Falling From Sobriety: A Tale of Alcoholism in Japan

This is a story about a man falling from sobriety.

Alcoholism is itself a war with sobriety. A battle where the lines of reality are blurred and boundary dissolving.

This is about a plummet from sobriety to death.

Meeting Sobriety

From 2008 to 2010, I lived in one of Japan’s largest cities: Fukuoka.

Every morning I would have to make a thirty-minute walk to work. In that walk, I would occasionally stop at a 7-Eleven to get something to eat and a coffee.

I still remember the warm air in the store surrounding me as my snow studded boots shuffled onto the entrance place mat. A chime echoed, alerting the owner to me. The owner would stand up from the chair he was sitting and wave at me as I always waved back.

I don’t remember the specific day that I met Alex, but I still remember what it was like.

In that cold winter day, this tall burly Japanese man stood, blocking me from the coffee pots. I asked him to excuse me in Japanese assuming he might not have spoken English. Turning around, he stares back at me with a look of surprise basking over his clean shaven face.

“You speak Japanese,” exclaimed Alex with a glow in his smile.

Surprised I mumbled back, “Yeah.”

I wanted to say something else to the tall confident man, but I remember that morning being so much colder than the other days that I felt checked out.

We made small talk.

He told me about how he was actually a businessman new to the area. I told him about the reason I was in the city. He explained to me how the place that I was going to for work, was one of the main reasons he was here. He said his main job was just patching things up.

I told him about my surprise at a local who knew English as well as he did.

After knowing him better, I was even more surprised at who this man was.

He owned the main pier in Fukuoka. All foreign and domestic shipping was through his pier. His business. He controlled one of the largest business ports in all of Asia, this man I met at a 7-Eleven.

I tried to gently signal my attempt to leave another conversation before he brought it up. Not because I didn’t like him, but because I was deathly afraid of being late to work. Picking up on the clue, he asked me where I was going, telling me he had a car. He told me he was going to the base for work, which is exactly where I was headed. He offered to take me to my job as a token of good will.

Had I been anywhere in the United States, I probably would have declined, but the people here are a lot different. It would have been insulting if I declined. All things considered, I accepted.

In Japan, almost all the vehicles are smaller than those we use here in America. That’s why I remember his car sticking out in my memory. It was a large four-door Mercedes. I wasn’t all that familiar with what model the car was because in Japan there are models that aren’t sold anywhere else in the world, but I knew it was a newer car. Its new car smell wafted in a cool breeze as I entered the car.

Once we settled down, before starting his car, he pulled out his phone and made a phone call.

He spoke to the person on the other line in Japanese, so I wasn’t able to understand much from the conversation. I was only able to understand when he said “hello” and occasionally “yes.”

As soon as the phone call was over, his car came to life without him laying a finger on it.

“Whoa, what was that?” I asked him. My face contorted as I tried making sense of what I just saw. I thought maybe the car somehow sensed him and waited for him to push the accelerator to start.

Through his broken English he mumbled looking for the right word to explain.

“Police,” he finally replied.

“Police?” I asked him. I felt my chest tighten as my mind raced through the different possibilities. I tried keeping myself grounded before jumping to any wild speculations. I remember seeing the sticker on his car, meaning he had access to the base we were headed. There shouldn’t really be a reason to worry.

During this time I was going through a crisis of my own.

Looking back now I see all the dangerous risks I took regarding my own life. I still don’t know if whether this move was because of my own loose grasp and care with my reality. Maybe I was actually right not to worry.

Alex explained to me that he just got out of his second DUI over a year ago. That the car was remote started only after his parole officer heard his voice and deemed it safe. It turns out that in Japan, DUIs are taken far more seriously than the way they are handled in the States.

He told me how most DUIs end up in mandatory sentencing regardless if any lives were hurt or involved.

Explaining to me how he got the DUI in the first place, he made sure to tell me that he has been sober for over a year now. Longer than his times before.

Before I had a chance to ask any questions, we got to the base and parted ways.

For the next few weeks I would see him at the 7-Eleven I went to every morning. Day after day he would greet me with the same smile he greeted everyone else. Japanese culture, in general, pushed politeness to the top of their ways to interact with people, but his seemed more genuine than most. He seemed honestly happy.

Every now and then we would talk. He loved talking about all things American. He loved hip-hop probably more than anything else that I could tell.

One time after work, he invited me and a friend to play darts at his apartment in a high rise. It was then that I realized that he owned the whole building. The whole floor he lived on was empty just because he wanted it to himself.

Should I Have Stepped In?

I left the country and came back to fall to my usual routine, and that was when I first saw it.

I saw him again at the 7-Eleven, but he seemed different. I still can’t make up my mind about that day, but something about him was different. I can never point to a specific thing that caused me to think that, but I felt and knew he was.

Day after day, his genuine smiles felt empty and his beard grew. His beard grew and grew, looking more unkempt every time I saw him.

At a few different times, I would go to the 7-Eleven and see him inside, but his car wasn’t anywhere around the store. That’s when I let my curiosity get the best of me.

I asked him what was going on.

“Nothing,” he would always reply, with a wide smile on his face.

“Where’s your car?” I asked.

He responded in his broken English that the car was getting worked on. He expected me to believe that a brand new Mercedes was in an auto shop for over a month.

I still think that maybe I should have told somebody. I still don’t know today how best I should’ve handled the situation or who exactly I should have told.

I would see Alex maybe once or twice a week from then on. Every time I would see him, he would obviously keep his distance more and more from me. I think it was so I couldn’t smell his breath that reeked of alcohol, but I could smell it anyways.

Occasionally on a late night out, I would see him stumbling close to where his building was. Anytime I would try to help him, he would fight me, begging for me and my friends to go with him to a bar or drink in a park.

It was in one of those encounters that I last saw him.

On an early summer morning, I remember the flashing lights from an ambulance strobing against the pale wall in my bedroom. Peeking out, I saw the group of cops and paramedics exiting the apartment building. I figured it must have been just some older person falling down or something similar.

But I was wrong.

I never saw him again.

Morning after mornings past, I never once saw him again either at the 7-Eleven. A part of me questioned that maybe something happened to him that early morning. I mostly thought that he had gotten himself into trouble and ended up back in jail.

When It’s Too Late

Although I didn’t know too much of him, I felt I knew enough to be a little worried. None of my own friends knew who the man was, much less the 7-Eleven owner. It seemed I was destined to never hear from him again until one of my last days at work.

One of the ships I was boarding, had materials it had to dump off in the Fukuoka pier for another vessel and then continue on its plotted course.

Once we hit the Fukuoka pier, I got a taste for just how massive an operation Alex had running here. I had only heard him mention the place. Never did he mention the enormity of it.

Due to the offloading of equipment, it was going to take several hours for the pier workers to unload everything. In the mean time, there was a bar on that pier, The Quarterdeck Club, that I went to wait and pass the time.

The bartender was some kind of European, but his English was clear enough that we could understand each other clearly.

In the empty bar, we talked about life, before eventually talking about the pier itself. I told the bartender that I knew the owner of the pier and he corrected me.

“Knew,” replied the bartender gesturing with his hand. “Very, very sad what happen to man.”

I questioned him about what happened. I told him that I actually knew the man quite personally and that I didn’t know what had happened to him.

“Drink, drink, and drink. Mr. Yokahama was not supposed to be drinking. When police find out, they go to his flat. When police reach his flat, they said they found him shaking on the floor. When medical come then, pfft…” he said, gesturing his flat hand across his neck, the universal sign it seems for dead.

When thinking back about it, it almost seemed comical.

I don’t hear about the man for weeks or maybe even months, all while living directly in front of him. Finally,when I do hear about him, it’s from a stranger working on the pier Alex owned.

He later explained to me that all the higher ups knew the man was an alcoholic and that nobody cared. The man didn’t even have a family. The board members apparently made sure his will was signed and power shifted properly before they sent him to where he finally ended killing himself.

It seemed they knew what fate Alex was going to have and decided to let him have it.

I know mentioning this story to anyone almost sounds almost conspiratorial, but apparently this kind of problem is common.

Japanese culture is very business oriented. They mostly tie business deals to their own family names for assurance and honor.

It seems to me even now that Alex seemed doomed for the destiny he had put forward to himself, unless of course I had acted.

I still have mixed feelings about the situation.

Remembering my conversations with him. Seeing him slowly deteriorate. Maybe I had more power than I thought I did, but when it comes to someone you feel you barely know, how are you supposed to feel?

Don’t let this happen to yourself or someone you love, seek help immediately because time is everything.

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