Beer as Metaphor

Over the last year or so, the Japanese press has been moaning that young people are committing an unspeakable crime against the traditional mores of Japanese culture: they have ceased to drink beer. Generation Y (or alternatively known as Generation Z) have not proved themselves to be big drinkers to start, but they seem to particularly dislike the world’s most beloved malt-and-hops beverage. “It’s bitter,” they explain. “It’s yucky!” they exclaim.

This open disgust with beer may befuddle the older generation, who generally commence every single party, reception, and drinking event with a tall mini glass of Asahi Dry or Kirin Ichiban. The anti-brew sentiment, however, may just be the perfect metaphor for young people’s overall predisposition towards culture and life.

A key point about beer: Almost no one likes it upon their first sip. College students struggle through many a kegger before moving on to drink beer because they actually enjoy the flavor. There are short-term rewards in drunkenness to keep kids on the path to Sudsville, but beer requires a long-term effort. It’s the textbook definition of an “acquired taste.” Learning to like beer has traditionally been a nearly-universal part of growing up.

Today’s current crop of Japanese youngsters, however, has proven averse to anything remotely challenging, anything that requires short-term sacrifice for a long-term payoff. In his book Aiming Downward: Kids Who Don’t Learn, Youth Who Don’t Work, writer and critic Uchida Tatsuru describes a worrying phenomenon with the current generation: When they come to a
piece of information they do not understand in a book or in real life, they tend to skip over and ignore it, rather than take the time to ask questions and solve the mystery. This principle can be extended into cultural life. As a whole, Generation Y/Z have grown extremely confident about what they already know and like, with almost no interest in pushing themselves towards anything too foreign or new.

Over the last decade, the pop music market has drifted away from experimentally-minded, yet popular musicians like Cornelius or Denki Groove to straight-forward, “honest” genres like “seishun (youth) punk.” Fashion must be “real clothes” that bolster current tastes, rather than artistic designer brands that pursue a novelty in expression (which were king in the 1980s, if not the 1990s.) Youth have ceased to watch foreign movies, because they hate having to read subtitles.

While a lot of these symptoms do not sound particularly different from equally-lethargic youth overseas, Japanese culture overall has suffered as a result. There are a lot of insular forces inherent in Japanese behavior and social organization, but these used to be counterbalanced by an enthusiastic curiosity about what was going on culturally beyond Japan’s borders or at its fringes. “Ignoring anything not immediately comprehensible,” however, is the exact opposite of curiosity. “No thirst for knowledge” seems an odd explanation for “no thirst for beer,” but these characteristics fit a pattern.

Oh, kids these days! Why can’t they better dedicate themselves to indulging in alcoholic beverages!?

Image from 1953 Asahi Beer advertisement.

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6 Responses to “Beer as Metaphor”

  1. Roy Huggins Says:

    I think the metaphor can also be used to explore another change in Japanese culture.

    I live in Sapporo (yes, as in the beer.) You can probably guess that people like their beer around these parts. But I originally hail from Portland, Oregon USA — another place where people really love their beer. The difference? The major brands in Oregon are actually good! Be careful when you call beer in general an acquired taste. Good beers, which the vast majority of national brands around the world are not, are quite drinkable and if one must acquire the taste then the payoff is actually worth the effort. Up here in Hokkaido, you can find good beer if you know where to look (and are willing to pay 630-1000円 per glass, which, well, I am…) Despite that fact, most people around here are unaware of the quality brews available to them. When introduced, they are often confused by the existence of actual flavor in a beer. It’s just not normal!

    I’m not surprised that Japanese youngsters don’t like Asahi and Kirin Ichiban. They taste terrible! They’re bad beers! But just like you said, those are what you gotta drink at pretty much every gathering. The kids these days aren’t just avoiding the work necessary to enjoy something challenging, they’re saying that these venerated, oligopoly-produced beverages are crap and they don’t want them. Just like many kids can’t speaking honorific/humble Japanese (keigo.) Yeah, they’re avoiding the work and study it takes to learn it but they’re also saying, “I don’t need that. It’s not as good as you seem to think it is.”

    So ya, beer is like keigo, as I’ve often said. 🙂

  2. Alan Says:

    Interesting article. I’m from Ireland so you can imagine that I am fond of a bit of beer.

    @Roy I don’t think it’s fair to say that Kirin and Asahi are bad beers just because you don’t like them. I find them quite tasty and even refreshing in the summer heat. I rarely get a hangover after a night on Japanese beer. Seems good to me. I wouldn’t put any of them down as my favorite beers but very drinkable.

  3. Jeff Lippold Says:

    More evidence about the lack of things that are not easy to understand not being taken on by generation y/z? Dark Knight returns, as popular as Titanic abroad, bombs here in Japan. Perhaps a bit of unfamiliarity coupled with a somewhat complicated plot hampered it’s success here? Some reasons for the lack of success here ↓

  4. Alan Says:

    @Jeff – Batman is good but not that good. I think the box office in Japan is representative of the entertainment value of the movie.

  5. nazwa6 Says:

    hmmm … but i think most japanese foods is a challenge for a regular parson and i don’t see young people to only eat easy stuff like chicken or drink cola … do they also smoke less???? … and what is their alcohol of choice now? sweet wine??

  6. Mutantfrog Travelogue » Blog Archive » Chocolate low-malt beer makes me sad Says:

    […] were attributed to to price hikes (due to high commodity prices in the first half of 2008) and a general shift among consumers away from beer to other options or no drinking at all (due to being too old or a part of the supposedly vice-free younger […]