So you have been working for some time at a Japanese company when your Japanese colleagues invite you to join their nomikai (aka drinking party) to commemorate some occasion or even to simply spend quality time together. And of course, you say “Yes!” readily, for you realize that you’re making inroads into their social circle and are keen to develop your relationships further. But what then should you do (and not do) during a nomikai? In this guide, I will list out 5 Dos and 5 Don’ts so that you will not commit any cultural gaffes unwittingly!
Do be punctual
“Punctual” here does not mean that you arrive on the dot; it is the norm for Japanese people to arrive at least ten minutes before their appointment. Japanese people are fastidious about punctuality because they view being early as a way to display their respect towards other people who have taken precious time out of their busy schedules. During my teaching stint in Japan, I might arrive ten minutes early for my school’s nomikai, only to find at least half of the teaching staff already engrossed in small group conversations! Keeping to the time also means that the event will run like clockwork – waiting for latecomers to stroll in before commencing the party is simply unheard of. Woe is the person who arrives late in the midst of his company director’s welcome speech!
Do hold your drink until “Kampai!”
You may join a nomikai after a long, hard day at work and are simply dying to relieve your fatigue with a well-deserved glass of beer. Sounds like something you might do? Then refrain from doing this! As Japan is a group-oriented culture, it is considered rude to indulge in a drink first without waiting for everyone to be ready. So, regardless of how you are itching for that cool sensation of ice-cold beer down your throat, control yourself, listen attentively to your company superior’s speech and leave your glass untouched. Soon enough, he will end his speech and lead the entire group of participants to cry out a rousing roar of “Kampai!” Only when you have seen people clink their glasses and say “Kampai” to one another are you allowed to drink.
Do "Kampai!" right
When you are toasting “Kampai” to your colleagues, you will notice them going out of their way to ensure that they position their beer glass lower than their colleague’s. Occasionally, this leads to hilarity as they extend and withdraw their hand (and their glass) rapidly in order to secure this coveted lower position. Ensuring your beer glass is clinked at a lower position symbolizes your respect for your co-workers and desire to maintain harmonious relationships. You will also observe that this practice of trying to clink your beer glass at a lower position is not restricted to the young, for even elderly people who hold senior positions in the company will engage in this practice as a demonstration of Japanese humility.
Don't pour drinks for yourself
After finishing the first glass of beer, you instinctively reach out for that beer bottle, hoping to refill your glass. Well, you got to control your impulse here because it is considered rude to pour a drink for yourself. Instead, hold the beer bottle and pour a drink for your colleagues to show your respect. Be sure to use both hands as you pour the beer: use one hand to support the bottom and tilt the opening towards your co-worker’s glass with the other hand. You wouldn’t want to spill beer on your colleague’s suit or dress by accident! Bonus points if you can utter Japanese while doing so: say “dozo” as you pour the beer. Your co-worker will answer back “domo”.
Do walk around with a beer bottle
As the newcomer to the nomikai scene, it is perhaps embarrassing to strike a conversation with colleagues whom you may not work very closely with. Thank goodness nomikais offer a ready avenue for you to take the first step in making small talk. It is customary for Japanese people to keep refilling their colleagues’ glasses throughout the night, so what you can do is grab a bottle, walk up to people whom you want to talk to and offer to refill their glass. This creates an opening for you to engage in a chat with your colleagues beyond the usual niceties and learn about them at a deeper level.
Do go with the flow
Japanese people work hard and party hard, and boy do they leave their solemn self aside as they ham it up for the evening. Once your colleagues gulp down a few drinks, they let loose their inhibitions and do stuff that might be potentially embarrassing in other cultures, all in the name of good, clean fun. For instance, your male colleagues may spontaneously form a human pyramid and egg a sporty female colleague to climb her way to the top. At another nomikai, the male staff would impersonate famous all-female groups and even dance sexily as well!
Don't let yourself go completely
Known to switch effortlessly between their professional self and a more exclusive private self, Japanese people are grateful for the reprieve that nomikais bring due to an unspoken rule that everyone abides by: whatever happens during a nomikai stays at the nomikai. Thus, they speak their mind more openly and freely as they harness this chance to give feedback to their co-workers about group dynamics, project updates and other matters related to their company’s development. However, even though you can give negative feedback and expect your co-workers not to take it to heart because it is uttered during a nomikai, do not be brutally honest and neglect the need to be diplomatic. This is especially so when you are talking to many colleagues of various age groups; you wouldn’t know who you just might inadvertently offend.
Don't force yourself to drink
You may feel compelled to drink when you observe your colleagues chugging down beers like nobody’s business. However, if you are not fond of drinking or are simply a good drinker, there is no need to follow the crowd. Since Japanese people help one another refill their beer glasses, the trick to surviving at a nomikai is to only drink when asked (and to take small sips even then). Most Japanese people are not pushy about forcing others to drink beyond their limits, so be proactive about controlling your pace of drinking and keeping mental tabs on how much you have already drunk. As the nomikai progresses, most people will gradually become inebriated anyway, so there is no need to force yourself to drink.
Don't leave early
After drinking and eating so much during a nomikai, you may be tempted to leave early and retire early for the night. Well, try not to give in to this temptation, for leaving early during a nomikai may be taken to mean that you do not care enough about your co-workers to set aside time to spend with them. Nomikais typically last for two hours, so hang in there and stay till the end. Someone holding a senior position in your company will be tasked to get everyone to stand up and do the sanbon-jime, which is actually three series of three claps, followed by a single clap. Only when everyone has done this sanbon-jime is the party considered officially over.
Don't drink and drive
Japan has a zero-percent tolerance law towards driving after drinking, and it is enforced strictly throughout the country. Many a civil servant has been fired from their jobs because they were caught driving home after a drinking party. Even sober passengers who sit next to a drunk driver will not be spared because they are expected to discourage the drunk driver from driving. So hire a cab to get yourself home after a nomikai!
Itching to attend your nomikai now? Now with this barrel of tips under your belt, I guarantee that you will be a hit with the Japanese if you adhere to these Dos and Don’ts!