Japanese taxman takes heat for pro-booze campaign

Japanese taxman takes heat for pro-booze campaign

Online backlash greets contest seeking ideas to revive sake industry ... and tax revenue

A worker inspects bottles of sake at the Asahi Shuzo brewery in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, Japan. (Bloomberg Photo)
A worker inspects bottles of sake at the Asahi Shuzo brewery in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, Japan. (Bloomberg Photo)

TOKYO: A campaign by Japan’s tax agency to prop up alcohol revenue by encouraging young people to drink up has met fierce backlash, with people criticising the taxman for dictating lifestyle choices.

The National Tax Agency launched its “Sake Viva!” competition, which seeks business plans from young people or groups to help “revitalise” the liquor industry, in July. It gained traction on Twitter this week after local and overseas media outlets reported the move.

Brewers in the country have struggled to arrest a decline in alcohol sales due to growing health-consciousness among consumers, an ageing society and changing tastes among the young. A sharp fall in alcohol sales at restaurants and bars during the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in producers resort to promoting even lower-alcohol products, while rising inflation is further squeezing profits.

The “Sake Viva” hashtag on Twitter has been drawing heated responses. One user called the campaign “ridiculous”, saying young people avoiding alcohol should be perceived as a good thing. This sentiment was echoed by others, with some noting the campaign appeared to be at odds with health ministry guidance that encourages moderate drinking. 

Japan collected about 1.1 trillion yen (US$8 billion) in taxes from liquor sales, or around 2% of total tax revenue, in fiscal 2020, down 13% from 2016, according to tax agency data. The volume of alcohol taxed has shrunk steadily to 7.7 billion litres as of 2020, down nearly 10% from a decade ago, estimates show. 

Already saddled with the largest debt burden in the industrialised world, the government of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has been struggling to rein in spending while tending to the rising demands of an ageing population. Earlier this year, the government loosened its commitment to balance its budget by the end of fiscal 2025.

The Sake Viva competition, which will take applications from anywhere in the world as long as they’re in Japanese, closes on Sept 9. Finals are scheduled for Nov 10 in Tokyo. Participants are encouraged to suggest promotional methods targeting the young or tapping artificial intelligence and the metaverse to boost sales.

Japan’s health ministry said that while it wasn’t involved in the campaign, it understood the spirit of the promotion was in line with its view that people should “drink responsibly”.

The National Tax Agency said in response to queries from Bloomberg News that the campaign aimed to promote the alcohol industry at a time when issues ranging from Covid to a shrinking population mean fewer young people are drinking.

It’s a business promotion to encourage growth and “in no way is it encouraging people to drink excessively”, the agency said.

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