Japan's culture has long been open to the abuse of alcohol. But new legislation and changing attitudes finally mean the problem is being dealt with head on. David Robertson reports.

After years of sweeping the issue under the carpet Japan is now beginning to face up to the need for a more sensible approach to alcohol.


In Tokyo in 1999 an estimated 11,467 people were taken to hospital for acute alcohol poisoning

In recent years one of the main areas of concern has been the culture at Japanese parties of "ikki", downing drinks in one go. Students participate in the practice, usually until they pass out and it's also common practise within the workplace where senior colleagues are known to force new recruits to drink well beyond their tolerance.

And with the hierarchical nature of Japanese business and the need to save face, many drink well beyond what would be described under normal circumstances as excessive. So it is of no real surprise to learn that in Tokyo in 1999 an estimated 11,467 people were taken to hospital for acute alcohol poisoning and dozens of people die each year.

But due to a number of reasons, attitudes are beginning to change. Yukitomo and Mitsuko Hirage set up a liaison council in a bid to educate people to the dangers of 'ikki' after their son, Takehiro died in 1996. And there have also been an increasing number of lawsuits filed by people forced to 'ikki' by their superiors.

Suntory: vending machine

Meanwhile another problem being addressed is the sale of alcohol to minors. Under age drinking in Japan is far more severe than in the US or Europe where under age drinkers have to go to some lengths to get alcohol. In Japan a child can get a can of beer from a vending machine in the street.

But gradually this too is changing. New vending machines are being introduced that carry ID reading devices and following the introduction at the start of the year of tough new laws on alcohol sales to minors liquor store-owners are now switching to these new machines.

So far over 7,000 of these new machines have been bought and installed. But ID reading is still only voluntary and many liquor store owners have been slow to introduce them as it generally leads to a massive drop in sales (up to 50%) and some claim they cannot survive if the vending machines are changed.

But with the Japanese government and society in general getting tougher on excess and under age drinking, it seems only a matter of time before everyone falls into line.