Depending on where in the world you live, whether or not the water that comes out of your faucet at home is potable may or may not be something you need to think about. Tap water in Japan is a somewhat peculiar issue, further confused by the local attitude towards it.
As a rule, richer countries with better infrastructure tend to have cleaner water coming out of their faucets – but this rule is not ironclad. Some people in the United States get to shower in lead-filled mud, while in Taiwan people boil their water before drinking it.
Asia in particular is notorious for not being safe to drink, but Japan might be the exception. Here are the facts.
The deal with tap water in Japan
Japan’s infrastructure is great. It efficiently serves tens of millions of families all over the country and the people who build it take great pride in the quality of the construction.
While big cities are often plagued by old pipes and shoddy infrastructure, Tokyo holds its waterworks to a particularly high standard – there are rarely leaks and the filtration systems are some of the most advanced in the world. So advanced, in fact, that the government often cooperates with poorer countries to help improve their own waterworks.
The government’s position on drinking water from the tap is that it’s completely fine. And it really is.
A 2015 survey of over 50,000 people in Tokyo blind testing tap water against commercial mineral water revealed that some 49% of people thought Tokyo tap water even tasted better.
So why on earth do so many people insist on avoiding tap water in Japan?
Why are Japanese people so reluctant to drink it?
Despite tap water in Japan being some of the cleanest in the entire world, you might have noticed that many people, young and old, are somewhat reluctant to drink it. They will buy large cases of mineral water from the supermarket or online, using it for everything from making tea to watering their plants. Invite them to your house and they might give you a look of disgust if you offer them a glass of water straight from the tap.
But why? One major reason is simply that they do so out of habit.
1960s drinking habits
During the post-war economic boom, the rapid growth of the manufacturing industry in Japan was taking a toll on the environment – not dissimilar to the current situation in China. People during the 60s~80s grew up on foul-smelling water from polluted rivers, which changed the water consumption habits of an entire generation. Bottled water became the norm for people wanting to drink safe, and even after such pollution was effectively eliminated and the waterworks upgraded, this sentiment stuck around.
So despite the fact that none of today’s twenty-somethings have ever even been alive during a time of polluted tap water in Japan, they have inherited some rather cautious drinking habits from their parents and peers. The major beverage companies are making huge profits off it, and nobody is really pushing for change. Except maybe the Tokyo Metropolitan Bureau of Waterworks – but that’s just for bragging rights.
Japan’s tea culture and the big beverage companies
Speaking of beverage companies, another factor that might come into play is Japan’s love of tea. Packaged green tea is a $7.5 billion industry in Japan. It’s so big that for Coca Cola, tea- and coffee-based beverages account for twice as much revenue as all of its carbonated drinks.
One of the first things you probably noticed when you first landed in Japan was the abundance of vending machines. In central Tokyo you can hardly walk 10 meters without passing one – and they seem to offer endless variety.
The major beverage companies have done an unbelievably good job capitalizing on Japan’s reluctance to drink tap water. They are constantly trying out new things, adapting to new markets and trends, keeping production efficient and costs and waste low. This has resulted in a culture where it’s second nature to throw a few coins in (or even just tap your wallet against) a vending machine without even thinking about it.
No reason, we just don’t like faucets
One thing that I have noticed that might bring some clarity to the issue is that many Japanese people will refuse to drink tap water even when they are in other countries with perfectly good waterworks. I have seen it in Germany, Switzerland, New Zealand – all countries that rank in the top ten for clean tap water.
There is no sense among today’s young people that “Japan’s tap water has a problem.” The problem is more that “tap water in general is bad,” no matter where the tap or how clean the water is that it produces.
To drink or not to drink
At this point you might be asking yourself: Do I drink it, or do I pretend it’s toxic like everyone else?
My advice is to go for it. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the tap water in Japan and you are creating unnecessary stress by worrying about it.
If you are really keen on fitting in, feel free to stick to bottled beverages when you’re around other people. I often buy a bottle of water and reuse it a few times with tap water before throwing (recycling, of course, because Japan) it away. As for guests, I keep a few bottles of water or tea in the fridge for when they come around – although no-one can tell where the water came from.
Basically, tap water in Japan is completely fine, so be happy and do what you want. Unless you think it tastes bad.