Nomikai: Japanese drinking culture

Nomikai is a common drinking practice that is participated in, all over Japan. Groups of employees from Japanese companies are often found around at night, cheerful and merry and emerging from bars or izakaya from what is known as nomikai, an occasion where employees gather to drink after work. Let’s take a look at the practice of nomikai and why it is so popular amongst the businessmen and women of Japan.

What is it?

Nomikai is a drinking party phenomenon that is very particular to Japanese culture. Nomikai is a huge part of the culture in most places of employment, from schools to nightclubs. These drinking parties are often held in restaurants, bars or izakaya, usually with everyone seated at one large table in a separate section of the venue. Employees are usually expected to participate in some various nomikai, if not all, as it is widely considered a social aspect of work. Such nomikai parties focus on the bond between coworkers as a group, and are not considered private. 

Nomikai are often arranged when there is something to celebrate. Often employees meet up after work to drink together when someone is celebrating the completion of a work goal, a birthday, the departure of a colleague or the arrival of a new team member.

What happens?

Nomikai evenings tend to last for a few hours, during which employees can indulge in as much drinking as they like. In Japan, it’s not considered bad to drink a lot during a nomikai. Any remarks, mistakes or issues made under the influence of alcohol are brushed off as unimportant and won’t affect your bond with colleagues the next day at work. There are sometimes frank and emotional displays between coworkers over nomikai, regardless of position in the company, which may not occur in a normal workplace context: this phenomenon is called bureikō.

A tradition of nomikai is to always let another person pour your drink rather than doing it yourself. Often a younger employee known as kohai will fill the glass of an older employee, senpai. It is also generally regarded as unacceptable to pressure people into drinking alcohol or consuming more of it than they want at nomikai. Participants may drink non-alcoholic beverages at nomikai or leave a glass full to signal that they are not willing to drink any more alcohol.

The point of a nomikai is to bring all work colleagues together. As nomikai begins, the organiser of the party will give a brief welcome speech, followed by the manager who often offers words of reflection or encouragement. This speech is celebrated by a toast and everyone begins to eat and drink. It’s also customary that if there are any new employees or guests that they give a self-introduction to the other team members.

Once celebrations have begun the group then often breaks up into smaller groups where employees who are closer friends will continue the evening at another izakaya or bar. Those who go on to continue celebrating after the nomikai will be a part of a ‘second meeting’ known as nijikai, an after-party of the party where employee presence is no longer mandatory. In some cases, there is also a sanjikai which is a third after-party meeting.

Nomikai is often concluded after a few hours where everyone stands and claps in unison. There are two main styles of clapping: ippon-jime and sanbon-jime. These translate roughly to “one-clap ending” and “three-clap ending”. The ending of the nomikai sometimes happens whilst employees sing the company or school song or with a salute to the organiser, manager or honoured participant.

Bonenkai

Bonenkai is a form of end of year nomikai where all company employees are invited and strongly encouraged to attend the ‘gathering to forget the year’. The goal of a bonenkai is to forget any arguments or troubles that have occurred during the year and to celebrate the coming year. Often, the management usually tries to subsidize the price of participation in the bonenkai, in order to encourage as many employees as possible to come.

 

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