Jun 28, 2019
The extent to which drinking and Japanese work culture are bedfellows is in a state of flux as authorities in Japan place greater pressure on employers to reform old work practices like “nominication” to better accommodate the needs of the individual. In this article we look at how drinking and Japanese work culture may be seen and felt by foreigners working and to what extent they might feel obliged to go drinking after work in Japan.
I’m writing this in an office skyscraper in Tokyo, a short walk from Shimbashi, a district of the Japan capital commonly referred to as “salaryman town.”
Seeping out from the east side of the busy Shimbashi Station is a tight warren of streets host to a huge number of even tighter bars and eateries set up largely to serve the office workers who, after dark, pour out of the cluster of skyscrapers nearby.
On any school night of the week, the streets of Shimbashi buzz, crawl and wobble to the inebriated rhythms of an army of besuited punters.
(The rain isn't enough to prevent the labor force drinking after work in Japan - Shimbashi, Tokyo)
Many of the street side joints here are open-fronted revealing standing-room-only bars (because there isn’t the room for chairs) and the greasy interiors of sweaty eateries where the smoke from grilled-meats mixes with the smoke from cigarettes. Outside, office workers hunt in packs for a table for four -- good luck with that on a Friday.
If you want to witness the relationship between drinking and Japanese work culture, then “salaryman town” Shimbashi would as good a place as any to see it in all its guttural, red-faced action.
Stereotypes about Japanese people carried by those who’ve never been to Japan might extend beyond the mad fashion stylings of Harajuku girls and anything seen in the movie Lost in Translation, to reach as far as the one about Japanese people being crap at holding their drink.
Perhaps this then is the cause of any surprise when people outside of Japan learn, or experience first-hand, that the Japanese are so well-versed, so well-practiced when it comes to boozing. Whether or not the Japanese can actually handle their drink is surely a matter of context, although some locals will try to explain the biology to prove as much.
Regardless of the capacity of the Japanese to consume alcohol, the relationship between drinking and Japanese work culture is strong enough that it has its own term, “nominication.”
Nomincation is drawn from the Japanese, “nomu” (飲む) - to drink, and “communication,” - nominication. Not that this is a term used in common parlance here in Japan -- it’s unlikely that you’ll be invited by Japanese colleagues to a session of “nominication.”
Rumours abound that the wheels of finance and industry in Japan are oiled by the culture of drinking after work and sessions of nominication. Well, I’ve been working in this skyscraper in Tokyo for about four years now and have yet to see one deal be sealed by a round of drinks in a local boozer. In fact, our team only goes out drinking after work once a month (if that) and this is largely because it’s on the company’s dollar (part of funds set aside for team building and getting to know colleagues). I can’t think that we’ve ever been out drinking with clients, much less potential ones.
This is not to make light of any experiences endured by those who’ve felt obliged to partake in nominication as part of Japanese work culture beyond their comfort level. It’s just to recount my own experience.
Some commentators though, suggest that the role of drinking in Japanese work culture is becoming ever more dated. It’s an observation which would seem to reflect the slow modernization of Japanese work culture as a whole, with initiatives targeting overwork and the introduction of more flexibility, and a shift in attitudes regarding dress code, gender equality, and loyalty to an employer, among others.
The Japanese government in April 2019 brought into effect legislation that places a cap on overtime hours for regular employees at large firms in Japan. It seems too early to tell whether or not this will see the number of Japanese drinking after work reduced due to them not staying in the office longer into the evening. (On the other hand, the cap on overtime hours could give people more of an excuse to go out drinking and opportunities for old skool, unscrupulous bosses to take advantage of this.)
Such that drinking after work in Japan has any role left to play in at the business end of Japanese work culture might be said to reflect that the corridors of power in this country are still largely populated by old men who would have grown up in a business drinking culture financed by the excess riches of the bubble years.
Contrast this with Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group Inc.’s banking unit executive Saiko Nanri who, according to an April 2019 article in Bloomberg, told her team that she would not be holding any sessions of boss-subordinate nominication.
“It’s not as if I have any special knowledge to share with my staff by drinking with them every day,’’ the 49-year-old is quoted as saying during an interview. Perhaps more importantly though, the banking executive said that nominication is unproductive and unfair to parents of young children.
Unfortunately, where there is any culture of drinking after work in Japan, or elsewhere, there is likely to be pressure felt by those who are reluctant to join in or who can’t (the above mentioned parents, for one). But this is surely not exclusively a Japanese phenomenon, this could well be workplace politics 101 in many parts of the world.
It’s a crass reference, but to drink or not to drink after work can perhaps be likened to the episode of U.S. sitcom friends in which Racheal, wanting to get on in her new job, decides to take up smoking so as not to miss out on the decision-making between her boss and colleagues who are smokers.
Like it or not, people bond and sometimes decisions are made over a session of drinking after work, in Japan or elsewhere. But this is not about the drink so much as it’s about how much time you want to spend with colleagues -- you don’t have to drink the alcohol (my boss doesn’t). Making one’s working life smoother often involves having to put the time in with colleagues outside of work, however reluctant one may be to do so.
To what extent this is the same in Japan as it is anywhere else though, is difficult for me to judge. And it’s perhaps difficult for many foreigners working in Japan to judge as we might turn down offers to go out and drink after work in favor of maintaining a more familiar work-life-balance, ignorant of how this might affect our standing in the workplace. Or maybe we’re not ignorant. Maybe we understand that as long as we are in Japan the very fact of us being foreign prevents us from ever really fulfilling our career potential, no matter how many sessions of nominication we join.
The bubble years may be over, and Japanese work culture may be heading in a more progressive and open direction but it seems spending on drinking is on the rise.
Results of the 2018 Salaryman Okozukai Survey, an annual survey looking into the pocket money - okozukai - of Japan’s office workers conducted by Shinsei Bank, revealed that money spent on drinking by male workers increased in 2018 to 12,506 yen per month. Female workers saw a decrease in similar spending bringing theirs to 9,485 yen per month.
To put this spending in rough context, a mid-sized jug of beer (chu-jockey, 500 - 700 ml) served in a cheap Shimbashi boozer sells for around 400 yen. At the upper end then, according to the survey, office workers in Japan might be consuming around 30 of these each month. Sound like a lot?
While this spending is not directly equated with drinking after work, the context and theme of the survey would appear to point readers in that general direction.
And the streets of “salaryman town” Shimbashi would appear to do likewise. Perhaps instead of lubricating business deals though, this kind of drinking might be about letting off steam, drowning stress, and / or an opportunity to bond and bitch about work with friends and colleagues.
Where it’s not OK to say, “No,” to Japan’s drinking-working culture is in regards to those work parties that might be thought of as “official,” in so far as they are considered to be part of one’s duties at work. And Japan has many such parties.
The extent and range of, and customs that are in display during, these parties will require a separate article to address properly but they are typically annual events on the work-in-Japan calendar.
As an example, an annual conference looking at company finances will inevitably be followed with a party, replete with catering and booze. Regular company employees in Japan will be expected to stick around for the party, at least for the first hour or so. If this means going over one’s contracted hours of work, then the extra will be paid as overtime.
Unfortunately, drinking after work in Japan is sometimes employed as strategy by people looking to manipulate colleagues, clients and partners like pieces on a chess board as they pursue their selfish agenda.
In the past I’ve been invited out for a bit one-on-one nominication by Japanese colleagues under the pretext of bonding or friendship. Over drinks we accepted each other’s praise and talked about how we wanted to extend support and friendship. However, these drinking sessions were always followed a few days later by requests or moves by said colleagues to pass their tasks onto me. After developing a bit of backbone and the courage to say, “No.”, suggests to go out for a drink stopped. Make of this what you will.
Just this week teammates and I went out for a pasta lunch near the office. The menu came with an optional glass of white wine (gratis) which our teammate from overseas ordered, to a round of giggles from everyone else. Said teammate looked perplexed.
“Yea, I don’t care personally,” said the boss in a good-natured tone. “But I’m in the position of having to report this kind of thing to the people upstairs.”
It turns out that in group-orientated Japan though, all members of a team would bear collective responsibility for an individual’s behavior.
“If other people at work were to smell alcohol on someone’s breath and they asked you about it and you said that you knew your teammate had had a drink because you were with them at the time, then, in their minds, that might reflect poorly on you,” explained the boss, presumably pointing to a duty in Japanese work culture for other team members to persuade them against doing so.
“For many Japanese people drinking alcohol, in any quantity, is basically equated with getting drunk,” another Japanese colleague explained in response to the defence that it was just one drink with a full plate of food.
Reaction to drinking on the job in Japan isn’t always so pleasant.
During my teaching days in a conversation school for adults here in Japan, a fellow teacher came back from lunch with a student with whom they had just taught their final lesson and casually let slip that they had had a beer with lunch -- it was a Saturday (Sunday’s were a holiday) and a special occasion after all.
The manager flipped. That’s a “No.” on the nominication during lunch then.
Back in my native U.K. it hasn’t been OK to have a drink with your lunch during work for years now. (The sales department of a company I once worked for back home stopped rewarding good performance throughout the week with a Friday pub lunch and a pint because it left us crawling, rather than sprinting, over the Friday-evening finish.)
Perhaps things are different in other parts of the world but here in Japan it would appear that this practice is frowned upon to say the least.
Sometimes I think commentators on life and Japanese work culture for foreigners think too much about Japan’s business-drinking culture, like it’s something far more nuanced than it actually is. While there are cultural concepts that dictate how drinks are poured and where people might sit during a work party in Japan, the same basic rules about drinking with colleagues or the boss apply in Japan as they do anywhere in the world, surely:
Don’t say anything stupid. Don’t do anything stupid. Don’t get so drunk that you don’t know what it is you’re saying and don’t get so drunk that you can’t remember what you did the next day. And don’t let the drinking affect your ability to work the next day, either. Accept an invitation to go out drinking or don’t. Just know that some form of bonding with colleagues and teammates is going to make yours and everyone else's life at work that little bit smoother.
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