Drinking in Japan

By Maggie Weeks 08/09/19

Japan was never the problem: it had been me all along! That realization led to an important discovery about my relationship with alcohol.

Image: 
Alley in Tokyo with bars, Shinjuku
Alcohol was my conduit to bonding with the Japanese ID 56336293 © Tktktk | Dreamstime.com

People’s alcoholism evolves in many ways: some folks know by the time they’re 13 that they have a problem with alcohol, some learn in college, others later in life. I happened to be one of the latter ones; my alcoholism reared its ugly head in my early thirties. 

I'd gone to Japan to work as a dancer, and later became married to a Japanese man. He was never home and I became so abjectly lonely, I’d hit the ex-pat bars for company, partying with rock stars, movie stars, baseball stars, businessmen, students, teachers, models, people from many different countries. It was a good time. But I didn’t drink much. 

Then, one day, this raucously drunk girl (who came from some posh ivy league university and was teaching English in some elitist student exchange program), ranted about how much she and her pals hated what they called Prison Japan, then began dumping on Californians, calling us flaky, shallow people. I was so mad, I was ready to walk out the door. When she saw my subtle rage, she tried to assuage me.

“Oh, c’mon Margaret, we were just joking, here, sit down again.” Then she said: “Hey, how come you never get drunk? That’s probably why you seem depressed. Maybe if you got drunk with us, you’d have more fun.” 

Why Not Drink?

Since this was a novel idea, I thought, Why the hell not? I never get drunk, lose control. Maybe if I'm drunk, this whole convo won’t seem so bad.

So I began drinking, shot after shot, about six in a 45-minute span. All of a sudden, a certain undeniable warmth and euphoria shot through my body; I felt so carefree, so happy! I got so lively I found myself on the bar doing an imitation of Mikael Baryshnikov's drunken-albeit-perfect tap-dancing number in the film Casanova. Yes, I felt indestructible and over-confident, sure my performance was almost as good as Baryshnikov’s. And the crowd went wild! Suddenly, I was part of the group. And it felt so damn good.

I had no idea until that night that drinking prodigious amounts of alcohol could turn me into a fun-loving party girl. I decided right then and there that I ought to get drunk anytime I went out. Nightclubbing while drinking moderately was fun, but nothing compared to the euphoria and freedom heavy drinking bought me.

I also discovered alcohol was my conduit to bonding with the Japanese, to really forming a connection with them. Their stalwart façade, worn throughout the day, would melt and they‘d become lighthearted or sentimental, sometimes bellicose; pretty much behaving like anyone who has had a little too much to drink.

I never saw Japanese men get in bar fights—with the exception of the Yakuza, Japanese mafia. When Yakuza drank, they could become fearlessly aggressive; shocking violence could be unleashed abruptly, anywhere, anytime. Once I witnessed a Yakuza break a bottle and cut his girlfriend's face. A vermilion stripe ran down her cheek, yet no one got up to help her. I learned later that the public was afraid to do anything for fear of repercussions! The only help she got was from a waiter who brought her a towel to stop the bleeding. She continued to stay by her boyfriend’s side, towel to cheek, looking down. I tried to help her, but got pushed back by management, telling me “Damena, dekinani, No, no, no, danger; you can’t go over there.” 

Progressive Disease

After some time passed, I noticed my drinking was getting progressively worse. Now I was consuming about 20 beers when I drank. The hangovers were staggeringly hideous. And they made me deeply depressed; alcohol is a depressant and I had a predilection toward depression anyway. It bothered me so much, I knew I had to quit. The hangovers were interfering with my relationship with my husband, my Japanese language studies, and my interactions with others. I so wanted to moderate. I’d even pray to the big Buddha in the park before going out, “Please, please watch over me. Don’t let me get drunk.”

It didn’t work. Hard as I tried, I just couldn’t stop drinking excessively.

I convinced myself that it was the loneliness of living in Japan that was driving me to drink. I was positive that once I got back to America, my drinking problem would sort itself out. Wrong. It remained intractably intact, I was getting stupefyingly drunk at least three to four times a week; one day to nurse a hangover, and the following day right back at it. 

I eventually learned how to moderate, which gave me the proof I so desperately wanted: I was no longer an alcoholic. I was able to successfully drink casually and not to excess for about seven years. Then, out of nowhere, I got fired from a really boring dumb job. Inexplicably, I took it very hard. I decided it was high time to cut loose: drink away my disappointments and my feelings of inadequacy, and finally throw in the towel on this thing called life. I’d let it all hang out and drink as much as I wanted.

Well, what I thought might be a two-day bender turned into a two-year bender. I spent most of my time on the couch passed out, at the liquor store, in rehabs, jails, or hospitals. I was up to two fifths a day, drinking more than ever. Hey, I’d given up on life, surrendered to King Alcohol . . . Why even try to moderate?

I also was anti-AA. I’d convinced myself it was a cult and refused to go. But looking back now, I realize the real reason was that I was too prideful to have to admit to the group relapse after relapse. Finally, at my wit’s end, I went to an African American Christian rehab. I ended up staying there for six months. 

This rehab didn’t mess around. It was lockdown and you weren’t allowed to go anywhere without staff present. And it did the trick: I lost my taste for alcohol and stayed sober for five years. But I still wouldn’t go to AA.

Then, when I once again resumed my egregious drinking habits, my husband gave me an ultimatum: “Go to AA or I’m divorcing you.” I was shocked he’d say that because he was a normie and thought AA slightly freakish. But I got the message, and I believed him. So instead of going to the 7/11 at 5:59 to buy beer, I went to a meeting. 

And this time AA worked for me. It’s amazing how my idea of AA as a cult evaporated the minute I really needed to stop drinking. I’m now sober three years, and with the help of AA I’ve become a better, happier person. 

Everywhere I Go, There I Am

I learned in the end that geographics don’t help—once you’ve become an alcoholic. Japan was never the problem: it had been me all along! That realization led to an important discovery: Alcoholism may be triggered by certain life events, but once you got it, you got it, and sometimes you need a lot more help than just moving away.


Check out Maggie's new Memoir Hangovers in Japan by Samari Shelby (pen name).

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Maggie formerly lived in Japan, but now resides in Bonita California. She has been a Japanese translator, professional dancer, and salesperson. She has written for San Diego Reader, Memoir Magazine and The Fix. She has also written a book, Memoirs of a Dancer, in 2004. She enjoys hip hop music, dancing, hiking, her husband, family and friends.

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