In binge-tolerant Japan, alcoholism not seen as disease

TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - When Japanese civil servant Yoshiyuki Takeuchi saw himself lagging behind his peers at work, alcohol was the only thing he felt he could turn to, becoming the latest victim of an addiction poorly understood in Japan.

“People who started after me would go further in their careers just because they finished college,” said Takeuchi, 50, who had to quit university as his family couldn’t afford it.

“I tried to stop that sense of ‘why always me?’ by drinking.”

As liquor consumption grew sixfold over the last 50 years in Japan to match its economic affluence, alcoholism became a growing but poorly grasped problem.

Alcoholic beverages are readily available at convenience stores and vending machines, liquor ads are often on evening television and building work ties by going drinking is common.

Katsuya Maruyama of Kurihama Alcoholism Center, a leading hospital for treating alcohol dependency, said Japan is too tolerant when it comes to drinking too much, which makes it hard for both society and alcoholics to realize they have a problem.

“There is no proper teaching on how alcohol can be dangerous, so no one knows alcoholism as a disease,” he said.

That was how Takeuchi felt when he returned to work after six months in the hospital. Demoted and ignored by nearly everyone for a year, he said: “There was no understanding.”

The economic loss from drinking problems tops 6.6 trillion yen ($73 billion) a year, data from Tokyo Medical and Dental University showed.

Some 800,000 people, or 0.6 percent of the population, are estimated to be alcoholics, a separate medical study found. While the rate is smaller than that of the United States or Europe, it is rising as more women and elderly become alcoholics.

“The problem is that dealing with alcohol has not been systematized in Japan,” Maruyama said.


Some experts say recent high-profile cases could help raise recognition that alcoholism is a serious illness.

The death in October of 56-year-old Shoichi Nakagawa, an ex-finance minister who quit after being forced to deny he was drunk at a G7 news conference in February, dominated the media.

Some reports said he may have mixed alcohol with sleeping pills, and doctors have said he likely suffered from alcoholism.

Prince Tomohito, the 63-year-year old cousin of the emperor, told the country in 2007 that he was an alcoholic.

“Alcoholics were seen as people with personality problems,” said Tetsutaro Tatsuki of self-help group All Nippon Abstinence Association.

“They were proof that it is not an illness just for a handful of people, but that anyone could become alcoholic.”

Some experts said Nakagawa’s death was a lost opportunity to show that recovering from alcoholism is possible.

“This is a society that is indulgent on alcohol, but it is also a society in which once someone fails, then that person ... is excluded,” said Tomomi Imanari of National Citizens’ Association on Alcohol and Drug Problems, a non-profit group.

Prevention and intervention are the weak points, and even medical professionals often do not understand that merely fixing physical ailments caused by alcoholism will not stop them from drinking, experts say.

Many also seek support in self-help groups.

On a recent Saturday evening, 87 people gathered at a meeting of the All Nippon Abstinence Association’s Tokyo branch, taking turns stating their names and sharing their past. Members are also encouraged to share the dangers of alcohol.

“If I can do things for others and not drink for myself, life would be richer,” said civil servant Takeuchi, sober for 10 years. “I don’t want to live like a slave to alcohol anymore.”

Editing by Miral Fahmy