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Nomikai: Japan’s Business Drinking Culture

Whether you’re in Japan visiting for business purposes, a full-time employee in the country, or one of these scenarios is in your future, you’ll want to be well informed and prepared for the nomikai, or drinking party. An important bonding experience that’s just as crucial to the office environment as any meeting, the nomikai comes with its own etiquette and nuances.

Knowing how to navigate the situation professionally can ensure a more enjoyable evening while enriching your interoffice relationships.

Why Is Nomikai So Important?

In a collectivist society like Japan, it’s important for the individual to feel connected and committed to the group, and vice versa. However, in a traditional Japanese office environment, there isn’t much time or room to deepen your relationship with co-workers. This is due to the more restrictive work atmosphere during regular business hours.

There are specific rules that must be adhered to, such as being seated immediately when arriving at the office, and keeping small talk with other employees to an absolute minimum. As such, it is the time spent together outside of the office that helps bring company employees closer together, which is what makes the nomikai so important.

While attending a drinking party is not explicitly mandatory, it is understood that is usually in your best interest to attend for forming stronger bonds if you work in a Japanese office, or for closing the deal when doing international business with a Japanese company.

Rules and Etiquette for Enjoying a Japanese Drinking Party

It’s important to note that, while you’re outside of the office setting, in some ways you are still “on the clock,” so to speak. With that in mind, here are some guidelines for getting through a Japanese drinking party unscathed.

Seating Order

For more traditional Japanese companies, the seating arrangement may be designed according to your rank within the company. When drinking in a private room with a table, the highest ranking member of the group will likely take the seat furthest from the door, with the second-in-command taking the seat across from the leader. The rest of the seats will be populated following this order.

The First Drink

It’s typical for everyone to have the same drink for the first round, and you should wait until everyone has received their beverage before starting to drink. One of the highest ranking managers will start with a brief toast, followed by a collective “kanpai!” or “cheers” from the crowd. It is also very important to note that, when touching glasses with colleagues, the higher ranking member’s glass should be higher.

Be a Team Player

We all have our go-to drink that we enjoy while out with our friends. However, as a nomikai is meant to be a team-building event, it’s suggested to stick to the basics such as whiskey, sake or even a basic beer.

Pouring Drinks

It’s important to keep glasses filled and make sure no one is waiting around to have their drink replenished. The most important guideline regarding pouring drinks is to never pour your own. Always pour drinks for others, with highest ranking members having their drinks refilled first. Even if someone refuses, you should insist on pouring their drink. Their refusal is often a sign of humility.

Keep Your Interactions Professional

Although alcohol typically helps you relax, and you may feel encouraged to keep it casual with your fellow employees, this is not the right move. You should maintain the honorific, or polite form of Japanese when talking to your colleagues, and most especially when interacting with your superiors. Even in the casual atmosphere, getting too comfortable with those who rank above you may rub them the wrong way.

Even More Drinking

After the initial gathering, you may be asked to keep the party going by attending a nijikai, or second gathering. While leaving early during the first party could be a bit of a cultural faux pas, it’s more than okay to skip out on further partying if you’ve had your fill. The amount of people attending subsequent parties tends to reduce quite a bit.

The Next Day

As some drinking parties tend to happen on weekdays, you might be expected to come into the office the next day. Some memories of the previous evening may be fresh in your mind, but it’s best to invoke the Vegas rule: what happens at the nomikai, stays at the nomikai. The last thing you’ll want to do is bring up any embarrassing moments you may have witnessed from your co-workers, most especially those higher up on the company ladder. In turn, any sins you may have committed will also be forgiven.

Final Notes

Since the nomikai is such an integral part of Japanese work culture, you will find yourself attending many parties. This can be a great way to move up the corporate ladder and futher your career. Just be sure to protect your liver with the many products you can easily find at a convenience store!

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