The 14th SCRA Biennial Conference, June 26-29, 2013, at University of Miami, Coral Gables, Florida

Danshu-dō [The Way of Abstinence]:

Reincorporating spirituality into a Japanese self-help organization for alcoholics
Tomofumi Oka, PhD, Sophia University, Tokyo, Japan
Richard Chenhall, PhD, University of Melbourne, Australia



Eradicating Liquor





In Japan, there is a nationwide self-help organization for alcoholics called Danshukai [Abstinence Group], which
was established over half a century ago. This organization has approximately 9,000 members all over the
country—almost double the number of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) members in Japan. Danshukai’s ideology
substantially differs from that of AA, although it has been influenced by it. The purpose of this paper is to
describe their ideology’s conceptual development over time and the cultural-spiritual model of alcohol
abstinence called Danshu-dō [The Way of Abstinence], that is part of Danshukai’s recovery discourse.

In this study, we employed ethnographic methods. Since the end of 2006, we made participant
observations of local, regional and national Danshukai meetings, and conducted conversational and
semi-structured interviews with leaders, members, and the families of the members of Danshukai
(Chenhall & Oka, 2009; Oka, 2011). We also examined documents included in newsletters and booklets
published by the national headquarters and several local groups. We repeatedly ensured that our
findings were member validated by asking the leaders and members to examine our hypothesis.

Japanese culture
Zen Buddhism

Changes in society
Complicated problems of alcoholics



of alcoholism

Christian culture

Findings and discussion
Before the medicalization of alcoholism
The first Danshukai group was originated and sponsored by the Japan Temperance Union in 1953,
when its leaders were inspired by the example of AA. Five years later some alcoholics split from the
Japan Temperance Union and started a peer-led self-help group was started. The initiative eventually
led to a nationwide organization (Chenhall & Oka, 2009). The concepts that are central to Alcoholics
Anonymous, such as spiritual recovery and “Higher Power”, could not applied to the understanding
of recovery from alcohol in Danshukai due to the very different cultural context in Japan. This central
difference between the two organizaitons is articulated in Danshukai’s emphasis on Danshu-no-michi
[The Way of Abstinence]. Michi [Way] is also pronounced dō, so that Danshu-no-michi can be
shortened to Danshu-dō. Dō is, as seen in judō [judo] and kadō [the art of flower arrangement], “used to
denote the fundamental principle underlying a system of thought or belief, an art, or a skill”
(Campbell & Noble, 1993). Dō is greatly influenced by Zen Buddhism (Davey, 2007).
Influence of medicalization
Up until the 1970s, there were very few medical services available in Japan to alcoholics, and
Danshukai was effectively the sole resource for those who suffered from alcoholism. In the 1980s and
the 1990s, more medical professionals became interested in alcoholism, and with their help Danshukai
members learnt to view their addiction through a medical lens. Consequently, the organization’s
members began to consider themselves as “medically ill.” While AA had a spiritual component that
resisted the influence of medicalization, Danshukai eschewed spirituality, seeing it as a foreign,
Christian concept. Its understanding of recovery often became purely medical in nature, which has
led to the view that alcoholics can be “cured” without any accompanying transformation of selfhood.
Danshukai consequently began to lose some of its influence as a social movement.
Reincorporating spirituality
In the 21st century, however, some Danshukai leaders have realized the limitations of the medical
model. For example, new members from younger generations often have various personal difficulties
in addition to alcoholism, and therefore do not fit the medical recovery model. These leaders believe
that Danshukai should reincorporate traditional Japanese spirituality into their concept of recovery,
specifically Danshu-dō, which is based on indigenous Japanese culture.

Medical culture


Campbell, A., & Nobel, D. S. (1993). Japan: An illustrated encyclopedia. Tokyo: Kodansha.
Chenhall, R. D., & Oka, T. (2009). An initial view of self-help groups for Japanese alcoholics: Danshukai
in its historical, social, and cultural contexts. International Journal of Self-Help and Self Care, 5(2), 111 - 152
Davey, H. E. (2007). The Japanese way of the artist : Three complete works on the classic tradition. Berkeley, CA:
Stone Bridge Press.
Oka, T. (2013). Danshu-no-michi, “The Way of Abstinence”: Japanese cultural-spiritual model of alcohol
abstinence developed by alcoholics’ self-help groups. Sophia University Studies in Social Services, 37, 5-30.

This research was supported by Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research (C) #
23530756 from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science. We would like to
acknowledge and give thanks to Danshukai members for cooperating with our
Correspondence concerning this poster should be addressed to Tomofumi Oka.