Drinking Parties in Japan: A Survivor’s Guide
As you may know, recently here in Japan we commemorated the start of the school year. Unlike Scotland, and indeed much of Europe, where the new school year begins in August or September, Japan’s school year runs parallel to the western “financial year”, beginning in April and ending in March.
With this new school year, inevitably comes the invitation to the company “Shinnenkai” or “New Year Party”.
This event is an important one on the school calendar, as it motivates everyone to work together for the coming year as well as giving new recruits the chance to get to know their colleagues outside of the often pressured environment of the day to day dirge of school life. You’ll also find that schools tend to organize large events in the summer such as a possible outing to a beer garden, as well as drinking parties after the successful completion of a student event such as the school sports day or culture festival.
There is also the Bonnenkai (end of year party) usually held in December or January, to mark the successful completion of the school year. Towards the end of March there will also be a party to say goodbye to the departing and retiring staff members.
In the interests of maintaining a good relationship will all your colleagues it’s important that you try to attend these events as much as you can.
However, to the uninitiated, the Japanese company “nomikai” can be a little tricky to navigate. Here are some survival hints from a veteran of 10 years of such parties!
1) Pace yourself.
Many of my colleagues often laugh when I tell them that the very notion of a “Nomihoudai” (All you can drink for a preset time limit) is actually illegal in Scotland, such is the obvious danger of allowing the nation with one of Europe’s highest rates of alcoholism to run such an establishment. However, don’t let the daytime coy and conservative façade fool you. The Japanese are just as capable as the Scots when it comes to holding their liquor. Whilst some of your female colleagues may get an absolutely adorable red flush to their cheeks after a few drinks, the men are the ones who usually force the issue when it comes to drinking excessively. The way these parties run also ensures that throughout the entire 3 or 4 hours of the party, your glass will seldom, if ever be empty (but more of that in point 2). So, pace yourself and never drink faster or in greater volume than you feel comfortable with, regardless of the peer pressure.
2) Never pour your own drink.
This is one of those uniquely Japanese foibles that foreigners here tend to find both irritating and endearing in equal measure. People at parties here seldom, if indeed ever, get their own drink. It kind of goes something like this:
At first, the people immediately to the left and right of you around what is a usually circular table will take turns to pour drinks for you. When someone next to you pours a drink for you, you should immediately reciprocate and pour one for them. As in most aspects of Japanese society, there is always an overwhelming eagerness to please, and as such you will find, as I previously mentioned, that your glass is never empty for any discernable length of time. Once the meal is completed your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to pick up one of the large bottles of beer and go around the room offering to top up the glass of our colleagues. Of particular importance in this instance is that you pay attention to your immediate managers, superiors and indeed anyone who you feel has been especially helpful to you during this past year. I always make a point of seeking out my English-speaking Japanese co-teachers first. As I have said previously, it is often the case that whether you succeed or fail in your job as a school teacher in Japan depends largely on their input and their attitude towards you and your lessons.
You’ll also want to make a point of seeking out the big bosses and pouring one for them too. Some would call it sycophancy, but there is a lot to be said for it, and in Japan this is just how things are done.
3) Pay attention for the games and prize draws
Most of these big parties have some kind of game or prize draw. At most of the parties I have been to this usually involves either a bingo type game or the exceedingly Japanese “Janken Taikai” (Rock, Paper, Scissors Tournament). So far I’ve won a 5,000 yen voucher for a department store, several bottles of wine and even a prepaid card I can use at the convenience store. Some places really like to go over the top with the prizes if they can, a friend of mine once won an iPad, another won a weekend in Okinawa!
Of course for bingo, you’ll need to understand how Japanese numbers are pronounced and written, but that is fairly easy. It was one of the first things I learned upon moving here.
4) Take some precautionary measures to offset the inevitable hangover
A few weeks after I arrived in Japan I was introduced to a truly marvelous invention. They come in a variety of forms but are colloquially known as “Genki Drinks”. These drinks, found in convenience stores usually come in small metallic bottles and look almost medicine like. Although some are fortified with garlic, some with ginger and various other herbs, in reality they all kind of taste the same. Like a very syrupy Red Bull-type energy drink. These drinks are marketed as being able to help overcome tiredness and fatigue in what is, after all one of the world’s hardest working societies. However, they are capable of more, much more. These drinks have the ability to greatly reduce and in some cases even completely offset the effects of a hangover. The trick, I have discovered, is to drink one of them in the evening immediately before going to the party, and then to drink another one before going to work the next day. This will allow you to function normally (well, almost) the next day at work. The side effect however is that you will enter an almost zombie like state of exhaustion when you get home and the huge amounts of caffeine finally wear off!
Above all, when you go to these parties take advantage of the most important reason for their being: Get to know your colleagues. Don’t worry about how bad your Japanese sounds; just do your best to be friendly, engaging and approachable. Your natural radiance and the alcohol will do the rest!