Can You Drink Alcohol in Japan

Kanpai! Kanpai! This word signals the fun and cheer of a good drinking party, where friends gently clink their glasses together and shout this familiar word. Japan’s drinking culture is a force to reckon with.

From beer to sake, to Japanese Whiskeys, Japan is a land of paradise for people who enjoy a good drink. Drinking is an important and essential part of Japan’s culture — company drinking parties are highly commonplace, with workplaces making use of drinking as a way to bring co-workers closer together and encourage company bonding. Such an experience is endearingly called Nomikai (飲み会).

Even in the working sector, drinking is such an integral aspect of it, which is a testament to the powerful drinking culture that Japan is home to. In this article, we will be educating readers on Japan’s laws on drinking, Japan’s drinking etiquette, and some noteworthy aspects of Japan’s drinking culture.

Legal drinking age

In Japan (as of 2023), the legal age to drink is 20, which is generally an older age as compared to the rest of the world. Even if you come from another country where you are of legal age, Japanese law applies to you if you are on Japanese soil. Hence, be sure to check that you can legally drink before popping open a can in Japan! Failing to do so, and being caught, can lead to severe consequences that will undoubtedly ruin your fun and plans in Japan.

Drinking in public

Besides the law on the legal age of drinking in Japan, Japan is rather lax in terms of drinking laws. You are allowed to drink in public areas, and there are few restrictions on where and when you can drink. Interestingly, you are even allowed to drink when you are on public transport! Be it a train, bus, or taxi, you are free to consume alcohol if you wish to do so.

Of course, drivers of vehicles are not allowed to drink while driving. However, outside of public transport, passengers of private vehicles (even those driving shotgun!) are allowed to drink. Given the huge amount of freedom that the Japanese government gives to the time and place of drinking, we remind readers to exercise caution when drinking and make sure that they and their loved ones are safe while drinking.

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In our article, we will explain what to expect when visiting these hosts or hostess clubs so that you know exactly what to expect when you step through their doors.

Drinking etiquette

Besides the law, Japan has some unspoken rules related to drinking. To fit in with the locals, readers must be aware of the etiquette that one must possess when drinking in Japan.

  1. Use ‘sumimasen’ (excuse me) to get the attention of your server or waiter. Don’t be rude!
  2. Don’t drink straight from a bottle, ask for a glass!
  3. Avoiding refilling your own glass
  4. Wait for everyone’s drink to arrive, then Kanpai~‘sumimasen’ (excuse me)!

In Japan, this is an important phrase to know when trying to get the attention of your server. Japan is a country that is grounded in manners and respect. Making a gesture or saying “Hey!” to your server can be considered rude and can put you in a very negative light. Respect the servers by ensuring that this phrase is on the tip of your tongue!

Don’t drink straight from a bottle

As one bottle is likely to be shared amongst many at the table, be sure not to drink straight from it! Ask for glasses and distribute the drink amongst the many on the table. It is a Japanese custom not to drink straight from the bottle as it can seem unhygienic and disrespectful.

Avoiding refilling your own glass

This is an interesting and unique aspect of Japan’s drinking culture. Here, it is considered poor manners to refill your own drink. Japan emphasizes serving one another. Instead, refill your companions’ drinks and they will refill yours in turn.

Be sure to receive your drink, and pour for others, with two hands! This is a symbol of respect and camaraderie. And of course, be sure to return the favor whenever someone refills your drink for you.

Wait for everyone’s drink to arrive, then Kanpai~

The very purpose of coming together to drink is often to encourage bonding and teamwork, using the alcohol as a vessel and catalyst for bond-making. Hence, it is important that you wait for everybody’s drink to arrive. Be sure not to start drinking once your own drink arrives! This is considered very rude and will earn you a stink eye across the table.

Once all the drinks have arrived, raise your glass and gently tap it against the other drinks, saying “Kanpai!”, a saying similar to “cheers” that we may be more familiar with. If you are drinking with a table of superiors or seniors, make sure that the angle of your drink is lower than the others, symbolizing your respect for them.

Japan’s drinking culture is an extremely interesting and beautiful one. When in Japan, be very careful to respect their drinking culture, laws, and etiquette. Also, be sure to know your limits, and don't drink beyond your means!

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