It is common knowledge that alcohol is an important and accepted part of Japanese culture which extends to everything from social and business drinking to religious rites and traditional customs. The drinking age is 20 and public drinking and intoxication are not considered illegal in Japan. If anything, alcohol helps the Japanese to relax and serves as a social lubricant for essential bonding in an otherwise strictly regimented and lonely society.
Oftentimes, dining and drinking with your coworkers are an unspoken requirement in some companies. Many Japanese feel that after work parties are an important way to enhance relationships. It can be useful to understand who your coworkers are, their typical mindset when they are relaxed and outside of the office. In a typical Japanese company every aspect of the employee’s work is regulated. Everyone is seated right at the start of the day, lunch is strictly one hour from twelve noon sharp and talking with your colleagues is considered “shigo (private talk)” which should be kept to a minimum. Since there is not much room for establishing good or personal relationships at work, activities outside of office become necessary.
Bosses, “Joshi,” and senior team members,“Senpai,” invite the team, “Buka,” or junior staff, “Kohai,” to a quick dinner or a drink (which is never quick nor just one drink). The invitation is often with good intentions, to give them a chance to talk in case they had issues at work. Even if the conversation is not interesting, most of the Buka and Kohai just deal with it as it usually means a free drink or meal at a place they could not afford on their own.
A common saying in Japan is, “if you want to work your way up the corporate ladder you have to drink.” This was how many older generation workers established relationships and considered this the normal way of doing business. However, corporate life and culture have changed a lot in the last decade or so. The work environment is more flexible and accommodates the needs of individuals according to their lifestyle and stage of life. Career changes are more common and easier. If one corporate culture is not a fit, moving on is an option and there is less emphasis on building relationships that need to last a lifetime.
Still, drinking parties, “Nomikai” are still prevalent and seeing the salary men making a beeline to the izakaya, restaurant or nightclub is not uncommon in 2016. The nomikai differs from the traditional year-end drinking parties known as, “Bonenkai (Forget the year party)” which generally involve the entire company. Nomikai is limited to only one section or department of the workplace. Oftentimes, the nomikai is followed by an after party called, “Nijikai” with “ni” signifying “second” and after it concludes there may be a “Sanjikai,” with “san” signifying “third” party. Now it is easy to see that drinking and bar-hopping can go on all night.
Further, there is an etiquette to follow during these parties where one tries to avoid filling their own glass and instead fills the glasses of the other members in attendance. This is especially true for the Senpai-Kohai relationships where the lower ranked or younger employee will offer to serve his or her superior. The relationship is reciprocal, and the superior will often fill the junior’s empty glass. But keep in mind that people are not pressured to drink alcohol at these parties. Participants may elect to drink non-alcoholic beverages or leave their glasses full to signify that they are not willing to drink more alcohol.
Beer and sake are the preferred drinks during drinking parties but whisky is also popular and it is not uncommon to find bars keeping their patron’s favorite bottles on the shelf with the party’s name tag dangling from the bottleneck. Women tend to prefer wine or clear spirits such as shochu (a Japanese distilled beverage less than 45% alcohol by volume. It is typically distilled from rice, barley, sweet potatoes, buckwheat, and even brown sugar) or chuhai (shochu highball).
The Japanese love games and drinking games such as “Ikkinomi (Down in one),” are common. Unfortunately many Japanese are unable to drink too much as they lack the necessary enzyme to break down alcohol. Despite this, they still insist on playing the games, bar-hopping and typically end up turning a frightening shade of red after consuming too much alcohol and falling asleep in some of the strangest places imaginable. It is all too common to take the late trains and find some sloshed salary man fast asleep across from you.
But don’t misunderstand, Japan is not a nation of alcoholics. Though alcohol consumption has quadrupled in Japan since 1960, Japan still ranks sixth in the world for beer consumption after China, the U.S., Germany, Brazil and Russia!
When visiting Japan, you may encounter intoxicated people leaving bars late at night on any given day and you may also be lucky to get invited to a drinking party. The Japanese are quite curious about a foreigner’s ability to handle alcohol so don’t be surprised if they pour you a drink after drink. Just understand the culture and always remain polite. These parties are generally quite enjoyable and as they say, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do!”