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 and whiskey mixed with water and ice are staples of the snack bars 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 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 by far the norm only a couple of decades ago, Japan has, with some notable exceptions, become a largely smoke-free nation. Unlike many countries in the West, however, legislation has perhaps played a lesser role. Instead, Japanese society as a whole has brought change in a more delayed but, maybe, in a less abrupt fashion more acceptable to the Japanese at large.
Generally, smoking is 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 now seem to be in decline. Offices, especially for larger companies, are often smoke free as are an increasing number of restaurants and cafes, especially chain shops. Where smoking is still allowed it is often separated. Japan’s mostly spotless taxis are now also mostly non-smoking but the odd one or two will retain the stale whiff of a cigarette from a previous customer or the driver. Many hotels provide rooms for smokers, but increasingly these seem to be less and less available.
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.
However, smokers know that they can, at least for the time being, enjoy a puff outside convenience stores and at other sites, where ashtrays are provided, around town, and in some restaurants – an ashtray is a sure sign that the owner has no objection. Also, in the majority of bars, nightclubs, snack bars and the like smoking is overwhelmingly consider acceptable.
The 2020 Tokyo Olympics is bringing further change, this time legislative. By the time of the greatest sports event on earth most restaurants will, by law, have to provide smoke-free zones or become completely non-smoking.
Pipes and cigars are very unusual in Japan, although some rare clubs may extend a warm welcome to aficionados. Electronic tobacco exists in Japan but the products available do not billow the clouds of smoke, or indeed any smoke, often seen, for example, in Europe.
Even where smoking is permitted it may only be the solitary figure who lights up. However, everyone accepts this, at least for the time being.