Social drinking is a trait shared amongst many different cultures, of which Japan is one of them. The word “飲み会”in Japanese means “drinking party”, and if you are planning to work in Japan, chances are that you might have already heard of them. To fully understand how a “nomikai” works, one would have to experience it for themselves, but the concept can easily be conveyed by word.
First of all, how prevalent are “nomikais”? It depends on some companies. Expect, however, a drinking party at least once every month, with special ones marked throughout the year. Amongst the more traditional dates are the time periods where new employees are welcomed (welcome parties), and “忘年会”, end of year parties. “Nomikais” can also be held when an important member of the company retires. Note that attendance of “nomikais” is highly encouraged, as skipping one may damage relationships between your coworkers.
Second of all, what actually happens in a “nomikai”? A “nomikai” generally starts out with several speeches until the feast and drinking begins. As time passes, the breakdown of rules (無礼講,bureikou) happens as more and more people get drunk. Finally, by the end of the party, all of the participants stand up and clap in unison. In general, if you are attending your first “nomikai”, simply follow your coworkers and you should be fine. Afterparties (二次会、nijikai) can also be held at karaoke or other bars, but attendance is optional.
Third, and most importantly, how is one supposed to behave during a “nomikai”? After all, since behavior and body language is heavily scrutinized in the Japanese society, one must be vigilant of several rules during a “nomikai”. To understand this better, one must know the purpose of the “nomikai”.
While the main purpose might be to introduce new members or to celebrate a milestone within a company, in the end, it is a social gathering and bonding with coworkers is highly encouraged. The Japanese company is a highly rigid system with little space for opinion, and one can easily feel alienated due to the extremely bureaucratic system of the company. Everyone is expected to fulfill their role with minimal freedom, and so the “nomikai” is supposed to alleviate that pressure where everyone can finally act with a personality.
However, this does not mean that you are finally allowed to break down and be open to everybody in the company. Getting drunk is acceptable and encouraged, and insults and personal attacks may be forgiven by the next day due to the circumstances, but that does not necessarily mean one should behave recklessly during a “nomikai”. Always remember to retain your sense of self-awareness during the party, and while you are allowed to talk more about your private life and discuss topics more openly, remember to at least try to behave and not get too far ahead of yourself during a party, as not all mistakes are forgiven and you might unintentionally damage relationships between your fellow coworkers. Finally, do not pour drinks for yourself – let the others do it for you. If you are the newcomer, try walking around pouring drinks for everybody else. You will be doing them a favor and perhaps you could make small conversations in the meantime.
While drinking is a large part of the party, it is not necessary to drink alcoholic beverages during a “nomikai”. The best approach to refusing alcohol is by explaining to them the circumstances. If you are planning not to drink too much, try to keep your glass filled, as a half empty glass will always be filled in customary Japanese drinking etiquette. Above all, try to have fun and enjoy the atmosphere. Be aware of checking your phone constantly and try to participate in the party as much as possible.
In the end, the “nomikai” is perhaps one of the more memorable aspects of working in Japan. Due to the harsh working environment the Japanese face, the “nomikai” has been somewhat of a necessity in eliminating the stresses of labor, providing chances for workers to open up to other people in a way that cannot be achieved in the office environment.