I’ve never been bothered by being asked for proof of age when buying beer. Maybe it’s because even when I was 16 I apparently already looked old enough that strangers in convenience store parking lots would ask me to buy a six pack for them, but I never took a clerk asking to see my ID as an insult. I simply accepted it as part of the societal dance necessary to procure my beloved barley juice.
Some drinkers in Japan, though, take offense at being asked for proof that they’re not minors. The Aeon Group, one of Japan’s largest retailers, has responded with a generous change in policy, and will no longer ask certain customers for confirmation of age, despite the fact that Japan’s underage drinking prevention is already ridiculously easy to circumvent.
In more than a decade living in Japan, I’ve seen someone get carded when trying to buy beer exactly once, when it happened to a good friend of mine who was already in his late 20s. Whereas I would have taken it as a compliment, it rattled him enough that he immediately started growing a beard, which he continued to sport for the next several months.
Similarly, some customers at Aeon supermarkets, along with the Mini Stop chain of convenience stores the company operates, take issue with being asked to confirm their age when buying alcohol or tobacco products. In Japan, both the legal drinking and smoking ages are 20.
Aeon says it has received continued complaints from middle-aged and elderly customers about the practice, which is surprising enough since one would expect them to be the most flattered for being accused of looking like a teenager. The complaint gets even stranger once you consider how quick and painless the process of proving legal adulthood currently is.
Aeon’s method is the same as most merchants in Japan. As the cashier rings up the items, if any are age-restricted, a message pops up on the touch panel monitor that faces the customer. Take a look at it and see if you can spot the potential loophole.
All you have to do to prove you’re old enough to take that whole case of Ebisu out into the parking lot and drink yourself into a stupor is tap your finger. Literally anyone tall enough to reach the screen is good to go, so unless all of the complaints Aeon has been getting are from midgets, we’re not sure exactly what all the griping is about.
Our more larcenous readers will spot another crack in the system’s defenses. While the question posed is, “Are you over 20?” the only response option is “Yes.” Even if you’re the scrupulous type who grabbed a couple of canned chu-hi shochu sours by mistake, there’s no selection that lets you back out gracefully.
This is even backed up by the cashier. When the screen comes up, you’ll never hear a clerk say, “Excuse me, are you old enough to buy this?” or “Are you a minor?” The standard line is, “Please touch the panel.”
Still, if there are two ironclad rules of Japanese society, they’re “don’t do anything that might offend others” and “don’t do anything that might stop the beer flowing.” As a result, Aeon has said that by March, it will cease uniformly asking for confirmation of age. Instead, it will be up to individual clerks to judge if the customer might be underage, in which case they’ll once again be asked to confirm with the touch panel (you know, the one that doesn’t let them say they actually are underage).
Some have voiced concern that Aeon’s laxer policy will lead to an increase in underage drinking, but we’re not sure how plausible this theory is. Japan is already home to a ready and waiting battalion of beer vending machines. Most minors don’t have a car, so there isn’t the same level of concern about drunk driving that there is in some other nations, and teen pregnancy rates remain low, so the lasting ramifications of a night of youthful inebriated passion are limited at worst.
All things taken into account, it’s unlikely that Aeon’s shift will be met with much of an uproar, particularly when it gives the middle-aged and elderly the chance to get home a second earlier, which is one less second of waiting until they can drink that beer.
Sources: Itai News, Asahi Shimbun
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