Craig Hoffman

Sep 22, 2020

6 min read

The Truth About Drinking In Japan: Your Mama Ain’t Here To Stop You

Photo By Erik Mclean

Craig note- The names have been changed to protect the privacy of the people in these stories. ALT- Assistant Language Teacher- It is a common job title for foreign English teachers in Japan.

On Mary Who Is Not So Merry

“Hey, Mary, what are you doing out there?”

But, everyone already knew. It was a small foreigner party at a local Assistant Language Teacher (ALT)’s apartment on a Friday night. Everyone was drinking. And, they were having a great time. But, out on the dark balcony along with six months’ worth of empty plastic bottles was Mary.

She had a whisky flask in each hand. Mary dropped one of the flasks on the ground. And, she fumbled with the second. It shattered, and the remaining hard liquor spilled all over the cold concrete.”

“GD it! Thanks heaps! Now, I’m going to have to $%$%-ing go get more.”

The room was quiet. There was not a foreigner in that little apartment who did not have a drunken story to tell the masses. But, something was different about Mary and her reaction.

“What are you an alcoholic or something?” A drunk Australian shouted.

The room fell silent. Mary picked up her pack of cigarettes, and she left the party without saying a word. She never returned. Days later, Mary left her English teaching job. We never met again.

Later, I heard through the grapevine that Mary was a raging alcoholic behind closed doors. She had some emotional problems before coming to America. Once the shock of living in Japan set, Mary turned to alcohol to get herself through her day. And, it snowballed to the point her drinking was out of control.

And, while not every foreign English teacher in Japan becomes an alcoholic, the average one drinks too much during their time in Japan. Mary’s story is a cautionary tale of what can happen when a young foreign English teacher combines freedom, time, money, and excessive alcohol consumption. But, as you will see, Mary is not alone in struggling with alcohol while living in Japan as an English teacher.

On “Hey, It’s Bob-Sensei!”

Perhaps, you will be like Bob. He came to Japan years ago. Bob drank in America, but he was no heavyweight. In fact, his first weekend in Japan, he got so drunk another foreigner had to carry him home from karaoke. It was a sign of things to come for Bob in Japan.

Bob realized when he drank, he became the self-confident foreigner. He was a big hit with the staff at his school and the local salary men at the bar. They shouted “Bob-sensei!” every time he entered the bar. And, he loved it. But, there was a dark side to Bob’s drinking.

It was never enough for Bob. After everyone else went home for the night, Bob went to the convenience store to buy more beer. He went back to his house, and Bob drank until he blacked out naked on his living room floor.

Soon, beer was not doing it for Bob. He spent thousands of yen buying hard foreign liquor. At first, he took a shot after a tough day at school. But, it got worse. It was not long before Bob was pouring whisky into his small thermos he took to school every morning.

Certainly, there were teachers who questioned whether Bob was drunk. Bob laughed off students when they screamed “Bob-sensei smells like booze!”

If the teachers knew, none of them were going to cause a ruckus about “Bob-sensei.” Things went on like that for about a year. Bob slowly went from a super ALT to a shell of his former self.

The school staff still said nothing to Bob, but Bob was missing more school days or coming in late. He was too hungover to get to school.

Most days while his students learned new vocabulary, Bob was in his old apartment praying to the porcelain god. Bob’s drinking in Japan would have killed him if not for the contract limits on his ALT job. He left Japan. And, Bob is now pursuing a doctorate back in America.

And; no, he does not drink.

On Meeting Mike The High-Functioning (Would-Be) Alcoholic

The earlier two examples show how alcohol can negatively affect an ALTs life and job performance. But, there are times when outwardly nothing changes for the ALT’s life. Mike is one such example.

Mike was a fantastic ALT in his younger days. He went early to his junior high school every morning. He worked late without complaint. Mike studied Japanese several nights a week. He also volunteered in his community. But, Mike had a dark secret. He drank heavily every day in Japan.

The drinking problem crept up on Mike slowly but surely. He had come from working like a dog in America at several dead-end jobs. Mike liked drinking in the States, but he never had the time or money to do it all that often. This would change for him in Japan.

At first, Mike drank alone every Friday at a local coffee-house. He bought a single beer and some beef curry and rice. The shop also had a cute waitress Mike enjoyed talking to while he ate his dinner.

As Mike’s Japanese improved, he ventured out more, and he met many people. And, those people loved to drink. Still, Mike rarely had more than two beers, and he always went home early. But, as time wore on, Mike’s life became difficult.

He missed his family in America. Mike also looked for a way to forget about things going on with his family back in America. Mike found several foreign friends.

He spent a lot of time with them. Unfortunately, 99% of that time was sitting in a bar drinking alcohol. It never seemed that bad. A foreign friend who often wanted to go drinking always joked, “It’s not alcoholism if you drink with your friends. Right?”

Mike slowly subscribed to that belief as the months past. But, Mike’s foreign friends left Japan as their English teaching contracts ended. Mike lived in an isolated part of Japan. He found it difficult to make new foreign friends. Mike stopped going to the bar, but he did not stop drinking.

Despite his heavy drinking, Mike went to school every day. He was always early. Mike worked all day long at a high level. But, five minutes after he left his school, he was at the local convenience store buying a six-pack of beer.

Mike headed back to his apartment. He would throw in a load of dirty laundry. Mike nuked a bento in his microwave. And, he drank until he fell asleep. Mike’s life went on like that for the better part of two years.

Mike knew his drinking was out of control. But, he always said, “When I go back home, I will stop drinking.”

Only, he did not go back. He met a Japanese woman named Eriko. Mike quickly fell in love.

Eriko took a liking to Mike, too. And, they were out drinking on dates every weekend. They decided to get married. But, a funny thing happened, Eriko pulled Mike aside one sunny Sunday afternoon. He was hungover, and Eriko was angry.

“Alcohol or me? Which is more important to you?” Eriko said.

Mike stopped cold. He struggled in his hungover state. He mumbled something about, “You see. It’s just I live in Japan. You know?”

And, the love of Mike’s life walked out of his old apartment. He was crushed. Mike ran out behind Eriko to catch her, but she was gone. Mike sprinted to the local liquor store. The store staff called him “The o-sake (alcohol)-sensei” for good reason.

He needed a drink. And, he bought the biggest can of beer the store carried. And, he raced back to his apartment. Mike threw his backpack on the floor. And, he readied himself to crack that beer open until he was interrupted by his vibrating cell phone in the front pocket of his pants. The message was from Eriko.

“More than alcohol?”

Mike dropped the can of beer on the floor. He walked to the sink and he caught his Grey, Grizzled, Gaijin reflection in the mirror. He returned to the kitchen. And, Mike put the dented can on his kitchen table. And, he wrote a message to Eriko.

“More than alcohol.”

That can of beer sat unopened on Mike’s small kitchen table for a year. Mike stayed sober for months, and he married Eriko the next year. Mike does still drink. But, when Mike’s drinking gets too much for Eriko’s liking, she pulls out her engagement ring. And, she puts it on her finger.

Mike stops his drinking. He remembers who he almost lost because of his affinity for alcohol. Mike also remembers the inscription on the ring, and, his promise to Eriko:

“More than alcohol.”

Grey, Grizzled, and Gaijin

“There are zillions of people who say that alcoholism is a disease, but not many of them believe it.”- Mercedes McCambridge