Japan has a relaxed, comfortable attitude to the consumption of alcohol, which is readily available and a frequent accompaniment to meals both within and without the home. Beer is a staple drink and is often used to start proceedings including any toasts. After a bottle or two, many will switch to less gaseous drinks such as nihonshu sake and shochu, a refined vodka-like beverage. Shochu or whiskey mixed with water and ice are staples of the snack night clubs found the length and breadth of Japan.
Drinking alcohol is associated with sociability and enjoyment for everyone. In general, the Japanese avoid contentious subjects for discussion while drinking and if they poke fun it is directed at themselves rather than a third-person. Over imbibing is rarely a source of conflict. Even those who have had a little more that they should are most usually gently cared for by their companions.
In many instances, alcohol is drunk while eating, whether a full meal, a few dishes or light snacks. Drinking in public spaces is uncommon but not because it is frowned upon. One exception to this rule is during the sakura cherry blossom season when most places that lie in the vicinity of one or more of these picturesque trees will see Japanese gathered and enjoying beers, sake, tasty morsels and the like al fresco.
Drinking (and eating) is considered acceptable on long distance express trains but very uncommon on local trains.
Very importantly, Japan has a zero-tolerance attitude to drinking and driving. By law, no alcohol maybe consumed before taking the wheel of any vehicle and the penalties severe. Also, beware of any residual alcohol from a previous evening’s enjoyment when driving.
For nation where smoking was mostly the norm only a couple of decades ago, Japan has become a largely smoke-free nation. Unlike many countries in the West, however, legislation has until recently played a lesser role. Instead, Japanese society as a whole has brought change in a more delayed but less abrupt fashion more acceptable to the Japanese as a whole. Even where smoking is permitted it may only be a solitary figure who lights up. However, everyone quietly accepts this, at least for the time being.
Generally, smoking has for a while been prohibited in public institutions, such as schools, hospitals and government buildings and on public transport, including platforms and station buildings. Although smoking areas have often been provided wherever smoking has been restricted these pockets of escape for the nicotine-needy are now also in decline. Offices are mostly smoke free as are almost all other venues including cafes, restaurants and clubs. Although some venues, usually snack or lounge night clubs, have special dispensations for a limited extended period to allow smoking this has to be clearly signposted at the entrance. Japan’s spotless taxis are now smoke free while a dwindling number of hotels provide guest rooms for smokers.
Smoking while walking is unusual but not prohibited except where local bylaws apply; distinctive signs adorn the pavement and, perhaps, a warden provides a gentle request to stub it out. Nevertheless, it has become unusual to see anyone with cigarette in hand while walking. Smokers know that they can, at least for the time being, enjoy a puff outside convenience stores, some restaurants and other sites where ashtrays are provided, a sure sign that the owner has no objection. From cursory observation, however, these also seem to be declining rapidly, which is probably more a function of the diminishing number of smokers than objections from others.
Electronic tobacco is available in Japan but the products available do not billow the clouds of smoke, or indeed any smoke, often seen, for example, in Europe. Pipes and cigars are very unusual in Japan, although some rare clubs may extend a warm welcome to aficionados.
Preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics was the impetus for strong legislative change, and Japan today has by and large become a smoke-free zone and non-smoking nation, at least in public.