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Question regarding drinking etiquette

Question regarding drinking etiquette

Old Jan 19, 13, 9:28 am
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Question regarding drinking etiquette

I have a question for flyertalk members who know Japan. I quit drinking many years ago after abusing alcohol as a young man. I do not drink at all. During our visit to Japan, we will be spending some time with a Japanese family who we like a great deal, and they are unaware that I don't drink. I am afraid I will offend them if they offer me sake or another drink and I refuse. How do I refuse gracefully? I have a client who travels to Korea a great deal who doesn't drink for similar reasons, and he struggles with this often.

My common way of refusing a drink that is offered is to simply thank the person and ask for soda water or something else non-alcoholic without any explanation, but I don't know if etiquette in Japan would require a different response.

Thank you for any guidance you can give me.

dcman2
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Old Jan 19, 13, 9:55 am
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Originally Posted by dcman2 View Post
How do I refuse gracefully?
There are some people in Japan who don't touch alcohol because of health, religion, alcoholism or simply being unable to process alcohol. (So, I guess the reasons boil down to health or religion). They come under pressure in work/business situations more than when among friends. In a business situation, you're often expected to forgo your personal preference - take one for the team, so to speak. Even in those situations, though, I think there's less pressure to drink than there used to be.

If I were you, I'd tell your host in advance - "By the way, I don't drink any alcohol. At meal times I usually drink sparkling water." Even so, your host will probably feel like he has to offer you some booze - failure to do so would be inhospitable. So be ready to say "Thanks. But I don't drink any alcohol." I think few people would ask why, but I know some people do. I have heard people say "My doctor told me that I had to quit completely" or "It just makes me feel very ill".

The trouble with asking for soda water is that you may find that they just don't have any in the house. It's readily available in supermarkets, but plenty of people simply don't have it at home. Same goes for Japanese restaurants. Your non-alcoholic options in some places will be tap water or tea (sometimes green tea, but often iced barley tea or oolong tea). Sometimes you just have to roll with it - I remember being with one colleague who caused a great fuss at a restaurant that served barley tea with lunch and he wanted green tea ("because this is Japan"). He was terribly surprised when the restaurant didn't go the extra mile for him ("I thought service was supposed to be great in Japan"). Come to think of it, he was a total a$$hat.

If you're staying a few days and you're getting tired of plain water or tea, you could say to your host "Do you mind if I buy some sparkling water? I think I'd like to have some with dinner". Your host will probably buy some.
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Old Jan 19, 13, 10:00 am
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Not all Japanese drink. Some East Asians have a metabolic condition that causes them to feel uncomfortable and turn red when they drink alcohol, so even though Japanese culture features a lot of drinking, not everyone drinks.

Other Japanese have had their doctors tell them to stop smoking and/or drinking. This is called dokutaa sutoppu "doctor stop" in Japanese English.

I have observed that when drink orders are taken in a group, there will usually be a group consensus to have a pitcher of beer or a flask of sake or whatever, but one person might say, "I'll have (insert name of non-alcoholic beverage)." No one questions it.

In my teaching days, I had students who had been Mormon missionaries, and obviously, they faced this situation on social occasions. They reported that bars always have Sprite or orange pop (known as juusu "juice") on hand for their teetotaling customers.

So there are many reasons why a Japanese person might not drink, and refusing and asking for something non-alcoholic would not be considered rude.
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Old Jan 19, 13, 10:13 am
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Originally Posted by jib71 View Post
I remember being with one colleague who caused a great fuss at a restaurant that served barley tea with lunch and he wanted green tea ("because this is Japan"). He was terribly surprised when the restaurant didn't go the extra mile for him ("I thought service was supposed to be great in Japan"). Come to think of it, he was a total a$$hat.
Yeah, I had an experience like that. While spending the summer in Japan in the 1980s, I met up with faculty member from the same university who was attending a conference in Tokyo and was showing him around. At lunch, he wanted authentic Japanese food, so I took him to the most kaiseki-like place I knew of, and when the waitress asked about beverages, I said that I was fine with just water, but he ordered milk. (The thought of milk with kaiseki makes me gag, but...)

The waitress started stammering apologies, and I leaned over and told him that the restaurant was very unlikely to keep milk on hand.

He started going on about how they SHOULD serve milk to please their customers. Never mind that he was probably the first customer in the history of the restaurant to ask for milk with his meal.

The whole day was like that.
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Old Jan 19, 13, 3:06 pm
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Since you're staying with a Japanese family, they will totally understand. As noted above, it would probably be good to give them notice ahead of time. Is there someone who knows both you and the family, or possibly one member of the family who you are closest to? If so, then I would recommend telling that person, who could relay the news to the others. If you are OK with them drinking alcohol in your presence, be sure to tell them that. They will gladly serve you tea so that you can drink together.

Be aware of the situation. If the drinks are being served to a group, don't immediately take a sip from yours before the kanpai (like a toast). Drinking together has a few rituals, one of which is that you don't drink from your glass until all are prepared and then you drink the first sip (or gulp) together after an obvious cue.
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Old Jan 19, 13, 3:34 pm
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You're a foreigner, so you will not be required to conform to Japanese rules.

You don't need to get into the details...just tell them in advance that you cannot (not will not) drink alcohol, refuse when you need to, and that will be that.
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Old Jan 19, 13, 3:48 pm
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Originally Posted by hailstorm View Post
You're a foreigner, so you will not be required to conform to Japanese rules.

You don't need to get into the details...just tell them in advance that you cannot (not will not) drink alcohol, refuse when you need to, and that will be that.
I totally agree with Hailstorm. Don't overly concern yourself.

On the other hand, the OP wants to make the situation as smooth as reasonable (which is a Japanese way of thinking), so I think that in this case of a formed relationship it's OK to do some ground work ahead of time.

Edit to note: Actually, reading the message again, maybe I just repeated haistorm's advice!
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Old Jan 19, 13, 6:03 pm
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It's best to be honest and let your host know that you do not drink. They will understand and appreciate your honesty.
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Old Jan 19, 13, 7:45 pm
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Originally Posted by Peregrine415 View Post
It's best to be honest and let your host know that you do not drink. They will understand and appreciate your honesty.
Well yes ... but how and when?
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Old Jan 19, 13, 7:47 pm
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Originally Posted by ksandness View Post
Other Japanese have had their doctors tell them to stop smoking and/or drinking. This is called dokutaa sutoppu "doctor stop" in Japanese English.
This. If you decline an offer to drink alcohol and get any pushback whatever, just say "doctor stop" in English and they will understand and not push the matter further. And, it's roughly true in the OP's situation, assuming some sort of medical professional was involved in his original decision to stop drinking.

Regarding alternate beverage choices in the home, others have given good advice. Don't assume that something commonly found in an American home will be there in Japan, whether it be cola, milk, or anything else. The first time I stayed in a Japanese home, they asked me what I normally drink with dinner, probably expecting the answer to be beer or wine. When I said "Diet Coke," they were surprised. Unbeknownst to me, a family member was immediately dispatched to go to the store to get some. Nothing was said until they were back with it in the grocery store bag. I was embarrassed at having made them go to all the trouble.
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Old Jan 19, 13, 8:26 pm
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Originally Posted by Steve M View Post
When I said "Diet Coke," they were surprised. Unbeknownst to me, a family member was immediately dispatched to go to the store to get some. Nothing was said until they were back with it in the grocery store bag. I was embarrassed at having made them go to all the trouble.
Their response is not surprising at all. What's amazing is that they found Diet Coke!
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Old Jan 19, 13, 10:40 pm
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Originally Posted by nishimark View Post
Their response is not surprising at all. What's amazing is that they found Diet Coke!
When I first came to Japan, there was a drink called "Coca Cola Light" that I liked, but it was gone a year later. I heard rumors that it was found to "dissolve bone"

Three years ago it changed to "Coca Cola Zero", so I doubt that you can find Diet Coke anywhere these days.

Originally Posted by Steve M View Post
Regarding alternate beverage choices in the home, others have given good advice. Don't assume that something commonly found in an American home will be there in Japan, whether it be cola, milk, or anything else.
As always, the safest thing to ask for is water.
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Old Jan 19, 13, 11:22 pm
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OP will be fine. Everyone has a non-alcoholic beverage of some kind in their house. Actually, I bought a bottle of sparkling wine for a house party recently (all Japanese guests) and ended up being the only person who drank any, as everyone else was having juice or tea...

Originally Posted by hailstorm View Post
Three years ago it changed to "Coca Cola Zero", so I doubt that you can find Diet Coke anywhere these days.
Correct. Nowadays in Japan it's just Coke, Coke Zero or Coke Zero Free (= caffeine-free). From what I understand they are keeping the separate Diet and Zero brands in the US to cater to women and men respectively, while in Japan they seem to be targeting Zero at both groups.

Coke Zero in Japan uses aspartame, and IME is closer in flavor to American Diet Coke than to American Coke Zero, which uses sucralose. After getting used to drinking Coke Zero in Japan, I drank some in the US and was surprised at how bitter it tasted.
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Old Jan 20, 13, 3:42 am
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Originally Posted by joejones View Post
Coke Zero in Japan uses aspartame, and IME is closer in flavor to American Diet Coke than to American Coke Zero, which uses sucralose. After getting used to drinking Coke Zero in Japan, I drank some in the US and was surprised at how bitter it tasted.
Going off topic here, but I remember Coke Light. Often came in a can smaller than a regular soft drink can but bigger than canned coffee. As I recall, it actually had 10 kcal, not 0. Can't remember what the sweetener was.
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Old Jan 20, 13, 6:02 am
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Thank you to everyone who responded. It sounds like my best strategy is to let the family know I do not drink prior to our visit, and to be careful to ask for water or other non-alcoholic drink that I know they have on hand. I expect they family we will be staying with will be very understanding, but I will likely practice (so I learn) doctor stop in Japanese so I can have use it in other circumstances if I need to.

I very much appreciate everyone's help.

dcman2
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