While many of you non-American countries will scoff at the idea of it being difficult to procure alcohol underage, Americans will know how difficult it is to get away with this sort of thing. Many American stores and restaurants have a “if they look under 35, card them” policy. Still others have a “always card, no matter how old they look” rule. Cigarettes are the same thing. Although I’d say it’s arguably easier to get them here in America even if you’re not 18, it’s still quite difficult in most of the country.

For both alcohol and cigarettes, Japan is quite the opposite. Let’s find out why this is and learn more about all the little kids running around drunk in the land of the rising sun.

Being Of Legal Age


Photo by malfet_

Now that we’re 20 we can drink and smoke, lol!

Ironically in 1900, Japan was the very first country to create a law that banned underage smoking. It’s kind of like those “ridiculous laws” articles that you see from time to time. For example, in Louisiana “Fake” wrestling matches are prohibited. Or, how in Washington the harassing of Bigfoot, Sasquatch or other undiscovered subspecies is a felony punishable by a fine and/or imprisonment. The underage drinking and smoking laws in Japan are just like that. Laws that nobody upholds, and laws that nobody cares about.

But, let’s just pretend that people care for a moment. The minimum drinking and smoking age is 20 years old, the age when people are considered to be “adults” in Japan. There are laws against consuming, selling, or giving cigarettes or alcohol to minors, but nobody listens. In 1996, the average number of cases brought to prosecutors for underage smoking, for example, was five. Of course, none of the accused were punished in any way. Underage drinking just isn’t considered a big deal, though God forbid you give someone else a ride on your bicycle (that’s a 20,000 yen fine I’ve seen given to several unfortunate people).

Drinking Underage In Japan

underage drinking japanThe kind of thing I would have liked had I been drinking in high school

The Japanese underage drinking law came into affect in 1922. It has been ignored ever since. Most nations decreased their alcohol consumption since WWII. Japan has managed to increase it. Alcohol on a whole is pretty big in Japan. With children it’s increasing as well.

Here is a summary of results on a survey translated by the authors of “Young People’s Drinking Behavior in Japan” (see sources below).

  1. Despite the law prohibiting underage drinking, around 50% of junior high school and 70% of senior high school students reported some experience with alcohol.
  2. As in other countries, instances of alcohol consumption, regular drinking, and alcohol-related problems show a constant and dramatic increase with age.
  3. Differences are not too wide for drinking patterns of boys and girls. However, boys still exhibit more drinking problems such as fighting, vomiting, hangover, and blackouts.
  4. The major source of beverage alcohol for junior and senior high school students was their own homes, followed by convenience stores. Percentage of students obtaining alcohol from vending machines decreased in both junior and senior high school students, as fewer vending machines selling alcohol became available.
  5. The choice of alcohol beverage appeared to be gender-linked. Male students preferred beer, while female respondents preferred sweet or fruit-flavored cocktails.
  6. Drinking behavior did not change dramatically between 1996 and 2000. It was noted however, that, while overall alcohol consumption appeared to decrease, drinking problems in female students increased during this period.

This wasn’t just one year of surveys, though. They ran follow-ups over the course of five years. By the fifth year, 70% of students were still filling out the survey. Here’s the summaries they came up with regarding the five-year span.

  1. Drinking behavior changes dramatically during junior and senior high school years.
  2. Over the 5-year period, the percentage of young people consuming alcohol doubled. Drinking in the family tended to be replaced by drinking with friends.
  3. The prevalence of alcohol-related problems increased sharply since students were first surveyed in 1997. For example, the percentage of problem drinkers, identified according to the Japanese version of the Quantity-Frequency Scale (Suzuki et al., 1994), increased more than 100 times over the 5-year period, as students progressed from junior to senior high school.
  4. Risk factors found to be associated with drinking problems were: earlier age of the first drink, susceptibility to peer pressure, and lack of communication with parents.

There are a few big-picture points we can glean from this. First, there are junior high school students drinking, which boggles my mind. Second, a lot of girls are drinking. Third, a lot of high school students are drinking, which is less surprising, but there’s still quite a bit of this going on.

So Why Are The Kids Drinking?

So we have to ask ourselves, why are all these underage kids drinking? I think there are several reasons, though please note that a lot of this is just my opinion and experience talking.

  1. People Will Sell You Alcohol: Shopkeepers will sell to underage kids most of the time. The closest thing to carding I’ve ever seen was a screen that shows up in convenience stores that asks “are you 20 or older?” then has a “yes” button but no “no” button.
  2. Vending Machines Vend Alcohol: Although alcohol vending machines are decreasing in numbers, there are still quite a few out there. You can easily buy alcohol from vending machines, and of course they don’t card you. If getting alcohol is this easy, then why wouldn’t kids buy from them? As one great beer mogul once said, “if you build it, they will come.”
  3. The Taste Of Japanese Alcohol: Japanese alcohol is easy to drink. Even for kids. There is chu-hai, which mostly tastes like carbonated lemon soda, and if I was a kid I would have loved it (it was developed to be more “womanly” after all). Then there’s the regular beer as well. Asahi Super Dry, Japan’s most popular beer, which is also a lot like drinking a lightly beer flavored soda. After that there’s sake, which unlike sake outside of Japan, actually tastes really good (and is super smooth). Pretty much every Japanese alcoholic beverage is really easy to drink, and this makes it easier for the kids too. I didn’t like the taste of alcohol until my early to mid twenties. If I had been given basically any Japanese alcohol, I may have had a different opinion on the matter.

I can also confirm a lot of the summaries put forth above as well. Despite going to one of the best high schools in the Nagoya area, at least one third of my friends would drink on a somewhat regular basis. I didn’t see it much (unless we were at karaoke), but they were open about their habits. I had one friend who would have a beer every night “to help him to fall asleep.” I suspect he was just getting ready for salaryman life.

Smoking Underage In Japan

smoking underage japan

Photo by Fried Dough

Unlike alcohol, I’ve seen firsthand the decrease in consumption across the board. Smoking in Japan is becoming slightly more taboo every year that goes by, and now they’re being corralled into smoking pens. Restaurants even have non-smoking sections or no-smoking rules, which feels unheard of considering how things were ten years ago.

Still, underage smoking is still prevalent, as Japan still is a very smoking culture. In 1999, 19% of 15-20 year old men and 4.3% of 15-20 year old women identified themselves as smokers. 42% of male smokers and 35% of female smokers reported going habitual before 20, the legal age limit. While a lot of time has passed between then and now, I imagine the numbers are fairly similar but slightly better (just guessing based on my own experience).

To back up these numbers, I have a similar experience (though a very small data-set) from high school times in Japan. Amongst my core group of six friends at the time, two of them smoked, though never at school. It wouldn’t be a lot (maybe one or two packs a week), but definitely enough to call them smokers. Of course, both of them are heavy smokers today, well into their twenties.

Just like alcohol, smoking is really easy in Japan. Tobacco Vending machines are much more prevalent compared to alcohol vending machines. If you don’t have a convenient vending machine, shopkeepers and convenience stores will sell pretty much anyone cigarettes. If you want them you can have them, and with the number of people who smoke still, there just isn’t that pressure not to smoke, so kids get started early.

But Is It Right?

That, I’m not so sure about. It’s easy to do in Japan, but I can’t really say what’s right or wrong (that’s up to you in the comments). Kids aren’t driving anywhere, because while it’s easy to get a beer when you’re 15 it’s impossible to get a driver’s license. So, nobody’s going to hurt anyone that way. Also, Japan is a lot safer than most places too. You can get drunk and fall asleep in front of a train station like this guy, and you don’t have to worry about your bag getting stolen.

too much alcohol japan

Then, there is the whole “getting prepared for business life thing.” While I feel like it’s a dumb excuse (those salarymen drink way too much), there is some truth in this statement. Friends would tell me this in regards to their drinking, because if you’re not prepared both mentally and physically for the brutal nomikais that await you, you’re going to have a hard time.

But drinking can also help people to relax. With the intensity that is the Japanese school system, it’s (almost) hard to blame anyone who wants a way to calm down and relax for once. Alcohol is a way that people do that, and while it’s a bad excuse, I almost want to compare teenage drinking in Japan to teenage (pot) smoking in America. Marijuana in Japan is very hard to get (and the punishment is steep). Both aren’t right, technically, though many would argue otherwise, I think. Alcohol, compared to marijuana, is very easy to get, and there’s no punishment for breaking the alcohol law, just like marijuana and kids in America. When a kids wants to let go and escape testing hell for a few hours, this is how they’re going to do it (this and karaoke).

I’m not going to come out and say what’s right and wrong, because I really don’t know, but these are my observations. While I never partook in these activities myself in Japanese high school, I had plenty of opportunities. I guess my upbringing in America taught me that drugs are bad and I should always refuse, or something like that. If I was given a 5yen coin for the number of times I was offered alcohol at home / a matsuri / a restaurant… well, I could buy a lot of beer, though not as much as I would have got if I had accepted every alcohol-related offer. It’s easy to get alcohol and cigarettes in Japan and sometimes hareder to say no. Japan is a very group oriented culture, and alcohol (more than cigarettes) is one way to become closer with said groups. Alcohol opens you up and allows you to express your feelings, something that doesn’t come up very often in Japanese society (at least when alcohol isn’t involved). With the ease of getting alcohol and tobacco in Japan, as well as the lack of harder drugs, it’s no wonder there are so many cases of underage drinking and smoking.

Now it’s your turn. Is this right? Is it wrong? Let me know what you think.

underage drinking and smoking in japan

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Update: Turns out, a lot of tobacco machines require an ID to show you’re of age. Times are-a-changing it seems. That being said, buying cigarettes from a person and not a vending machine seems quite easy, much like alcohol. So, while it’s more difficult than I thought to get cigarettes when you’re below 20 years old, it’s still fairly easy to get cigarettes. Apologies for the incorrect information, though the message is still pretty much the same, I think. Also, thank you for those of you who let me know in the comments, I need to get into smoking so I know these things!


Japan: Streets Unsafe as Machines Prey on Children, by Mark A. Levin
Tobacco Control , Vol. 9, No. 2 (Jun., 2000), pp. 132-133

Young People’s Drinking Behavior in Japan, by Susumu Higuchi, Kenji Suzuki, Sachio Matsushita, and Yoneatsu Osaki.

  • walker

    +1 to those who mentioned the TASPO card (no points for research there. but how about correcting the article for us pedants? please). i was a bit stymied by the first machine i tried, until a nice passer-by informed me of the card’s use. the only non-carded sake/smoke machines i saw were inside ho(s)tels, and then mostly just for beer. i never once had to press any red button for smokes in a kombini, but i guess that just means i look my age, and the shop attendants weren’t idiots.

    i’d suggest that smoking is becoming less respectable, at least in the bigger cities. the acreage of non-smoking public areas is increasing all the time (well, between my two visits in the last few years, anyway). the vending machines, as mentioned, are restricted. more restaurants are going smoke-free. the glamourous habit will soon lose it’s shine for the younglings, i suspect.

    i’d also suggest that drinking in japan, while perhaps problematic, is far more civilised than in, for example, australia. i never felt threatened in the slightest by drinkers in kabukicho, roppongi or dotonbori, and they all pretty much equate to sydney’s king’s cross district, notorious for random drunken killings and sundry violence, where i haven’t felt at ease in twenty years – aussie drunks can get mean, quickly. japanese drunks were the jolliest i’d ever seen, by comparison. the only fight i saw involved one old guy hitting the other guy with his lunchbox, then forgetting the fight to gather up his spilt food. i’d much rather drink with that crowd, whatever age they’re at.

  • walker

    forgot to add, for clarity: while the age for drinking and smoking in australia is 18, it’s strongly enforced at points-of-sale, with huge fines for offenders. but that doesn’t stop young teenagers from smoking and/or getting shitfaced, either, and not just at school parties. maybe they’re just escaping from their mean drunk parents …

  • Zaywex

    There definitely is punishment for kids who use marijuana in the US, but it’s very racialized which may be why you haven’t heard about it.

  • Shollum

    Upon reviewing my comment, it does appear to be over generalized. I didn’t intend it that way, but that’s how it looks.

    What I mean is, people who can’t tolerate something aren’t doing their body and health any favors by ingesting it. It’s the same for lactose intolerant individuals. If your body can’t process something, it can cause some nasty problems. This is especially true in the case of alcohol, due to it being a poisonous substance.

    Once again, I apologize for the misunderstanding.

  • Shollum

    True, it’s much more likely for a black person or Latino to be arrested for the use of marijuana, despite the fact that the majority of users are white (based off of a study I read a couple years ago anyway).

  • Shollum

    I was under the assumption that it was a larger percentage… Thanks for clearing that up.

  • Shollum

    I hate the modern pill popping culture. How is using a mind altering substance in pill form different than using a mind altering substance in drink form? From my personal experience (having been prescribed many such pills when I was younger), there’s absolutely no difference. The only difference for me is that I have a high alcohol tolerance and have never drank to the point where I didn’t give a damn about anything that happened in the world as long as I could make everything in my day happen on time to the second (this actually happened to me with one of my meds… For over a year).

    I do agree that exercising is a great way to make you feel better though. There’s nothing better than a nice jog when your mental stamina is depleted.
    ‘Getting away’ is also good, so long as you don’t do it to the point that you neglect your obligations.

  • Juliet

    There are some people who become a bit defensive, or unconsciously react to try to steer others into a perceived norm. I’m 27 and have never imbibed alcohol, smoked, or used drugs for recreation – for a couple reasons, but mostly because it just didn’t appeal to me. I’ve found most people I come into contact with tend not to care either way. However, when I was 13 I thought by college I’d be shunned! Silly child, lol. There are plenty of “normal” adults who don’t use that stuff. It’s just not advertised, especially among young people.

  • Choco

    It takes a lot of time just to pull up the research for Japan, never mind trying to research several other countries. Besides which, if you know how Japan is and you know how America is (from what the article tells you), then you should be able to tell how it compares to your home country if it isn’t America (or you could research the other countries you’re interested in comparing it to on your own).

    With Tofugu, Textfugu, Wanikani, Youtube, and the new codename: Kuma….putting out an article regularly on here is likely a lot of work for the Tofugu team! I don’t think it’s lazy of them to only compare it to what they know. Otherwise it’d be a lot more research. And you know, someone could tell me just how things are in Japan and I can determine on my own how it relates to my own country, I don’t need them to compare it directly to my country. I can make that connection on my own.

    This is a Japanese blog. If you want to know about other countries, you should look for blogs about those. They don’t really have to reference America at all to make this blog good, but it gives a bit of a comparison and it’s easy to do, since they’re American.

    Not meaning to attack you or anything. But I just don’t think it’s fair to criticize on the lack of other cultural comparison when it’s a Japanese blog, that updates regularly with well researched information, and done by a team with a lot on their plates already. Especially when comparing Japanese culture to tons of other cultures isn’t the point of the blog; just to inform you about Japanese culture on it’s own, really.

    Anyway, hope you understand my angle here. It would be nice to have other comparisons, sure. But I don’t think it’s reasonable when they update so regularly and everything else I mentioned.

  • Choco

    Apparently it’s illegal to ride a bicycle under the influence though, according to the bicycle post. xD

  • Henro 88

    You know, I don’t really have any idea how relevant the “Asian flush” is to anything. I just wanted to point out that, in Japan, it is absolutely a cultural problem and not genetic. The genetics probably don’t help, but you’re right: if people are careful about what they put in their bodies, genetics shouldn’t matter.

  • Alana Lynch

    It is actually backed up by genetics to a degree, though an often exaggerated one – alcohol flush is defined by a genotype at a particular site regarding whether there is an ability to encode a protein called aldehyde dehydrogenase, which enables the body to convert the acetaldehyde (which is converted from ethanol), which is highly toxic, to acetic acid (vinegar), which is harmless. A GG genotype produces no alcohol flush, an AG type a mild flush, and AA extreme flushing. This is actually used to treat alcoholism in some cases – the drug they’re given inhibits aldehyde dehydrogenase and makes drinking an extraordinarily unpleasant experience. The AG or AA genotype is most commonly found in people of Asian descent.

    That said, not all Asians have that particular genotype, and some non-Asians either inherit it or have a mutated copy of the gene. Some people might use it to be racist jerkwads, but it is backed up by science to a point.


    Moderation is a thing.


    I am sadly affected by this. Such a tell.




    They probably feel guilty deep down about it. Their behavior is them trying to bring you down.


    I have never down any illegal or inappropriate drugs. My choice. No one elses. Sometimes I have to bring myself back down to keep from feeling all “high and mighty”. You know?

  • Henro 88

    Oh, I know. It’s certainly science. A lot of things people say about race is based on science, and it’s just something people need to be careful with.

    In the case of Japan, culture absolutely plays a much larger role than genetics in terms of why they get so drunk.

  • Kelvy Watermelondreo Mansfield

    Too down, LOL.

  • Henro 88

    …in fact, I thought about this the other day, and I realized: Japanese drinking laws and things like daiko service encourage binge drinking.

    In Japan, daiko is a service where someone will drive your car home for you, and you just ride along with him.

    The reason is that the Japanese legal drinking/driving limit is 0% BCA. One sip of beer and you are legally too drunk to drive. A good policy, but it creates a system wherein there is no incentive to STOP drinking. Once you have a single beer, you are all in. No reason to stop there! On top of that, no matter how drunk you get, you can still get your car driven home without any problems. On top of that, a single beer will cost a LOT of taxi/daiko/train fees, so there’s actually an incentive to KEEP drinking. I mean, hell, you’ve had a single beer – that’s fifteen dollars in daiko fees right there. May as well have a few more and get your money’s worth!

    The “Asian flush” doesn’t even factor into that, you know? There’s just SO MUCH MORE to it than one, single gene.

  • David Sharp

    Nah. It is a Japan blog – it should be about Japan – not about the difference between Japan and America.

    So, I would suggest that the point of comparison in every article shouldn’t just be the USA.

    I would rather see fewer well researched posts, than frequent less well researched ones.

    I am a huge fan of tofugu and I hope my criticisms are taken as they are intended – a friendly pointing out of the one weakness this otherwise fantastic blog.

  • jesse

    haha, i’ve fallen asleep far too many times on a sidewalk … honestly, they need to make trains run to at least 2-3am.. shutting the trains and subways off at midnight is just asking people to pass out in strange places. But at least its safe enough to not have to worry.

  • tonton101

    I believe the debauchery associated with drinking is similar for both countries, but the US does have one major difference: drunk driving.

  • tonton101

    I thoroughly enjoy the lax drinking culture in Japan, but such a culture would obviously never work here in the US. Underage driving is far too prevalent for wanton drinking to be commonplace. I do wish that US culture would lose this prudish stance on underage drinking. I mean I’ve heard stories of parents being labeled negligent and unfit for allowing their children the occasional sip of wine or having a looser stance on drinking.

  • Dotto

    It appears they are trying to crack down on underage drinking in Japan….sort of. I’ve seen many advertisements at train stations trying to prevent it…not sure how effective they are. I’ve never been asked for ID, and never seen a friend asked for ID. When I first came to Japan about 3-4 years ago, I would often to go bars with people who were 19 with no problem.

    In Australia, underage drinking is dealt with strictly, every place checks for ID. You can’t buy liquor in a supermarket or convenience store anyway (the big chain supermarkets usually have a annex for the sale of alcohol). Of course, the legal age is 18 so they don’t have to wait as long. And try as the authorities may, kids still find ways to do it.

  • David Andrade

    You make a valid point… is what I would say if the whole article was an entire comparison, instead you’re focusing on a small part of the entire article and creating your own illusion of how it’s used. Maybe people learn better with comparisons? Just like metaphors or examples, he only uses the comparison to help people get a better scope of the topic. It’s nothing more than a tool used to help people “see” the way people are in Japan.

    You totally ignored the point of the other person who commented previously. “THEY’RE AMERICAN”. So yes, they have all the right to compare to American society every single time.That said, you’re still wrong if you just go back a few articles to the bull fighting. They compared it to Spanish and European bull fighting in general. Still the point of the articles is not to compare anything, so that’s not even the focus of the article, thus really shouldn’t be the focus of nonconstructive criticism.

    Lastly, possibly your only valid opinion is “I would rather see fewer well researched posts, than frequent less well researched one.” Unfortunately this is nothing more than an opinion of taste, and really can only be replied with the fact that this is a site for short, interesting but lighthearted articles. It’s not a sociology site where scholars write deep, well thought, philosophical journals, so you can’t really expect to see that, and I’m not sure they’re planning on changing that anytime soon, sorry.

  • Jusilla

    I just tried to buy ciggies from a vending machine in Asakusa a couple of weeks ago, but needed one of those cards to prove I’m of age. :/ Unfortunate for visitors!

  • jgh

    The legal *drinking* age in the UK is 5. Yes, FIVE. The legal *purchasing* age is 18 for both alcohol and tobacco. Interestingly, I don’t know if there is a legal age limit for *consuming* tobacco as opposed to buying it.

  • jgh

    With may people lactose tolerance continues if you continue to consume milk. Most lactose intolerance is due to ceasing to consume milk, so you “forget” how to digest it.

  • Wendy

    In my year out here, I’ve seen 3 alcohol vending machines, but they were right beside each other in a very dark spot underneath a train station. The smoking section “separation” is lame at best. The barrier is… no barrier actually. The smoke will waft over to you easily. I live in a “party” area 5 mins from Yokohama station. I also get to work early with the 1st-3rd trains, so I have to deal with the drunken annoyances with the all-nighters every day of the week. The stench is strong and unpleasant. There’s nothing like starting your morning jumping over patches of vomit on the sidewalk and the train.

  • Wrathful

    Both alcohol and Tobacco are cheap in Japan while as Australia charges for ridiculous prices but it’s ironic Aussies still probably drink and smoke more than Japanese.

  • Mononoke

    I’ve lived in Japan from 11 to 14 and I’ve noticed how easy it is to get alcohol for teenagers. Maybe even easier for foreigners, like me. First time I bought alcohol, I was twelve ! and they didn’t ask anything. I don’t think it’s right, but then I think there are less drinking problems amongst people my age in Japan than in Europe or in the States.
    The feeling I got when I lived there was that there wasn’t much underage drinking going on in Japan. So this post kind of surprises me !

  • fuckthefitnessfeelthefatness

    “Are you 20 or older” >:DDD

    …but seriously though. I think media (I don’t mean anime or manga) has a lot to do with what kids think is ok and what isn’t. Nowadays kids don’t smoke or drink because it’s cool. I think they either do it because they’re bored or they feel left out. If magazines would stop fat/skinny-shaming and start smoker- and alcohol-shaming instead, maybe things will change?

  • fuckthefitnessfeelthefatness

    *and kids don’t have anything to do (even if they wanted) they will most likely go drinking or start smoking. At least in the city where I live.