Did Japan Nearly Have its Own Prohibition Era?

Did Japan Nearly Have its Own Prohibition Era?

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A illustrated 1920s Japanese woman holds a beer next to a era-styled title reading "did Japan almost have prohibition?"
Japan has a noted drinking culture. Yet, as Japan modernized, a surprising number embraced the foreign concept of alcohol prohibition.

Step foot in Japan, and it won’t take long to conceive of just how powerful its drinking culture is. Venues catering to those wishing to get sloshed abound: izakaya (Japanese pubs); top-shelf classic cocktail dispensaries; ten-seater snack bars; British and Irish pubs; standing bars; specialized sake and shochu joints. Beers flow while salarymen, freed from the shackles of work, hit up yakitori stands and late-night ramen shops, while all-you-can-drink courses help inundate college students socializing at karaoke. Local pride in homegrown sake, shochu, and – in Okinawa – awamori abound. Japan-produced foreign fare booms, from whiskey to gin to (at long last) craft beer. Despite some recent trends, boozing it up is an almost assumed venue for interpersonal communication. So, you may be surprised that there once was a concerted effort to bring Prohibition to Japan.

Like so many historical Japanese stories, this one begins in the 1850s, with US Commodore Perry’s arrival in Uraga Bay to forcibly open Japan to Western trade. Jostled from its self-imposed isolation, Japan began to look across the Pacific for cues on how to shape its society in a rapidly changing world; Fashion, technology, military and governmental structures, education, and architecture; the country rushed at breakneck speed toward westernization. The watchword of the day became Wakon Yosai (和魂洋才): Japanese spirit, Western learning​.

Some in Japan, however, felt the national spirit – and, indeed, spirits – needed remedying as well. Some believed full westernization was essential, whether via the changing of mores and religion (via the adoption of Christianity) or the introduction of foreign lexicons. (Mori Arinori, “father of Japanese education,” believed Japan should adopt English as its official language.) From the 1880s, a growing movement in Japan began targeting the consumption and selling of alcohol. The Japanese Temperance Movement had been born, and a path toward Prohibition was being constructed with sober determination.

A Japanese anti-alcohol poster, likely Taisho-era.

A Millenia of Drink

Japan’s Flirtation with Alcohol Prohibition

Japan has a noted drinking culture. Yet, as Japan modernized, a surprising number embraced the foreign concept of alcohol prohibition. Discover a surprising intersection between Japan, the United States, and the international Temperance movement.

Watch our documentary version of this article on our YouTube channel.

The place of mood-altering beverages in Japan is perhaps older than the Japanese polity itself. Rice cultivation on the archipelago started about three millennia ago, and (originally rather weak) rice-based alcoholic beverages have been around for nearly as long. Japanese booze gets its first historical mention in the Book of Wei, written in 3rd century China. Some hundreds of years later, the semihistorical chronicles of the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki make numerous references to drunken daring-do.

By the Heian Period (794-1185), when military and cultural power had coalesced around the imperial court in what is now Kyoto, alcohol had become a major ritual object of consumption for both religious and civil ceremonies. Nobles also enjoyed a variety of drinking games in their leisure time. While the government held a de jure monopoly on alcoholic beverages, bootlegging abounded in the distant countryside, deep in the mountains beyond easy court control. (This would become a theme throughout much of Japanese history.) The association between religion and drink deepened in the 10th century, as Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines morphed into the primary sites for the brewing of sake (日本酒).

Distilled spirits entered Japan in the late 15th or early 16th century as part of the booming China Sea trade, either through the Ryukyu Kingdom or the Korean Peninsula. This was the era in which much of the world discovered the appeal of distillation in quick succession; still technology had finally caught up with the ancient knowledge that had allowed for the production of perfume in ancient Mesopotamia and beyond. In Japan, this led to the creation of the archipelago’s homegrown spirit, shochu (焼酎). Near at hand, the Ryukyu Kingdom created its own powerful intoxicant, awamori (泡盛). In the hotter regions in what is now Okinawa Prefecture and Kyushu, where older sake production methods led easily to spoiling in hot weather, distilled drinks were a godsend.

Women engaged in making/serving sake. Utagawa Toyokuni I, 1795-1801.

Ritual Sacrament and Social Lubricant

The sharing of drink in communal settings was a major ritual of many agrarian communities across Japan. Shogunal authorities placed heavy taxes on alcohol production, once again leading bootlegging to abound. As populations grew in the metropole of Edo (modern Tokyo), soon the world’s largest city, drinking became an easy way to break down old social barriers and get along with one’s neighbors. Life in the nagaya – the long rowhouses of the general Edo population – was claustrophobic and crowded. A shared drink, however, could help make community life that much easier.

In 1854, upon Commodore Perry’s second visit to Japan, more than two centuries of relatively strict isolation came to an end. Japan begrudgingly opened up to trade and treaties with Europe and North America. The floodgate was opened to alien inventions and goods. These had previously been semi-banned, entering the Japanese islands through limited gateways in Nagasaki, Ezo (modern Hokkaido), Ryukyu, and Tsushima. Nestled amongst the foreign military goods, textiles, technology, and more were previously unknown beverages. Whiskey, wine, beer, and cocktails started a new vogue in port cities like Yokohama, and, eventually, Tokyo. Native drinking culture melded with cultures from abroad, creating the alcoholic milieu we now know in Japan.


Said culture would become so ingrained as to sometimes feel inseparable from Japanese social and professional life. Booze allows for a socially acceptable pathway to lowering the fortified walls of hierarchy; hence the term nomi-nikeshon (飲みニケーション, drinking-communication) for frank business discussions over beers and sake. This paragraph from Stephen Lyman and Chris Bunting’s The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks explains the situation well:

In modern Japanese life, the nomikai (drinking party) is a near necessity to socialize, succeed academically, get ahead in business and even marry. People make new friends by attending drinking parties organized by their existing friends. Professors drink with their students. Students drink with their classmates. Bosses drink with their employees. Employees drink with their coworkers… an entire matchmaking industry has grown up based around brining strangers together to meet member of the opposite sex in social environments revolving around drinking. All in all, Japanese social activities are highly alcohol focused.”

Lyman, S. and Bunting, C. (2019). 15

But not everyone appreciated the soused-up direction Japanese culture was moving in.

After-work drinks, long a major aspect of Japanese business life.

Prohibition from Abroad

Flashback to the 1850s, and the years before Commodore Perry’s expedition to “open” Japan. Across the Pacific, in the young United States, a country little known by the Tokugawa Shogunate, a new movement was taking shape. It was named for a concept thought virtuous since the times of the ancient Greek philosophers: “Temperance,” the act of self-control. In the coming decades, that idea of self-control would become instead one aimed at controlling others: Prohibition.

In the United States and the colonies that preceded it, the imbibing of alcohol had long been done almost out of necessity. Water sources were often tainted, and beer and especially cider were safer sources of daily hydration. Since alcohol levels were low in such drinks, they could be imbibed throughout the day without achieving great levels of drunkenness. The boom in more powerful distilled spirits and the flourishing of saloons to provide them, however, greatly changed this situation. Suddenly, drunkenness became a vast societal problem.

Nowhere were the dangers presented by drunkenness more felt than in the household. As Victorian mores made their way into US society, women were increasingly segregated into the life of homemaker; as laboring men indulged more in drink outside of the home, they would return in a drunken, sometimes violent, stupor. Women and children bore the brunt of violence and the economic burden that came with a more drunken society. They found strange bedfellows in the captains of industry, who saw drunken workers as a threat to industrialized capitalism. They needed employees who could work long hours doing repetitive work – and rampant drunkenness and hangovers were bad for the bottom line.

A drunkard attacks his wife in a pro-temperance illustration. 1871.

Teetotalers and Temperance

Commodore Perry returned to the United States in 1854, his mission to Japan a success. He’d left bottles of whiskey behind in Japan as a celebratory gift to his country’s new Japanese trading partners. (Indeed, Perry had gifted the Emperor of Japan with a 110-gallon barrel of the powerful beverage.) The gift was surely meant to demonstrate the value trade with the United States had to offer. In his own country, however, a will toward alcohol prohibition was steadily picking up steam. By the time of the Civil War, a mere seven years in Perry’s future, eleven US states and two territories had put (weakly-enforced) prohibition laws into effect.

Postbellum, the dichotomy between expanding drink culture and temperance was even starker. Saloons propagated like mad in the American frontier; they were a place for the hard-worked prospector, miner, or rail worker to release their worries and find companionship (friendly or otherwise). From the perspective of wives and mothers, these saloons were dens of iniquity that siphoned their families’ money and debauched their husbands. Women could not vote, and their political activism was frowned upon. But within the confines of the Church and home life, they could moralize. Women began to use these venues to campaign against alcohol as a societal sin and danger.

In 1874, six years on from the Meiji Restoration that would spell the end of feudalism in Japan, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was formed in the United States. Church-going woman teetotalers, thrilled at the success of a mass protest movement against saloons that had closed 30,000 shops across middle America, sought even greater societal change through the WCTU. During the last decades of the 19th century, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union became the largest women’s organization in the United States.

A respectable org primarily made up of interdenominational church-going, caucasian women, it also allowed women to agitate for suffrage in a way that seemed non-radical. Under the leadership of the celebrated Francis E. Willard (1839 – 1898), the WCTU quadrupled in size. Soon, its vast and varied membership felt it was its duty to bring the good word of temperance and prohibition beyond America’s shores. Willard looked across the Pacific, and saw the newly-opened “heathen” land of Japan.

Francis Willard, who helped make the Women’s Christian Temperance Union actively political – and actively successful.

Mission of Temperance

Willard’s inspiration to evangelize temperance to the nations of East Asia came in 1883. She had traveled to San Fransico as part of an organizing tour, where she was led to the local Chinatown by one Reverend Otis Gibson, a former missionary to China and the “first pastor to the Japanese” on the US Pacific coast. [1] Willard was shocked by the stupor of addicts in the local opium dens, as well as by the “flagrantly flaunted temptation” of Chinese prostitutes in a neighboring “house of shame.” She would write that:

In presence of these two object lessons, the result of occidental avarice and oriental degradation, there was borne in upon my spirit a distinct illumination resulting in this solemn vow: But for the intrusion of the sea, the shores of China and the Far East would be part and parcel of our own. We are one world of tempted humanity… We must be no longer hedged about by the artificial boundaries of states and nations; we must utter as women what good and great men long ago declared as their watchword. The whole world is my parish and to do good my religion.”

Willard, Do Everything, 7-18. As quoted in Yasutake, 2006.

That same year, Willard proposed the formation of the World WCTU, whose goal would be to “belt the globe and join the East and West.” Before the end of 1883, divorced Boston schoolteacher and temperance activist Mary C. Leavitt had left on a mission trip across the Pacific, heralding the beginning of the World WCTU’s global activities. In 1886, she reached Japan; just as the art of cocktails first entered Japan through the port of Yokohama, so too would the temperance movement that aimed to ban them.

Illustration of women protesting a local saloon. 1874.

Prohibitions in the Past

Now, by no means was the concept of prohibition absent in Japanese history. Buddhism, often the favored religion of the imperial court, is not so proscriptive toward alcohol as Islam or Mormonism, nor is it as embracing of drink as Judaism or various forms of Christianity. Buddhism generally holds that inebriation is a pathway to carelessness best avoided. At various times, the Emperor would issue edicts against alcohol. Six such decrees were made between the years 646 and 770AD alone, although how much the average peasant in the countryside, looking forward to a sake-soaked harvest festival, obeyed, or was even aware of such orders, is suspect. [2]

The Christian missionaries bound for Japan from its opening in 1854 brought with them a temperance movement that was, perhaps, more zealous. A temperant mindset prevailed even before the WCTU’s arrival; the first converts to Christianity in Japan post-Perry (when Japan technically still banned the religion) were those baptized by “hired foreigners” (お雇い外国人) brought to the country to introduce Western technology and modes of thinking. Many of these foreign teachers were conservatively-minded Christians who believed their religion was the cornerstone upon which Western society rested and through which it found success; once Christianity was legalized in 1873, waves of Japanese intellectuals converted under the influence of such teachers, believing it to be a necessary step on the path to modernization.

Early Meiji saw the biggest boom in Christianity in Japan since the mass conversions (and subsequent violent shogunal backlash and religious prohibition) in Kyushu, nearly three hundred years earlier; the Christianity being taught by the “hired foreigners” was a Puritanical one, prohibitive towards sexual philandering and insisting upon the keeping of the Sabbath. It also forbade the smoking of tobacco or the drinking of liquor. Uchimura Kanzo, an early Meiji convert, recalled the difficulty with which he upheld these moral standards:

“Still tenaciously holding teetotalism as a part of my Christian profession, I was scrupulously careful not to touch fiery liquid even if presented with the most plausible reasons.”

Uchimura, Kanzo. (1895). The Diary of a Japanese Convert.
Christian convert Uchimura Kanzo would go on to found Japan’s “Nonchurch” Movement.

The New Woman in Meiji Japan

Mary C. Leavitt arrived to Japan in 1886, at the height of the Japanese government’s favorable views towards her Christian religion. At the time, Japan was under the thumb of Western governments who had enacted onerous “unequal treaties” with the country; the belief among the political leadership in Tokyo was that adhering to Western dress, architecture, political structures, culture, and indeed religion would allow countries like the US and the UK to view their Japanese counterparts as equals. It was fertile ground for the WCTU to spread its religiously-oriented anti-alcohol gospel.

Leavitt was concerned not only with religion or prohibition but also with the uplift of Japanese women. Staying with American missionaries who had made inroads in the Tokyo-Yokohama region in the 1870s, she used those connections to make contact with Japanese Christian women. Her goal was the establishment of Japan’s first women’s union.

The Meiji Restoration of 1868 had upended Japanese society and completely altered the feudal class system; Japanese women, however, were still left in subservient positions within the household, their legal status and rights weak. In the years before Leavitt’s arrival, women like Kishida Toshiko and “Civil Rights Grandma” Kusunose Kita had agitated for greater rights for women. Despite the constrained life lived by many women in Europe and the United States, Christianity was seen as more egalitarian than Japan’s neo-Confucian social structure. Leavitt found many Japanese women who were excited both by Christianity – and by the opportunity to expand their roles in society.

Mary C. Leavitt, first WCTU head in Japan.

Woman’s Temperance, Minus the Women

Leavitt, however, encountered a Christian atmosphere in Japan much different from that of the WCTU back in the US. The evangelizing was led by male missionaries who had disembarked on Japanese shores during the final years of the shogunate; whereas the WCTU had normalized women’s speaking, ministering, and activism in the US, women were expected to remain silent within Christian spheres in Meiji-era Japan. Japanese society itself being so patriarchal (although the US wasn’t much better), most female missionaries thought it wise to constrain their activities so as not to turn Japanese public opinion against Christianity.

Leavitt saw the restrained activities of the non-WCTU female missionaries as disappointing. For her, women had as much a place to preach and ordain within the ministry as men. (Indeed, the WCTU saw women as coming more easily to true morality than men.) Under her guidance, women from her organization would have meetings and speak to Japanese converts of both genders. Her efforts found great success, with the Tokyo WCTU being formed in 1886. The Japanese women of the Tokyo WCTU fervently strove to correct gendered double standards in Japan, focusing especially on enforcing the sanctity of marriage. (Japanese men had long sought out geisha, courtesans, and mistresses as a matter of course – the WCTU, inspired by popular Protestant views on marriage, aimed to ban all these.)

Temperance and teetotalism, however, never really caught on with Japanese women. High-strength spirits had yet to become fully popularized in Japan, and drunkenness was not the endemic issue for Japanese households and the women that ran them that it was in the US. Despite its name, the Japan Women’s Christian Temperance Union would never ask its new members to make the standard pledge to live a life free of alcohol; in fact, in Japanese, the group’s name mentioned neither alcohol nor even Christianity. It was known as the “Tokyo Women’s Moral Reform Organization.” (東京婦人矯風会.)

Unlike in the US, the cause of temperance and prohibition would remain in large part the domain of men.

The Temperance Movement Grows… Amongst Men

None of this is to say that Mary C. Leavitt and the WCTU did not have a major impact on temperance in Japan; much the opposite. Leavitt preached to crowds of thousands on the topic, visiting sites around Japan and spurring the revival of small and mostly non-active temperance organizations previously formed in 1870s.

But the organizations that took her anti-alcohol views to heart were mostly led by and consisted of men. Some of these organizations were made of well-to-do Japanese Christians; others consisted of Buddhist monks inspired by the movement against inebriants. All these Japanese men were willing to listen to Leavitt and her successors with a level of attention they would not grant Japanese women; In the mindset of the time, American women, despite their gender, still held the power of being “western,” and thus worth taking seriously. For their part, many American women looked down on Japanese men as “feminized.”

Writing in 1894, Kate Bushnell, one of Leavitt’s successors in Japan, summed up the strange gender and racial dynamics at play in the Japanese temperance movement:

It is exceedingly difficult to make a whole convert to Christianity out of a heathen man. The truth is he would rather hold back that part of the coming of the kingdom described as the realm where “there is neither male nor female.” A Japanese brother professing to be a most earnest Christian said to us, “Why do you spend time with women, you have only to address the men and when they become temperance men, they go home and tell their households what they must do.” How sublimely simple! To his mind, we only need to do half the amount of temperance preaching, and exalt the virtue of obedience and servility in the other half who do not hear!

Kate C. Bushnell, “Itinerating in Japan,” Union Signal, 8 November 1894. Quoted in Yasutake, 2006.
Kate C. Bushnell.

Towards a Boozeless 20th Century

With the Japanese WCTU focused on issues like prostitution, marital fidelity, and (in its more radical sections) women’s social rights and suffrage, American WCTU missionaries needed to look to Japanese men to stress their favored issue of temperance. Doing so via religious sermon became more difficult as the pendulum swung back against Christianity; by the 1890s, it had become clear that merely aping the West would not make Japan equal in the eyes of foreign nations. A major backlash again westernization was underway, and that included Christianity. Many Japanese converts, who had embraced Christianity for its modern trappings, left the religion behind.

Bankara – Meiji Japan’s Anti-Fashion Movement

As the era of the samurai ended and Japan rushed towards modernization, a hard-scrabble fashion movement called the Bankara rose in opposition.

Learn about the Bankara: a Meiji-era anti-fashion movement that opposed “foppish” westernization and that continues to this day.

The WCTU was willing to preach to men in order to popularize their message in Japan; so too, it seems, were they willing to sublimate their religious evangelism for the cause of temperance. Speeches by women from the American WCTU began to focus more on scientific reasons for prohibition. As the country became more jingoistic during the Sino-Japanese War (1894), Russo-Japanese War (1904) and beyond, finding ways to link nationalism and the banning of alcohol seemed prudent. Even earlier, in 1892, WCTU organizer Mary West lectured a Japanese crowd of thousands on how alcohol was a threat to their polity:

[Alcohol is a] …menace to your food supply by destroying annually 4,000,000 koku of rice, the staff of life, here; of the burdens of taxation it imposes by increasing crime, pauperism, and insanity. . . . America did not guard against this danger and is now suffering the consequences. The great liquor interest there is almost exclusively in the hands of foreigners. . . . I fear the same will be the case in Japan if you do not now stop the vile stream which has begun to flow into your land.

Mary West speech in Tokyo, 1892. Quoted in Yasutake, 2006.

The result was that by the turn of the 20th century, the temperance movement in Japan had grown – but had also grown away from Christianity. Increasingly, it was a secular, nationalistic, and even imperialist movement led not by Japanese women, but by powerful Japanese men.

A 1912 meeting of the male-led Japan Temperance Union.

State of the Union

In 1898, just before the turn of the century, the numerous temperance organizations from across the archipelago were finally brought under a single umbrella. This was the Japan Temperance Union (日本禁酒同盟会). The organization’s inaugural president was one Ando Taro, former consul general to the Kingdom of Hawaii.

A former inveterate drinker, Ando had seen firsthand the ravages of alcoholism that then affected many in the Japanese community in Hawaii. His wife, Ando Fumiko, was in contact with Japanese Christians in the US, and learned of and was inspired by the temperance movement there; when two bottles of sake were delivered to the Hawaii consulate, she smashed them, as she’d heard temperance activists did in the United States. Her husband followed her lead, becoming one of Japan’s foremost anti-booze advocates.

Ando Taro and Ando Fumiko.

Despite internal conflict over the movement’s association with increasingly unpopular Christianity, the Union found some real success. It had members in high places, including in the aristocracy and both houses of parliament. In 1900, one influential leader, a former samurai and member of the Lower House named Nemoto Sho, managed to help pass a bill prohibiting minors from accessing tobacco. He introduced a similar bill to ban the sale of alcohol to minors – and each time it was rejected, he would simply introduce the same bill again the next year. He would do this for twenty-three years running.

In 1912, the Meiji emperor passed away. The relatively open and democratic Taisho Era began. In 1917, temperance activists in Japan watched on as the United States Senate passed the 18th Amendment; in 1920, enough states ratified the amendment prohibiting the sale of alcohol for it to go into effect. More than half a century of work by American temperance organizations and activists had come to startling fruition. The United States was now a dry nation. For those in Japan, the question became: can we do the same?

Liquor disposed of during America’s Prohibition Era.

Prohibition, Prohibited

The Japanese public would have none of it.

As the movement to follow in the United States’ footsteps and enact a Japanese prohibition got underway, its faced immediate opposition. Across the Pacific, the brewer’s league and other booze business interests had long managed to hold off a popular temperance movement that involved millions of American teetotalers; it was only during the WWI years and ensuing mass xenophobia against anything Germanic that public opinion moved against the mostly-German brewers to the extent that prohibition could be voted into reality. Japan lacked both a foreign boogyman to blame for booze and a popular movement nearly as passionate as US temperance. Prohibition was simply a step too far.

The English-language Japan Chronicle recorded stories of anti-prohibition activists driving around Japanese cities to distribute piles of pro-booze leaflets; just as temperance reformers claimed that alcohol scientifically degraded populations and nations, pro-drink crusaders argued the opposite: advanced civilizations, they said, only arise when a nation embraces alcohol. Such spurious arguments notwithstanding, true prohibition never gained enough steam to stand a chance of enactment. Across Japan, a grand total of seventeen villages went dry. Meanwhile, as described in Japanese Drinks,

…the rest of Japan spent the Prohibition era picking the bones of America’s alcohol industry, shipping over secondhand equiptment from defunct US firms to help build its fledgling beer and wine industries.

Lyman, S. and Bunting, C. (2019). 11

In 1922, however, Japanese temperance gained its greatest victory. Sho Nemoto’s annual bill to limit the drinking age to those 20 years or older finally passed; for the first time, minors were disallowed to drink in Japan. The movement would go on to press for the age to be raised to 25, but this would never come to be.

A well-known Asahi Beer poster from the 1920s. Across the Pacific, the US was in the grip of Prohibition.

Prohibition Patriotism!

The American experiment in prohibition came to an end in the early 1930s. Despite causing some amount of reduction in overall drinking, the supposed drying-out of America had instead created a mass crime boom. The US had become “a nation of scofflaws,” and the huge profits to be made in bootlegging had turned petty thieves into millionaires leading organized crime empires. Wracked by the Great Depression, the US government began to pine for the taxation once received from the liquor industry; farmers who had been for prohibition in the 1910s lamented the damage it had now done to the agriculture business. The 21st amendment, the only in US history created to repeal a previous constitutional amendment, was ratified on December 5th, 1933. The temperance movement in the United States never recovered.

Prohibition in the United States comes to an end. 1933.

In the Empire of Japan, which now spanned from Sakhalin in the north to Micronesia in the south, agitation for temperance persisted. It had now shifted almost entirely to a movement organized on a militant, nationalist line. Military higher-ups worried about drunkenness in the ranks; captains of industry wanted Japanese factories operating in tip-top shape for the various war efforts. The Japan Temperance Union’s slogan became “Prohibition Patriotism!” (「禁酒報国。」)

A patriotic poster insists upon prohibition to protect the country.

A Darker Form of Control

Perhaps most disturbingly, many temperance advocates and thought leaders became strong allies of Japan’s eugenics movement. Such activists saw alcoholism as a hereditary stain upon Japanese society; culling it would be to the benefit of the empire. Despite controversy over how “hereditary” alcohol addiction actually was, prohibition campaigners supported the submission of numerous eugenicist laws to the Imperial Diet throughout the 1930s. Perhaps their greatest inspiration was “The Law for the Prevention of Hereditary Diseased Offspring,” a eugenics statute passed in 1933 in Nazi Germany legalizing the compulsory sterilization of those deemed genetically unfit. The law included a clause for the sterilization of alcoholics.

(Ironically, such bills were most vociferously opposed by Japanese ultranationalists, who saw them as an insult to the Yamato people. If the Japanese were uniquely descended from the gods, how could you say that some of their genes were inferior, and needed culling?

Despite opposition, a weakened eugenics law went into effect in 1940. Alcoholics were not among the targets of sterilization. Nonetheless, many thousands of people would be subject to forced sterilization when deemed mentally unfit or diseased – a post-war successor bill was only repealed in 1998.)

Temperance Decline; a Booze-Soaked Nation Marches On

In 1945, the Japanese Empire suffered unconditional defeat in World War II. The war had done what prohibition activists could not; bombings destroyed ancestral breweries and distilleries from Okinawa to Aomori, completely dislocating the Japanese alcohol industry. When the US Occupation of Japan began, various sake prohibitions were put in place in order to redirect rice toward a famished populace.

Bootlegging and moonshining soon appeared to fill the void; in the depressed and often desperate post-war years, many turned to drink of questionable, even dangerous quality. Soon, however, Japan experienced its second westernization boom, once again at the hands of the Americans; as the country rebounded, foreign liquors again became all the rage. Traditional industries like sake and shochu came once again to thrive alongside whiskey and beer.

Japan remains a very boozy society, and neither temperance nor Christianity have gained much of a foothold in the decades since the war. Meanwhile, alcoholism has become a much worse problem than it was in the early Meiji era, back when American missionaries regaled crowds of thousands about the ills of liquor. The Japan Temperance Union still exists in a rump state, as does the Women’s Christian Temperance Union back in North America. With its numbers greatly diminished, since the 1950s the JTU’s mission has become one of “abstinence” rather than “temperance.” Its energies are now focused on assisting alcoholics in recovery rather than prohibiting drink throughout Japan.

Still, Japanese society is changing, if slowly; statistically fewer young people are interested in drinking, and a movement is afoot to reduce the occurrences of semi-mandatory work drinking parties. The Japanese government, like the US government before it, worries about reduced tax income from teetotalling young adults, and is actively trying to get more drinks in young people’s hands. Prohibition, however, is far from the minds of all but the most radical of the rare anti-alcohol crusaders. Despite all the efforts of the past century and a half, modern Japan remains a very wet island nation.

Main Sources

Yasutake, Rumi. (2006). Men, Women, and Temperance in Meiji Japan: Engendering WCTU Activism from a Transnational Perspective. The Japanese Journal of American Studies, No. 17

Yohoyama, Takashi. (2018). On Eugenic Policy and the Movement of the National Temperance League in Prewar Japan. Historia Scientiarum. Vol. 27, 3. 353-376

Sekioka, Kazushige. (1998). Problems Related to the Acceptance of Protestant Christianity in Modern Japan. The Kobe City University Journal, 49, 1. 5-41.

Webb, H. (1999). Temperance Movements And Prohibition. International Social Science Review, 74(1/2), 61–69.

Lyman, S. and Bunting, C. (2019). The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks. Tuttle.

[1] San Francisco Call, Volume 77, Number 3, 3 December 1894.

[2] 吉田集而。(1987). 日本人の酒の飲み方についてのノート。IATSS Review, Vol. 12, No.2.

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Noah Oskow

Serving as current UJ Editor-in-Chief, Noah Oskow is a professional Japanese translator and interpreter who holds a BA in East Asian Languages and Cultures. He has lived, studied, and worked in Japan for nearly seven years, including two years studying at Sophia University in Tokyo and four years teaching English on the JET Program in rural Fukushima Prefecture. His experiences with language learning and historical and cultural studies as well as his extensive experience in world travel have led to appearances at speaking events, popular podcasts, and in the mass media. Noah most recently completed his Master's Degree in Global Studies at the University of Vienna in Austria.

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