Photo/IllutrationBartender Eiji Miyazawa shows off some of his non-alcoholic cocktails in Tokyo’s Chuo Ward. (Shingo Tsuru)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Evenings when revelry with friends or colleagues kicked off with obligatory beers or whiskey highballs appear to be on the wane, judging by the growing number of restaurants and bars in Japan that focus on non-alcoholic beverages.

Many Japanese now say they find it near-intoxicating to refrain from getting blind drunk during a night out, but also to abstain from alcohol completely.

The trend is apparently fueled by a growing awareness of the health benefits that accrue from staying sober. That has led to a leveling-off in alcohol consumption.

At a dimly lit French restaurant called Reglisse in Tokyo’s fancy Roppongi Hills commercial complex, sommelier Kaori Hatano, 44, can often be seen serving glasses of a golden-colored drink that resembles beer but is alcohol-free.

The carbonated beverage, which has taken Britain by storm, is called Shrb. Made with herbs and spices marinated in vinegar, the drink has a low sugar content and is said by afficionados to pack quite a punch.

“It brought out the taste of the chicken,” said Midori Shiraishi, 26, after sampling Shrb for the first time.

Shiraishi, a company employee living in the capital's Ota Ward, described herself as anything but a lightweight drinker. These days, however, she prefers to stick to non-alcoholic beverages when dining out with friends because “it’s embarrassing to get drunk in front of other people.”

In February, an establishment called Low-Non Bar will open near bustling Tokyo Station.

Managed by Eiji Miyazawa, 42, who is well-known on the international cocktail competition circuit, it will boast a range of low- and non-alcohol drinks.

Miyazawa said he stopped imbibing alcohol for health reasons three years ago.

After numerous visits to bars around town, Miyazawa realized that customers are often just as happy soaking up the ambience instead of getting sloshed.

“I believe I can keep my customers interested with non-alcoholic cocktails because that's what I specialize in,” he said.

Yu Ando founded Alt-Alc Ltd., an import company specializing in non-alcohol beverages, in Tokyo’s Arakawa Ward in summer 2018 after witnessing the boom of non-alcoholic drinks in Britain, where binge drinking has long been a social problem.

Ando, 28, had previously worked for a wine importer and felt sure there was a business opportunity in health-conscious Japan.

Just because some people can't abide alcohol, it doesn't mean they are loathe to gather for social occasions.

Hideto Fujino, who heads an investment trust company, set up a Facebook page called “Gekonomist” in June 2019 for lightweight drinkers to share information with one another.

Membership currently stands in excess of 1,900.

Fujino, 53, has twice thrown a dining out party in Tokyo called “Geko Night,” where alcohol does not feature on the menu.

Despite the fee, 20,000 yen ($185), all 16 slots were booked almost instantly.

“In view of falling alcohol consumption and growing health consciousness, the non-alcoholic market is also attractive for an investor,” Fujino said.

AMBIENCE RATHER THAN DRINKING

A 2018 health ministry survey on drinking frequency found that 56.5 percent of people in their 20s didn’t drink in 2017, up by about 15 percentage points from 2007.

The figures for those in their 30s and 40s also increased drastically to 54.5 percent and 49.8 percent, respectively.

Another survey by brewing and distilling group Suntory Holdings Ltd. showed that domestic distribution of non-alcoholic beverages totaled about 287,000 kiloliters in 2019, a more than fourfold increase over the previous 10 years. The figure indicates that the trend of non-alcoholic drinks shows no sign of abating, while the alcohol market has hovered at a little less than 9 million kiloliters annually in recent years.

“Alcohol drinks traditionally were a tool for people to enjoy together at gatherings and gain a sense of openness. But these days, fewer people are turning to liquor to open up to one another,” noted Takuya Kano, president of Sakebunka Institute Inc. in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward, which tracks alcohol trends and Japan's drinking culture.

According to Kano, 60, Japanese are beginning to place more importance on taste and matching food with the right beverage rather than getting drunk.

Kenji Hashimoto, a professor at Tokyo's Waseda University specializing in economic inequality and social division whose hobby is to visit traditional drinking and eating establishments called “izakaya,” welcomes the growing popularity of non-alcoholic beverages.

“People who don’t enjoy drinking alcohol but want to enjoy a drinking occasion where they can let it all hang out are grateful for non-alcoholic drinks,” he said. “This trend may lead to an expansion in a new segment of Japan's drinking culture.”