On Getting Drunk with your Boss in Japan

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.

The Speeches
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!”

The Pouring
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.

Liquid English
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.

Further Reading
Some Japanese vocabulary for drinking parties
Super Happy Awesome Blog’s Enkai Story
AccessJ’s Enkai Post

* = 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.

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13 Responses to On Getting Drunk with your Boss in Japan

  1. Alice says:

    Fabulous write-up! My favorite line is “The Japanese keep all of their English words in a lock box that dissolves when exposed to fermented yeast” which applies for all foreign languages. Imagine my surprise when one of the PE Teachers turned out to speak not just English but also fluent Spanish–we spent the rest of the night in a crazy mix of Spanish, English, and Japanese! To be fair though, they will sometimes acknowledge you–I usually get more regular “Ohayou”s after an enkai, though the converstation generally stops there!

    Thanks for the link! :D

    • owwls says:

      Thanks for the comment!

      It’s also nice to find non-English-speaking foreigners in Japan! It’s nice to find Spanish-speaking folks around here, too; we’re blessed with a handful of Mexican restaurants. :)

  2. Dom says:

    Thanks for the link! Nice post.

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  12. Nathaniel Bartholomew says:

    I’m from East Malaysia (Borneo part) and many foreigners have said that we’re very gentle, polite and sometimes quite introvert. That said, we do to tell things like it is IN A BENEVOLENT WAY. Some people avoid offending a new acquaintance or a guest by withholding their words and be mindful of their tongue. But when we think it’s right to do so, we will tell politely WITHOUT sugar-coating. It’s not always very assertive as assertiveness is an acquired skill but we do say things almost very directly, easy to decipher, and only sometimes with subtle extra meaning. That we do to remain polite. We’re never too direct like the Americans (which is considered as obnoxious and rude although very fun to watch on tv) nor do we too sarcastic or metaphoric (like the English who use dry jokes so much. Sorry, but oftentimes, we don’t quickly get the message when someone uses dry jokes, so if you want something or you think we should know something, say so. If you use dry joke, most will think you’re simply joking). That said, having read many articles about the Japanese work cultures, my opinion about enkai is that the Japanese are are true to themselves to regard that this is the better way for them to express their disappointments or hopefully to give constructive criticism. Unfortunately, this is one of the times when they dare to express candor. Should I go to Japan unprepared with some knowledge about their enkai culture, I’d be quick to think they’re hypocrite and they only dare to speak their mind or rebuke someone when they’re drunk. When sober, they wear a different mask. In our place, someone like this can quickly lose friends and people will be reluctant to invite them to drink next time. But we’re not Japanese and our cultures are different. It’s good to know that after some shared resentments, everyone is ‘obliged’ or expected to forgive and move on. My opinion based on the various articles I found and read on the internet.

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