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Drinking Bomb & Shooting Meth: An Interview with “Asia Shorts” Author Jeffrey W. Alexander

Last July, Hendrix College President and AAS Editorial Board Chair Bill Tsutsui introduced #AsiaNow readers to a new AAS book series, Asia Shorts. In these “small volumes with a big message,” Tsutsui explained, readers would find “rigorous, timely, and accessible work in our field,” written in concise, readable prose.

We are happy to announce that the first Asia Shorts book is now available: Drinking Bomb & Shooting Meth: Alcohol and Drug Use in Japan, written by Pueblo (CO) Community College Dean of Arts and Sciences Jeffrey W. Alexander. Drinking Bomb & Shooting Meth relates the history of drug and alcohol production and sale in Japan between the late 19th century and the present day, using these substances as an entry point into an examination of the country’s cultural, social, and economic evolution over the decades. Here, Tsutsui interviews Alexander about his research, the challenges he faced in writing the book, and what’s most likely to be filling his own glass at a bar.

To order Drinking Bomb & Shooting Meth and to view the Call for Proposals for the new Asia Shorts series, please visit the AAS Publications page.

Bill Tsutsui: Among the global stereotypes of Japan are warm sake, weak beer, and a squeaky-clean society with minimal drug problems. What are we missing?

Jeffrey Alexander: I think most observers are simply unaware that Japan’s alcohol culture is as unique and varied as in other developed nations. Importantly, this begins with the overwhelming cultural acceptance of alcohol and even of overconsumption. Nominally, Japan’s drinking age is 20 years old, but well-behaved teenagers who visit bars or restaurants with adults are very likely to be served. College students also enjoy alcohol, sometimes to extremes. When I escorted a group of American college students on a study tour of Japan in 2011, our group encountered a group of Japanese college students at a beer garden atop a hotel in the heart of Kyoto. Later, we saw one of the same Japanese students vomiting in the gutter near Kyoto station, and the passersby barely seemed to take notice. Many adults too, drink casually and recreationally, and depending upon the establishment one frequents, the liquor flows more freely. From gleaming hotel bars, where the attire is smart and the cocktails are pricey, to dingy taverns in urban alleyways where rumpled salarymen sing karaoke and drink impressive volumes of cheap shōchū, alcohol culture comes in a wide variety of forms. And while the popularity of energy drinks has risen greatly in America over the last 20 years, in Japan, these drinks have been available for generations—often as hangover remedies for hungover salarymen. Japan is a place where people work hard and play hard, and the pace of work generates a thirst that is often quenched proportionally. For those who drink to excess, there have for decades been enterprising companies ready to sell a host of energy elixirs and vitamin drinks in tiny bottles, located conveniently in little fridges near the cash registers in convenience stores nationwide.

Most survey courses on Japan don’t spend a lot of time on hangover remedies or methamphetamine. What can we learn about Japan’s modern experience by focusing on liquor and stimulants?  

Japan’s postwar liquor culture, and the brewers and distillers who supplied the drink, were and remained respectable firms selling a product with rising cultural cachet. As economic affluence increased during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, the varieties and prices of liquors and beers rose accordingly, and society warmly embraced this wave of domestic wares that began to rival imported Western brands. Throughout this era, the number and quality of bars and taverns where Japanese professionals could gather to drink, smoke, and talk after work rose swiftly, and the iconic whisky highball became the symbol of salaryman drinking culture. This book is the first to explore the advent, interior, and design of those whisky bars, as well as the hardworking owners and bartenders who made them such integral spaces in Japan’s bustling urban centers.

Meanwhile, Japan’s postwar market for hangover remedies was unique, and its leading pharmaceutical firms produced drugs that were developed and sold nowhere else in the world. Until my research on this subject emerged in this book, there was no English-language scholarship available on this topic. Japan’s modern effort to prevent liver damage and cerebral hemorrhage due to alcohol overconsumption using science—and pseudoscience—was simply forgotten. I came across the many print ads for these hangover drugs quite unexpectedly, while searching for liquor ads in postwar newspapers and popular weekly journals. I did not set out to find them, but I could not help but notice their many clever line drawings and photos of bottles, ashtrays, beer glasses, and pills. Further investigation uncovered an entire world of opportunistic, predatory marketing of questionable liver remedies by Japan’s leading drug companies—almost none of which have since acknowledged their participation in this marketplace.

Finally, few Westerners are aware that methamphetamine was first developed in Japan, or that Japan today is home to perhaps half a million meth addicts, many of whom inject it intravenously each day. Global ignorance of this significant drug addiction crisis—which Japan has countered successfully before—may be attributed in part to the rosy lens through which casual observers often learn about Japan. Though some are aware of the issues of bullying and suicide, the issues of homelessness, drug addiction, and discrimination appear less often in international headlines about Japan. For a balanced picture, we must also explore the challenges facing any society.

To what extent are the histories of Western alcohol and stimulant drugs you detail in this book distinctively Japanese, and how closely do they parallel developments elsewhere in Asia?

Beer brewing and liquor distilling are certainly not unique to Japan, and with China’s rising affluence in recent decades many Chinese are consuming more alcohol than ever before. The same is true in parts of Southeast Asia, where rising living standards have brought increased liquor production and sales. As in so many arenas, however, Japan’s beer and liquor producers were the first in Asia to issue products of such quality and at such scale. Like makers of automobiles and electronics, it was Japan’s brewers and distillers who first challenged dominant Western brands, and, having established their quality, it was they who first challenged many European-dominated markets for alcoholic beverages in East and Southeast Asia.

On the other hand, Japan is no stranger to Asia’s drug trade, and Japanese agents played a significant role in cultivating, supplying, and controlling the regional opiate trade, particularly during the first half of the twentieth century and during the war years especially. Since then, however, Japan has itself faced waves of smuggling of stimulant drugs like meth and their component ingredients, especially from North Korea. In this regard, Japan is part of a regional marketplace where developments in the drug trade affect many populations and where one nation’s opportunity is typically another’s scourge.

Drinking Bomb and Shooting Meth is the first volume in the new Asia Shorts series. As an author, what were the rewards (and the challenges) of writing a concise volume, rooted in the most recent scholarship and aimed at broad public audiences?

As with any book project, minor challenges fade into memory once the finished product appears between covers, and this one turned out really well. As I note in the book, I hadn’t before considered marrying these four research projects into a single volume until you first suggested the idea, but the suggestion turned out to be a great one. The most difficult challenge was the task of consolidating an entire book on Japan’s beer industry into a single chapter, but by focusing on marketing, advertising, and consumption of beer rather than the business behind the industry, the finished chapter fit very well within the broader narrative. In many respects, this book is a chance to convey the products of ten years’ worth of original research, including time spent in Japan, many months of solitary translation work, endless rewrites, and a dozen research presentations given around the world. I am very grateful for the opportunity to author the first volume in the new Asia Shorts series, and I am especially thankful to you, Jon Wilson, and the AAS publication team for their continual support.

What’s your personal drink of choice in Japan? (Let’s not get into pills.)

In the mid-1990s, I spent time training as a bartender near Osaka, where I learned to appreciate the Japanese fascination with “getting it right” and faithfully reproducing classic imported cocktail recipes. Since that time, Japanese whiskies have garnered ever-more respect and appreciation around the world, and some of them are truly special. I have had the good fortune to visit the Nikka distillery in Yoichi and taste some of the finest single malt whiskies made there, as well as the impressive whiskies crafted at the Suntory distilleries at Yamzazaki and Hakushu. In the end, however, I remain a beer man. There is nothing quite like a cold glass of draft beer in a cozy izakaya tavern, or at a rooftop beer garden, or at a Japanese baseball game. It’s like enjoying a draft beer anywhere, only better. 

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