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Japan is urging its youth to drink more alcohol

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The government of Japan is trying to get young adults to drink more alcohol, this to boost tax revenues. Japan's alcohol consumption has been on the decline for decades. The new campaign arrives with some controversy, as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: The campaign is dubbed Sake Viva. Sake is a rice wine in Japanese. It also refers to alcohol in general. Sake Viva is a contest aimed at 20 and 30-somethings to suggest new ways to make and sell alcoholic beverages. Some critics have complained that the campaign could damage public health. Ryo Tanabe, who's in his 30s, likes to have the occasional drink, and he has no problem with the government encouraging others to do the same. But it's not so much what is being encouraged that puts him off, he says. It's who's doing the encouraging.

RYO TANABE: (Though translator) The fact that the National Tax Agency is doing this makes it a different story. I feel something is wrong with it. I understand they need the tax revenue, but I don't think they have to go this far.

KUHN: Going out drinking with colleagues after work has long been common in Japan, but Tanabe says things are changing.

TANABE: (Through interpreter) Maybe this is just my company, but bosses and workers don't get along. So young people don't want to go out for drinks, even if they are invited.

KUHN: Toshihiko Oki is a journalist who covers the alcohol industry. He notes that during the pandemic, local governments in Japan have asked restaurants not to serve alcohol. Japan's liquor tax revenue in fiscal year 2020 saw its biggest drop in more than three decades.

TOSHIHIKO OKI: Japan's COVID-19 countermeasures included lots of financial support to restaurants which refrained from serving alcohol, but there was no support for sake brewers.

KUHN: Of course, the economy is struggling. And many Japanese just don't have extra income to spend on booze. But what Japanese are drinking, Oki says, also has to do with what they're eating.

OKI: (Through translator) People in their 70s and 80s, our grandparents' generation, eat traditional Japanese food. But the post-baby-boomer generations drink wine and beer.

KUHN: They go better with the foreign foods they're eating. And in Japan's competitive society, many young people see going out for a drink with colleagues after work, not as a way to relieve stress, but as a way to pile it on.

OKI: (Through translator) Socializing is seen as exhausting and a waste of mental energy. Japanese worry about how they're seen by other people, and they want to avoid getting drunk and blurting out anything that could trigger criticism.

KUHN: This leaves Oki little room for optimism about Japanese society. The population is aging and shrinking, and on top of that, he says, its young people are increasingly lonely, inward-looking and isolated. Given the larger shifts, Oki says government efforts to get people to drink and be merry are unlikely to succeed. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.