Epidemiologic evidence is lacking for the association between alcohol consumption and the risk of breast cancer in Japanese women. We addressed this association in a prospective cohort study with an average follow-up of 7.6 years. At baseline (1988-1990), cohort participants completed a self-administered questionnaire that included alcohol use, reproductive history and hormone use. The women were followed up for breast cancer incidence through December 31, 1997. Cox proportional hazards models were used to calculate relative risks (RRs) and 95% confidence intervals (CIs) for breast cancer incidence and any association with alcohol consumption. During a follow-up of 271,412 person-years, we identified 151 women with breast cancer, of whom 45 were current drinkers and 11 drank > or =15 g of alcohol/day. After adjustment for age and other potential risk factors for breast cancer, the RR for current drinkers was 1.27 (95% CI 0.87-1.84) compared to nondrinkers. Average alcohol intake of <15 g/day did not significantly increase the risk for breast cancer. However, risk was significantly increased for women who consumed > or =15 g/day of alcohol (RR = 2.93, 95% CI 1.55-5.54). Age at starting drinking and frequency of consumption per week were not significantly associated with breast cancer risk. Our cohort study demonstrated that Japanese women who consume at least a moderate amount of alcohol have an increased risk of breast cancer.