If you live in Japan, you don’t drink at work. You work at your drinking.
It’s a land of hard workers and hard drinkers, full of people who rise early and stumble through the nights. Stay out late in Tokyo or any major city and you’ll see it.
Drinking in Japan is an office mainstay, like the American 60s where office mates would sneak out for nightcaps of bourbon and whiskey, swapping stories about wives and mistresses and slapping each other on the ass in manly displays of job security.
But Japan is a land of formality where even drinking parties are institutionalized. These are called enkais – office parties, fancy to-dos in ritzy hotels with copious amounts of food, alcohol and speeches.
These shindigs are all-you-can-drink (nomihodai) – and priced accordingly.
Enkais begin with speeches. The speeches begin exactly at the start time and so being punctual is mandatory. This country’s lifeblood pumps with every tick of the minute hand into the 12.
A glass of beer is poured for each guest. In the last official act of restraint, everyone stands with a glass in their hand, swallowing the fizzy elixir when all speakers have exhausted their words and the last speaker shouts, “Kampai!”
After that, the party is a buzzing hive of social bees, designed by legions of efficiency experts to get everyone drunk as quickly as possible. If you want to drink, you have to pour a glass for someone else first. In the beginning, it’s rude to drink unless every glass is full. But as those drinks go down the gullets, so does formality. But even at the end of the night, you never pour your own glass.
Every party starts with at least three sumo-sized glass bottles of beer at each table. They will disappear in 10 minutes.Like hummingbirds in reverse, guests flutter from table to table and beer flows from bottles into glasses. If a glass is full, sip it and let them refill it. Anything else is rude. (See notes)*
The pourer is inviting you to chat. Non-Japanese usually won’t be expected to pour for others to the same extent as the Japanese guests. Foreigners seeking gold stars, however, take note: Grab a bottle and start pouring. It will win over the crowd and possibly keep you sober.
If you’re surrounded by non-English speakers, just wait. More confident, lubricated speakers will approach throughout the evening to make conversation and ask questions. They may even be the same people. The Japanese keep all of their English words in a lock box that dissolves when exposed to fermented yeast.
If you work with these people, you’ll start to hear people complain about you or other co-workers. This is the unsurprising result of the alcohol, but also an essential and anticipated aspect of the enkai: Blowing off steam and allowing a window of blunt, direct complaints to be noted and forgiven, with the “outbursts” forgiven by copious amounts of booze.
Other people will confide in you, secrets about which co-worker they are in love with, what they think of so-and-so’s English and that you work so hard they can’t trust you. (I’ve been told all of these things).
You may be asked who is the laziest co-worker.
You may be asked to arm-wrestle.
Once I was asked to bet on who the waitress would find the most attractive. Whoever she said, we would all buy drinks for. I never heard the answer, but all of my drinks were paid for. I don’t suggest you seek to capitalize on this attention.
In the morning, the harsh words (by Japanese standards) are remembered and, usually, corrected, without any further confrontation, while the drunken loudmouth is off the hook.
Also, none of the secretly fluent friends from an enkai will ever acknowledge you again.
The Afterparty: The Nijikai
Enkais will often be followed by after parties, which can run late and into many parts of the city. The number rises for each enkai (ni = “two”, as in second enkai). Some enkais can often have 2 or 3 after parties, each increasing in magnitudes of sketchiness, particularly if you work for the private sector.
That said, the nijikai is usually just a party at another bar or izukaya, with some small appetizers and beers on tatami mats. Unlike the main enkai, the second enkai takes place without any pretense of formality. If I could only go to the nijikai, I would.
* = I should also add that going to an enkai doesn’t have to be like a fraternity hazing. The polite way to refuse a drink is, from the beginning, keep your beer glass upside down or full. If you drink juice everyone will understand that you aren’t drinking beer. Since driving after a single beer is illegal in Japan, plenty of people opt out, but I always find complete incomprehension at the thought of having just one glass of beer at an enkai. Another solution is to be the most vigilant guardian of empty drinks, basically assuring that no one else has to pour you a drink before they can pour your own.
But if you really can’t drink any more, just hide your beer glass and order a fruit juice. The person pouring beer will gladly order you another juice instead. After all, this country is still extremely polite.