What Is the Legal Drinking Age in Japan? 8 Laws You Should Know Before Coming to Japan

What's the legal drinking age where you live? There are some countries where you're considered of age at 18 years old, and some where the legal age is 20 or 21. In Japan, people are considered of legal age at 20. We all know that something that's legal in one country can be illegal in another. For example, even if you're of age in your home country, you can be considered underage when you travel overseas. No one wants to unwittingly break the law while on holiday! So, to help avoid any accidental incidents, here are eight of the most important laws you should know before coming to Japan.

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1. Is It True That You Can Drink Inside Cars and Trains in Japan if You're Over 20 Years Old?

In Japan, a law called the Minor Drinking Prohibition Act prohibits those under the age of 20 from drinking or purchasing alcohol. Many visitors in Japan look forward to enjoying local alcohol like Japanese sake, shochu, and chuhai, but don't forget that drinking under the age of 20 is against the law. If you're over 20, you're free to drink but remember to keep some ID on you to prove that you're of age. The younger you look, the more likely store employees or even the police are to ask you for ID to prove your age.

However, besides the underage drinking laws, Japan does not have particularly strict restrictions on alcohol, and you'll find it for sale at convenience stores and supermarkets. You can also buy alcohol not only at bars and izakaya (Japanese style pubs), but even at chain restaurants and fast food stores. While they're no longer common in large cities like Tokyo and Osaka anymore, you even buy alcohol from vending machines in some areas. In other words, since you can basically get your hands on alcohol anytime and anywhere, the regulations in Japan may seem a little loose to some. The rules about where you can drink alcohol are also fairly relaxed. Whether outside a convenience store or restaurant, in a public park, at train stations, or even on a bullet train, as a general rule you can drink in any outdoor or public place. Just keep in mind that drinking in certain places such as inside trains is considered rude in Japan. Many visitors to Japan will spot drunk office workers nodding off at the stations, on a train, and even in the streets.

Japan is also a little unique in that you are allowed to drink while riding in cars, too. Of course, drunk driving is illegal, but unlike some other countries, there are no open-container rules that apply to passengers. Under the Prohibition Against Driving Under the Influence of Alcohol and Related Conduct article in Japan's Road Traffic Act, those who are caught drunk driving can be subject to up to five years in jail or up to a million yen fine. Someone who encourages someone they know is under the influence of alcohol to drive, or gives them access to a car, can also be subject to the above penalties. Above all, remember to always enjoy alcohol in moderation. 

2. The Legal Smoking Age Is 20 - Smoking in Cafes, Restaurants, and Streets Are Generally Prohibited

According to the Act for Prohibiting Minors from Smoking, those under the age of 20 are not allowed to smoke or purchase cigarettes in Japan. While in some countries smoking is allowed from 18 years old, that is not the case in Japan. Remember, it doesn't matter if it's allowed in your home country: while you're in Japan, if you smoke under the age of 20, you could get in trouble.

You can buy cigarettes at convenience stores and supermarkets. Often they're sold numbered by types, so if you're not confident in your Japanese skills, you can just point at the display case and tell them the number of the type you want - store employees will likely understand and pick out the right one for you, even if you say it in English.

You can also buy cigarettes in vending machines, but you need a TASPO card, which is an IC-enabled age verification ID card. These cards are only available to Japanese residents over 20 years old, so tourists can't apply for one. In other words, if you're just visiting Japan, you'll need to buy cigarettes in person at a store.

20-pack cigarettes go for around 500 yen in Japan, including international brands like Marlboro. Japan is continuing to restrict smoking spaces and as a general rule, most cafes, restaurants, and public spaces are non-smoking except for designated areas. Even outside, smoking is generally banned except in designated smoking areas, so be sure to follow the local rules.

3. Gambling is Only Allowed For People Aged 20 and Above: Japan's Popular Pachinko and Pachi-Slots

Some people really like to visit casinos and gamble while they're on vacation. Japan doesn't have casinos, but there are gambling games called pachinko and "pachi-slot" machines. Under the law, these are classified as "public amusements" that are restricted to those 20 years above, but strictly speaking, they are forms of gambling. This can be a little complicated, so let's go through the details step by step.

Pachinko is a type of upright pinball game with a built-in LCD screen. The game itself is extremely simple: the player turns a handle built into the machine to launch a metal pachinko ball. When the ball enters a hole called a "chucker" in the center of the board, three numbers displays on the LCD screen start to spin. This mechanism is very similar to slot machines you might see in a casino. If you hit the jackpot by having the three numbers match, a part of the machine called the "attacker" at the bottom part of the board will open. If you land balls in the attacker, more pachinko balls will be dispensed.

Just like a poker chip, these pachinko balls function basically like cash. This means you can't bring in your own balls to play with but must rent them for around 1 to 4 yen a piece. You can use these balls to play, but also exchange them for money according to the purchase rate. For example, if you bought 250 pieces at 4 yen a ball for a total of 1,000 yen and hit the jackpot and increase your balls to 1,000, you could then exchange those 1,000 balls for around 3,600 to 3,800 yen (although some handling fees can apply). Since you initially rented the balls for 1,000 yen, you've made around 2,800 yen as your net total.While this may seem patently like gambling, it isn't recognized this way under Japanese law where it is consistently defined as a "public amusement". It's clear that pachinko parlors and the pachinko industry in general falls into a grey zone legally, since gambling itself is illegal in Japan. However, it's well-loved among Japanese people and generally recognized as a popular pastime. Some people even make their living playing pachinko.

Another popular game is pachi-slots. These are games based on the types of slot machines you'd see at a casino, but you play with medals instead of pachinko balls. These medals have cash-like denominations, with values ranging from around 5 yen to 20 yen a piece. A major difference from a casino style slot machine is that pachi-slots are equipped with the ability to set the machine at different levels that impacts the ability of the player to hit the jackpot. The higher the setting, the better the jackpot and the higher the winning rate. Of course, machines with higher settings are in high demand, and you'll often see lines from early morning at pachinko parlors. It's not unusual to see as many as 500 to 1,000 people lining up at larger pachinko parlors, or at ones with events running. It might be a bit of a strange sight if you're visiting from overseas.

In recent years, attempts to combat gambling addiction has meant that restrictions around pachinko and pachi-slots have tightened. While they're still officially considered "public amusements", they do cross the line from being a mere game. So, if you decide to play pachinko in Japan, it would be best to consider it a cultural experience and not get too carried away.

4. Rules Regarding Minors at Karaoke After 6:00 pm - Late-Night Entry Can Be Restricted Even with A Guardian

There are some variations depending on local laws, but generally speaking, there are some age restrictions when it comes to karaoke centers. For example, in many areas, minors under the age of 16 are restricted from karaoke centers past 6:00 pm, and those under 18 are restricted from 10:00 pm or 11:00 pm onwards. Whether or not they are accompanied by their parent or guardian, those who fall under these age restrictions can be refused entry or required to leave.

Many karaoke centers in Japan are open 24 hours a day, and many also serve alcohol. So, if you're a parent or guardian traveling with minors, be aware of the laws in Japan and ensure that you do not allow any minors under the legal drinking age of 20 to drink.

5. Entry Restrictions in Game Centers - Men Are Banned From Photo Booth Areas at Arcades!

Japan's amusement arcades have similar restrictions to karaoke centers. The specifics can also vary by region, but just like karaoke, those who are under 16 years of age are not permitted inside after 6:00 pm, and those under 18 are not permitted after 10:00 pm or 11:00 pm. A big difference between karaoke centers and arcades is that many of them are not open all night. For example, it's common for game arcades to open at 10:00 am and close at 11:00 pm. This is true for both large cities and more rural areas.

Japanese arcades were the birthplace of "purikura", or photo sticker booths, which are famous all over the world today. But there is a rule for these purikura booths that many international visitors aren't aware of: men are not allowed in purikura areas unless they are accompanied by a woman. This ban was put into place after a series of incidents where women were illicitly photographed and harassed by men while taking photos in purikura booths.

6. There Are No Age Restrictions at Music Halls Because They're Classified as Restaurants!

Thanks to a quirk of Japanese law, there are no age restrictions to see a show at Japan's "live houses", which are smaller-scale concert venues like music halls. Most live houses in Japan are officially operated as restaurants, which is why visitors are required to make a drink order (500 yen or 600 yen, which includes equipment maintenance fees etc.) Under Japanese law, venues like live houses (as well as venues for movies, plays, music, sports, and so on) fall under the Entertainment Facilities Act. There are a number of conditions you must meet in order to get a licence to operate these kinds of entertainment venues, and also many rules that must be followed in their management. In contrast, applying for a licence as a restaurant is comparatively simpler, and there are less restrictions on running them. Abroad, it's common for concerts to be restricted to those above the country's legal drinking age, but as live houses can be officially classified restaurants under Japanese law, there's no need for these venues to follow those rules.

In addition, businesses must apply for a specific permit to serve food and drinks or run an entertainment venue late at night. To avoid these restrictions, many live houses schedule performances to finish at 10:00 pm to 11:00 pm and clear out completely around midnight. Wrapping up live performances at 10:00 pm also helps avoid conflict with the surrounding residents. By international music industry standards, this means that concerts at Japanese live houses have earlier start and finish times. To put it bluntly, Japanese live houses attract customers by evading a number of regulations.

7. Are There Strict Ratings for Movies in Japan?

Japan's Film Classification and Rating Organization performs screenings to determine age ratings and other classifications. Compared to some other countries, Japan's standards for its movie classification system are very strict.

For example, the popular Resident Evil series was rated R15+ or R18+ in other countries, but PG-12 in Japan. Why was there such a large difference between Japan and the rest of the world? In Japan, there were a number of regulations in place that required particularly violent and grotesque scenes to be removed from the original version. These same types of regulations also apply to cartoons, video games, and other media.

The classic movie Back to the Future was also classified as PG12. This classification was to avoid any improper influence from the movie's scenes depicting underage drinking and smoking.

This means that for those from overseas, it's possible that there are movies you are legally able to see in theaters in your home country that you can't in Japan. You also may also find yourself watching a version that has been edited from the original!

8. You Can Get a Driver's Licence at 18

In Japan, you can legally get a driver's license at 18. Everyone's timeline for getting their license is different, but it's not rare for high school students to start attending driving school at age seventeen and graduate with their license at 18 at the earliest.

Even if you already have a driver's license in your home country, you can't drive in Japan unless you're 18 years of age. Keep that in mind if you're thinking of renting a car for your trip!


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Header Image: T.TATSU / Shutterstock

The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.


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