Japan’s Hard-Drinking Bar Culture Meets the ‘Sober Curious’ Movement

Alcohol is an integral part of socializing with colleagues in Japan. But now there are alternatives for teetotalers.
November 18, 2020, 8:20am
Japan
A bartender pours two glasses of alcohol-free champagne at the Low-Non-Bar in Tokyo. Photo: Riadh Niati

After deciding to skip drinks with coworkers in Tokyo’s bustling business district of Nihonbashi, Natsuki spent a recent Friday night with a friend at newly opened Low-Non-Bar, which doesn’t serve booze. “Do you know about alcohol harassment? This is when people pressure you into drinking alcohol,” she told VICE World News while sipping an alcohol-free champagne. 

For many young, hardworking Japanese, after-hours boozing sessions, called nomikai, are a natural part of the job. It’s where lifelong friendships are made, business deals are closed and promotions are discussed. For Natsuki, who works for an IT firm and did not want to give her full name for privacy reasons, it might be a missed opportunity. But she happily passes. Her friend, Nana, who sits across her, nods her head in agreement. “I really dislike this aspect of Japanese culture.”

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Driven by health concerns and emerging research on harmful effects of alcohol even in small doses, more people across the world are embracing “sober curious” lifestyles. Japanese companies have noticed. A recent survey by Suntory, one of Japan’s largest alcoholic beverage producers, shows how domestic distribution of non-alcoholic beverages has surged over the last decade. Kirin, one of the four major brewers, launched the first alcohol-free beer in Japan in 2009. Soon after three other big brands, namely Asahi, Sapporo and Suntory, followed with their own offerings.

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The Low-Non-Bar in Tokyo has a number of alcohol-free wines and spirits for customers. Photo: Riadh Niati​

The trend is now seeping into booze-free bars in Japan, a country with renowned whiskies, a world-class cocktail scene, and powerful alcoholic beverage conglomerates whose advertisements are ubiquitous.

But it can be difficult for people like Natsuki who get anxious at work gatherings organized around drinking. She and a coworker have also experienced inappropriate behavior and sexual harassment once the drinks get flowing, but were reluctant to speak up about it. “A young coworker at my firm was sexually harassed by her manager, but her complaints were laughed off the next day,” she said.

In line with other countries, attitudes are shifting in Japan, especially as the pandemic gives people an extra excuse not to go out. Media outlets have also pointed to the fact that Japan’s new prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, remains a teetotaler despite climbing the ranks of a political world full of late-night drinking sessions and alcohol-heavy dinners.

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“People realize they don’t need alcohol now that there’s no pressure and fewer occasions to drink,” said Hiroaki Takahashi, manager of the Low-Non-Bar, which opened earlier this year. Takahashi said his boss got the idea for the bar when he realized his tolerance for alcohol started to decrease, but there weren’t any options for him to enjoy a night out without booze. “They often make you feel embarrassed, like it’s weird you don’t drink. Older generations tend to look down on you. With us that’s totally different, people like that atmosphere.” Takahashi doesn’t drink himself. “None of our staff drinks. I have a low tolerance.” 

He estimates that 10 percent of customers are recovering alcoholics, though the majority just have a low tolerance but still like the vibe of a bar. One patron used to drink a bottle of wine a day. But the bar has become a refuge for her as she tries to steer clear of a bad habit. ”Now that she’s not drinking any longer, she found our place as a substitute for her wine. She even told me she dislikes the taste of alcohol. It’s funny because a lot of people have said that to me.”

In the trendy district of Roppongi, a similar bar called 0% opened in July to meet demand for alternative watering holes. According to manager Mayumi Yamamoto, the name also refers to the desired amount of stress levels inside the bar. 

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Alcohol-free wine at Roppongi bar 0%: Photo: Riadh Niati

“I don’t drink much myself. Sometimes I go out with friends, the only thing I can order is ginger ale, or orange juice, that’s just boring,” Yamamoto told VICE World News. She visited bars in different parts of the world and realized most of them had alcohol-free options. “Now we try to provide possibilities for non-alcoholic drinks, using smells, herbs, fruits, making all sorts of cocktails.”

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A bartender at 0% in Tokyo pours a mocktail. Photo: Riadh Niati​

She sees a lot of diversity in customer base, including pregnant women who want to have a night out at a bar without drinking to recovering alcoholics. Many of her customers are also young women. “I think they feel safe here, and maybe they don’t need much alcohol to talk with each other? We also see businessmen coming here who like the atmosphere of a bar but then without the temptation of alcohol,” Yamamoto said.

Sitting at the bar and drinking a glass of alcohol-free red wine imported from Austria, 44-year-old Erika Miyatani said coming to 0% makes her feel drunk “without having to drink.” Her friend Satoko Ushimaru laughs and nods her head in agreement. “Yes, and you don’t need to worry about people trying to hit on you.”

Correction: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of a name and add a missing word to a quote.