Beware Japan's Drinker's Paradise

Anthony Rausch

Drunk Japan portrays drinking in Japan as both a highly complex social act as well as a complex legal area.

Japan has been portrayed as a “drinker’s paradise,” which Mark D. West uses as the opening to his study of law and alcohol in Japanese society. The title of the book is Drunk Japan, and by the time you have finished reading his review of over 5,000 Japanese court opinions on cases that involve alcohol in some way, the negative connotations of the title will be one of the lasting impressions of the book. The book is, after all, case after case after case of some manner of drunken mayhem resulting in death (one’s own or someone else’s), loss of a job or a pension, destruction of property, and so on. But it is in the court decisions, and the depth to which West explains these – showing us how the cases are framed by judges, the manner in which the results settle the case for the individuals involved, and the implications their verdicts have for society at large – that the book offers an illuminating view not just of legal thinking and the specifics of rendering sometimes contradictory verdicts, but also of Japanese drinking society.

West states that his goal is to “use law to illuminate the complexity of Japanese society and to use alcohol to illuminate the complexity of Japanese law” (p. 6). The traditional view of Japan’s legal system (as West explains) is that, as a civil law country that relies primarily on a legislated code rather than judicial precedent, judges are trained to view problems on the basis of similarity and to write consistent court opinions, with little role for judicial activism (p. 7). However, the entirety of what follows shows that judges do disagree about cases, that they do decide what is included in case arguments, and that they do weigh the multiple factors in a predetermined manner to create case frames. Consequently, when it comes to rendering legal decisions regarding alcohol, it is often a system of hyper-individualized justice (p. 10).

West takes great pains to show us – indeed, to prove with a preponderance of evidence through a thorough reading of court documents – that the framing of the facts of any case in which alcohol plays a role are deemed as important as the legal arguments that the case generates. According to West, the reality of alcohol law in Japan is that courts shape the facts in ways that inevitably lead to an interpretation of any incident as a tragic rarity rather than a predictable event. This allows defendants to be understood, differentiated, and categorized in ways that work against a uniformity principle (p. 100). And while this interpretation speaks volumes about alcohol’s place and power in Japanese society, it also contradicts the commonly-held view of group responsibility in a group-based society, as the outcomes largely place responsibility with the individual as opposed to being part of the social milieu that brought the drinking about in the first place. West explains that “in civil cases of intoxication, the social science claims of context being more important than individual acts seem relatively unimportant. Individuals are responsible for their own behavior. People around them—universities, students, professors—are not responsible […] Individual actors are responsible for their own actions even in cases in which others in the group could easily be held accountable” (p. 122).

Where does this come from? According to West, the frames built by judges in their decisions have the effect of taking whatever potentially objective measures are available – blood-alcohol levels, impressions of on-the-scene officers, even psychiatric evaluations – out of the picture. Such frames give the court discretion to build up a defendant profile on which to make a purely subjective judgement, one that may reflect an unfaithful spouse, inexperience with alcohol, a gap between intention and behavior, and so on. Dissecting many of the cases, West is able to identify matters of status at work, with judges working to include unmistakable class markers into the proceedings: “The courts provide vivid descriptions, through highly particularized facts, of various aspects of Japanese drinking life. For some, that includes drinking very carefully if one is a public official, drinking while viewing cherry blossoms, and drinking to the point of being ‘dead drunk’ in a host club. Each carries cultural weight in Japan” (p. 174). Thus, while we cannot expect judges to represent perfectly a sense of society on issues of drunken behavior and the consequences thereof, it is West’s opinion that the lack of thematic consistency in their decisions is telling and, from a legal standpoint, problematic.

Early on, West states that it is not his intention to write a “look at how odd Japan is” book. With the breadth and depth of his review of court cases and his understanding of legal reasoning and implication, any sensationalistic “yeah, Japan is strange” sentiment that readers might get is determinably broken down. There is simply too much detail to be glib about the trends of the cases or about the overall statement of the book. But the cases do tell us much about the multiple Japans we experience: at one level, there is the lived-Japan where we routinely and casually drink with friends or colleagues; at another level, a different Japan is revealed in the inconsistency of the country’s legal justice system. As West shows in a final case near the end of the book, “the intriguing aspect of the case is the degree to which the judges tell us so much about a deceased stranger without directly describing him in detail. That their writing is informative would be true no matter the audience, but it is particularly fascinating for readers who look beyond the legal rules, as it’s loaded with cultural information that paints a vivid portrait of drunk Japan” (p. 181).

However, when applied to an analysis of Japanese justice, West finds this combination of patterned facts and extreme detail leading to surprising outcomes: in the midst of the opinions lies extraordinarily personalized justice, with unpredictable decisions from a “nameless” and “faceless” judiciary thought to render uniform opinions. This is not the “standardized, homogenized justice” that is said to describe the Japanese legal system. If judgments in cases involving alcohol are so heterogeneous, how uniform can one expect them to be in other types of court decisions? If judicial decision-making is tied to differences in class and status when it involves drunkenness, then how blind is Japanese society in other respects? West closes by returning to the notion of “drinker’s paradise.” Even as the country participates in the particular pleasures and various rituals that come with drinking in Japan, West notes that pushing the line too far – to a point where one may need to invoke an intoxification defense – can ultimately lead to unexpected, if not inconsistent, legal outcomes. If economics is called the dismal science, then law, as outlined in Drunk Japan, would be the science of disappointment. And with that, as West finishes (p. 183), so shall I: “Cheers.”