Conviviality, however, is gradually threatening to cause trouble in Japan, Kono said. He estimated that "problem drinkers"--alcoholics or persons whose behavior resembles alcoholics--now number 2.2 million.
Out of a population of 123 million, the number appears small. One reason, according to Kono, is that two-thirds of the volume of alcohol consumed in Japan is beer, which he said is less conducive to alcoholism than hard liquor. In 1989, Japan ranked 27th in per capita consumption of beer.
Although no nationwide survey of alcoholism has ever been done, one isolated study by the Health and Welfare Ministry of 569 ordinary hospital patients found that 29% of the men and 6% of the women have serious drinking problems.
And the drinking population is also expanding in all age groups and sexes.
In particular, more young women, for whom drinking once was socially unacceptable, and more retired people now indulge.
The latest available statistics show that per capita consumption--expressed not in conventional terms of the quantity of alcoholic beverages ingested, but rather just the pure alcohol content of those beverages--was 2.3 gallons for the adult population in 1988, up 50% since 1965. In the same period, the number of drinkers more than doubled to nearly 55 million adults.
The Leisure Development Center estimates that 85% of adult men and 53% of adult women drink.
A survey conducted by the National Institute on Alcoholism of 7,000 high school students identified 14% of the boys and 13% of the girls as "alcoholic abusers or alcoholic-like drinkers," Kono said. Kono said he was concerned that teen-age drinking could become an even bigger problem.
In Japan, alcoholic beverages are even sold in vending machines. And Kono has targeted the 180,739 machines that do so.
He also complained about the "imbalance of information" about alcohol. While the government spends nothing on measures to combat alcohol, alcoholic beverage manufacturers saturate TV with advertising, he charged.
Masahide Kanzaki, a Suntory spokesman, acknowledged that advertising expenditures by Japan's leading whiskey maker are huge--and increasing. Last year, Suntory devoted $273 million, or 5% of its sales, to advertising, he said.
Kanzaki also said "marketing efforts" and promotion of new drinks have helped push up consumption in Japan. But he noted that the alcoholic beverage vending machines are operated by local shops licensed by the Finance Ministry, not by the manufacturers.
Two years ago, moreover, alcoholic beverage shops were required to shut off their machines at 11 p.m. to uphold the spirit, if not the letter, of a law barring sales of alcohol to minors--19 or younger in Japan.
At the moment, corporate executives and managers are the biggest problem group. More than 60% of them drink more than four days a week, the Leisure Development Center report said.
"Drinking has become part of their work," it added.
Only recently, however, have some large corporations started dealing with alcoholism among employees.
"Usually companies are too lax with employees at the initial stages of alcoholism and too cruel with those for whom it gets out of hand. The opposite approach is necessary," Kono said.
Combatting alcoholism is not easy anywhere in Japan.
The Women's Christian Temperance Union set up shop here in 1886, but most Japanese haven't even heard of it. Alcoholics Anonymous is reported to have only about 3,000 members. The Japan Abstinence Federation has attracted larger numbers by carrying out its counseling of alcoholics in family groups, rather than with people who are strangers to each other. But it claims only 45,000 members nationwide.
Japan's culture is a "culture with alcohol," Kono said. "We need a new subculture without alcohol."
But could there be a flower-viewing party with tea?
"Tea is for meditation," scoffed Keiko Asakura, 43, who, with her 12-year-old daughter, had joined a group of trading company workers at Ueno Park. "Alcohol is for fun."
Hoisting a Glass in Japan
Japanese celebrate the cherry blossom season with beer and sake parties during the evening in Tokyo's Ueno Park. Japan leads the Soviet Union in the consumption of alcohol.
In Gallons, per capita, 1989
Total Pure Country Spirits Beer Wine Alcohol United States 0.6 23.5 2.1 2.0 Japan 0.6 13.1 0.3 1.8* Soviet Union 0.5 5.3 1.7 1.0
* Including sake.
SOURCE: World Drink Trends, 1991