as of December 2022.

Image by sinkdd licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.