Alcohol is viewed a little differently in every culture in the world. Here in the US, we start (legally) drinking later in life than most countries, and our attitudes towards alcohol isn’t always healthy.
And then there’s Japan. Drinking is a huge part of Japanese culture; whether it’s going out to a bar with your friends, or hitting an izakaya with your coworkers, it’s hard to find a social occasion that doesn’t involve kicking back a few cold ones.
But there are also plenty of problems with alcohol in Japan. Today, Japan chugs down 6 times more booze than they did 50 years ago. The crown prince of the Japanese royal family had to be treated for alcoholism, and a few years ago, the Japanese finance minister held a press conference drunk:
Maybe nobody is more notorious for not being able to hold their alcohol than Japanese salarymen. Just a couple of beers (even light, watery Japanese beers) send salarymen stumbling down city streets late at night, neckties around their foreheads, faces beet-red.
You might think that salarymen are wusses or lightweights for getting drunk so easily, but there is actually a scientific explanation behind why the Japanese can’t always hold their liquor.
A big reason so many Japanese have trouble with alcohol is because of a condition called the “alcohol flush reaction,” (or “Asian glow”). It’s a genetic condition that affects something like ⅓ of all East Asian people.
What does this Asian glow do to people? In a nutshell, it means that the body can’t break down alcohol all the way, causing even light drinking to result in really bad hangovers and bright red faces (hence the name “Asian glow”).
But besides the obvious, visible effects of alcohol on those who have the Asian glow, there are other things going on beneath the surface, chemical reactions within the body.
Typically when somebody drinks alcohol, it’s processed by the body in two basic steps. First, alcohol is broken down into a harsh chemical, then into a milder chemical that’s basically vinegar.
The enzyme in your body that makes that important second step happen called aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH). ALDH makes sure that alcohol is only in that harsh chemical form for a little bit of time.
But for some reason, about 40-45% of Japanese people are mutants.
No, not cool kind of mutants, but the regular ol’ boring kind. These people have a different kind of ALDH (called ALDH2) that doesn’t break down the alcohol as well nor as fast, leaving the alcohol in the body at that harsh chemical state for longer.
So while people with the Asian glow might not be able to shoot lasers out of their eyes or have Adamantium claws (they’re only Vibranium), this mutation is still pretty important, especially in a culture where drinking is so prominent.