Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | Japanese energy drink is a “beer” for children
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Japanese energy drink is a “beer” for children

Considering that many — if not most — Asians are allergic to alcohol, it’s amazing how much the culture of alcohol is part of society in Japan. I guess it’s the same all over the world, but since I’m very allergic to alcohol, I’m just out of the loop when it comes to booze.

You’re probably familiar with the nightly practice of businessmen going out with their fellow “salarymen” after work and dining and drinking themselves into a stupor before trudging home to the families they hardly see. I can sip half a glass of beer and I turn bright red and splotchy, my eyes glow in the dark and I get dizzy as hell. It was hard to go out drinking in high school when my face gave myself away whenever I stumbled home and mom was up waiting for me. I guess if I were with co-workers who were all equally red, I wouldn’t have been so self-conscious.

Anyway, I recently came across what looked like a cool soft drink at Pacific Mercantile, the Japanese grocery store in downtown Denver, and I realized that Japan’s alcohol culture starts earlier than I thought, and in insidious ways.

I saw a display for bottles of a drink called “Kodomo no Nomimono,” with a cute retro 1930s illustration of a child on the label, and the words, which translate as “Children’s Drink” written out in hiragana, the simplified alphabet that’s familiar to Japanese school kids.

The bottles were on sale — buy one, get one free — so I bought one to try, and got one for my friend Jordan, the “Energy Examiner” for He wrote about Kodomo no Nomimono, and found to his shock that the stuff is marketed as a beer for kids by its manufacturer, Sangaria, the makers of the popular lemonade-flavored pop, Ramune.

Seriously, it has the color and fizz and even the head, when poured into a glass, as beer. Sangaria’s U.S. website calls the product “Party Pop,” and says this about it: “This fun soft drink has no alcohol, comes in a bottle or can that is similar to a beer bottle and even the beverage is similar to beer. The flavor is like a delicious apple soda.”

It does in fact, taste like a very sweet apple soda, but there’s a double whammy besides its alcohol-like packaging and purpose. One of its ingredients is Guanara extract, and Wikipedia explains that one Guarana seed has five times the caffeine of a coffee bean.

Yikes — kids are guaranteed to be bouncing off the wall from the combination of sugar and caffeine, never mind the psychological “buzz” of drinking their very own beer.

Jordan used an online translation site to convert some of the text on Sangaria’s Japanese site:

“Moms and Dads toast, but children want to participate too!. Children love to toast. Mom and Dad get to experience such feelings, kids should too, right? Perfect for birthday parties and the Party season, the Cherry Blossoms at the Festival, an outdoor barbecue. The Toast is filled with opportunity. Let’s let the children toast too!”

I don’t know about you, but I find that kind of frightening. For as progressive as Japan is in many cultural ways, it’s not at all in some others. The exposure of kids to alcohol is one of Japan’s more backward areas, it seems.

Ironically, a recent study found that kids in the U.S. are also now exposed to ads for alcohol at an earlier-than-ever age, although a liquor group says under-aged drinking is down.

I drank beer in high school but never enjoyed it. I got falling-down drunk in college but never enjoyed it. After school, I participated in an alcoholism study for Native Americans (because Asians are genetically close, the hospital invited Asians to participate as control subjects) and learned I’m super allergic. I’ve avoided drinking since, and saved a lot of money….

What do you think? How old were you when you had your first beer, or other alcohol?

Here’s a Japanese TV commercial for Kodomo no Nomimono: