Jul 5, 2019
The way of Japanese nomikai: Work parties in Japan
It’s hard to know how best to approach the topic of workplace Japanese nomikai, or work parties in Japan. On the one hand Japan’s nomikai (lit. “drink meeting”) are little more than a bunch of colleagues going out for a drink and a bite to eat in celebration of something work-related, and are part and parcel of working life in Japan such that the average worker would do well to only attend two or three in a year. But then this is surely something that could be said about working cultures in many parts of the world.
From the perspective of foreign media and some overseas observers though, the Japanese nomikai is often approached as an object of curiosity as if there is some finely-nuanced, unique social ritual going on between the orders of beer and gob-fulls of grub. Experts issue appeals towards Japanese nomikai etiquette that would seem to belay the situation as it really is, of a group of adult professionals going out for some drinks (usually in the presence of a boss or superiors) -- “Don’t get too personal,” “Don’t badmouth colleagues,” … all common sense work-related-party survival, if you as me.
It is true to say, though, that Japan’s nomikai stop some way short of the annual work Christmas party that we may have experienced back home. During a Japanese nomikai there is emphatically no photocopying of bare bums on the office copier (Or is that just in the movies?) and almost zero risk of finding yourself in a quiet corner playing a regrettable game tonsil hockey that you’ll have to live with until someone does something equally daft at the next party.
Jump to the nomikai basics:
When you’re the only foreigner in the room
The Japanese nomikai is a little more restrained … for the most part.
In late 2018 video footage emerged of an end of year nomikai held by a Tokyo-based entertainment agency during which a male employee had his face thrust twice into a boiling pot of shabu shabu -- a kind of hot pot -- by his boss. There were about 10 people at the nomikai, including the agency’s business partners, according to media reports. One of the attendees filmed the incident on their cell phone.
The incident took place in 2015 with the footage going viral around the time the victim, whose resulting burns took around one month to heal and who has since left the company, filed suit at the Tokyo District Court.
While the nomikai incident highlighted the broader, and far more serious, problem of work-place bullying in Japan for the purposes of this article it also serves as a reminder that even work parties in Japan have the potential to reach extraordinary levels of stupidity and / or horror. Although this is likely an extremely rare case.
The horrific footage (and it really is) can also be used as evidence pointing to a flagrant abuse of any number of Japanese nomikai rules, one being a play the awful frat-boy mantra -- “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”
It’s hopefully for the greater good that the above mentioned nomikai incident has been revealed for all to see. Such cases aside though, it’s probably best to approach a Japanese nomikai, and to walk away from it, conscious of, “what was said in a nomikai, stays in a nomikai.”
There’s truth in this. In all the years of work parties in Japan that this foreigner has attended, rare, if ever, is the case that they get talked about after the fact. Although this could be put down to another fact of work parties in Japan, that they rarely present anything worth talking about.
The incident also highlights another unwritten rule of Japan’s nomikai, that it’s not cool to be taking photos / shooting video of anything other than the food. (Smartphone cameras though have given birth to the unfortunate and staggeringly dull hobby of taking pictures of the casualties of too much nomikai drink splayed out on public transport and street corners.)
Japanese nomikai basics: When are they held?
Some of Japan’s nomikai are permanent fixtures on the nation’s work calendars. While “nomikai” literally refers to a general drinking party (regardless the occasion) there are many other “kai” for which the drinking part is implicit. These include:
Bonenkai (忘年会): The big one. As much as Japan has an equivalent of the Christmas party (and it doesn’t really) this Japanese nomikai might be it - the end of year bash during which, if taken literally, we are to “forget” the past year. That would take some doing. What’s more likely is that those who drink will forget some of what went down during this, the most drink-drenched of work parties in Japan.
Of all the work-related nomikai in Japan, the bonenkai is probably the hardest to say, “No,” to. Typically held around November / December.
Some companies try to offset the horrors of returning to work after the festive period with a shin-nenkai (新年会). It doesn’t work.
Saying, “No,” to a bonenkai is hard, but not as hard as saying “No,” to a kangeikai (歓迎会) if you’re new to the office. The kangeikai is a party held to welcome you, after all. Have a speech ready!
As the first month of the fiscal year, kangeikai are common in April.
Kangeikai may well be handled in bulk as part of a company’s shainsoukai (社員総会), a formal introduction and welcome of those new “regular workers” to a company. The shainsoukai, typically held in late April, comes on the back of a run-down of the company numbers before the catering and booze are rolled out and the top buttons are undone.
Again, if you’re a newbie, have a speech ready.
Sobetsukai (送別会) are the opposite of kangeikai. These are Japan’s nomikai held for people leaving the company. It depends on how well-liked the person leaving is if a party is held in their honor, and how close you are to them whether or not you are invited.
More impromptu nomikai (although still planned to some degree) will likely be held throughout the year. Many work events -- conferences, team-building et al -- are punctuated by a nomikai.
A couple of Japan’s nomikai to keep an ear open for:
Konshinkai (懇親会): A social gathering between members of a team at work, the emphasis being that this is a party for those who work closely together.
Shinbokukai (親睦会): Socials that take in a more broader spectrum of workers within a company. A chance to get to know people you might be less familiar with, if you know them at all. A nightmare for some.
Japanese nomikai basics: Getting seated
The more formal, large-scale of Japan’s nomikai may come with designated seating, like at a wedding, resulting in a fraught search for your name tag on the tables as you quietly pray not to be seated anywhere near the upper echelons of company management.
Smaller-scale nomikai often take place in a private room of a restaurant or izakaya. In such cases it would be rare to have designated seating although as with business meetings in Japan, the most important person in the room will be sat at the head of the table, flanked on either side by their No. 2 and No.3. Top-down structures would suggest that everyone else follow the pattern but really most people just want to be sat away from the boss or near to the people they feel most comfortable with.
Seating plans eventually give way to a free-for-all in which those who smoke (still a lot of people in Japan) tend to seek out their own space.
Japanese nomikai basics: Greetings
“Aisatsu,” -- the banner term in Japan for almost all greetings, from the horrors of a Monday morning, “Hello,” to the beginning of a formal address.
Anything beyond the most relaxed, informal nomikai will require people to be seated with a drink in front of them and an address from the organizer or most senior person present in order to be able to begin drinking and eating. These opening nomikai aisatsu are typically punctuated with the coming together of glasses in a, “Kanpai!” -- cheers!
It might be worth noting that in Japan’s top-down workplace structure a collective kanpai doesn’t always get the job done. Nomikai attendees may feel the need to seek individual acts of kanpai with superiors. Call it brown nosing or due diligence, or simply common sense career building!
Japanese nomikai basics: Pouring drinks
“I’ll get the next round!” is something you’ll almost never hear during a nomikai -- mostly because of the table service and the bill being handled at the end.
What will happen though is that others will pour drinks for you. Japan’s nomikai staples like beer, Japanese liquor, and tea for the tea-totalers come in large bottles to be poured into each persons’ small glass. Fellow party-goers make a painful fuss if you try to fill up your own glass. It’s not bad manners on your part, rather the people around you will take it to reflect their negligence in not making sure yours, and others, glasses are kept topped up.
On a personal level, I don’t like the custom. It forces interaction with different people, something which I’m poor at. Plus I don’t like to wait for others to notice every time I want a drink. Plus, as often the only foreigner in the room, I’m aware that not everyone wants to talk to me. Not because they don’t like me (although it’s perfectly possible) but because they don’t want to deal with language / cultural barriers -- they’re supposed to be unwinding, after all.
Fortunately, after a few rounds of filling up other peoples’ glasses this nomikai custom tends to be forgotten. You may also find a natural split form, between those who like to move and pour and those who like to stay put and drink.
Early doors though you’ll have to be prepared for pretty much every conversation with every pourer to get started with surprise when you answer their question about which you prefer, beer or sake?
At some point the boss will make the rounds to top up glasses. They have to.
One should note that there is no great shame in staying put and tending to your own drink.
Japanese nomikai basics: Those small glasses
Those small glasses made to accommodate the nomikai socialising and drink-pouring can also trick the mind into thinking that not much alcohol is being consumed. It almost comes as a surprise then to realize how much you’ve consumed and that you’re drunk.
Keep this in mind. Why? Because a work nomikai isn’t an occasion to air grievances and gossip. To this extent, you’ve got to keep it together. As a foreigner though, language ability can often come one’s aid if you haven’t yet covered the section in the textbook about how to moan in Japanese (There isn’t one, anyway).
During a nomikai, don’t be afraid to turn down the offer of a top up. In fact, the best way to handle this would be to leave your glass full.
Japanese nomikai basics: When you’re the only foreigner in the room
As Japan gets more international so too, one would hope, will the novelty for the Japanese of having a foreigner in their presence.
When working as an ALT near Tokyo, during the first year, time was always set aside during teacher nomikai for this ALT to stand up and regale the room with my thoughts about the term and my plans for the upcoming holiday. It got to the point that I knew it was coming and would prepare for it with all the enthusiasm of doing homework.
The novelty, for the teachers, eventually wore off leaving me free to enjoy / endure the nomikai as one of them.
Still, the experience might serve as a cautionary note for other foreigners attending nomikai to have a few words ready in order to reflect on the time since the last one.
Japanese nomikai basics: Calling it a wrap
Many of Japan’s nomikai just end quietly with a call for the bill. Some, however, might be brought to a close with a ceremonial clap called a tejime. Apparently the tejime can take a variety of forms according to region and occasion. In this foreigner’s experience of nomikai it’s been a single clap, usually coordinated by the second most senior person at the party -- everyone stands and gets hands / arms ready to clap at the signal of the coordinator. There then follows a collective shout, something along the lines of, “Yooio!” before all present perform a single clap in unison. Nomikai done!
Japanese nomikai basics: Paying the bill
Some work parties in Japan are on the company’s dollar and the issue of the bill never rears its head. Other nomikai are paid for by the company to a certain amount and then the extra is divided between all members present. In some cases the boss (present or not) takes care of the bill out of their own pocket. In this case the boss should be recognized with a collective, or from each individual, “Gochisousamadeshita!” -- a phrase used after the consumption of every meal in Japan as a way of saying thanks, directly or indirectly, to the provider.
Given the pre-arranged nature of work parties in Japan, when the bill is to be split between all parties the amount is usually established beforehand by way of the organizer having made a reservation and meal / drink plan with the host establishment, the cost of which is announced at the time. Sometimes money is collected in advance.
When a nomikai bill is split it is almost always done evenly, regardless of who consumed what. In fact, perhaps one of the most important rules of attending a nomikai is to avoid getting picky about this, and demand that you only pay for what you ordered. Emphatically not cool!
Japanese nomikai basics: The nijikai
If the mood is right, and it often is, many nomikai will be followed by a by a nijikai -- a second party.
If attendance at the initial nomikai was compulsory, attendance at the nijikai is always optional and no one will think less of those who choose not to bother.
Much more relaxed in nature, the nijikai is something more akin to a bunch of friends going out for drinks. (Although you’ve still got to work with these people so don’t do anything you likely regret.)
Venues for nijikai tend towards izakaya, bars, and karaoke joints. It’s rare that work nomikai end with an allnighter in a nightclub, unless maybe your an English teacher going out with fellow colleagues from overseas.
Preparation tips, insights, real experiences, resources and practical information for people interested in pursuing employment and a career in Japan.