Nominification in Japan : Nomikai (drink parties)

Nomikai (drink party) – is one aspect of the Japanese work culture that I am still kind of getting used to.

I remember my first nomikai quite distinctly – why? because I was a teetotaler…(I still have a very low tolerance for alcohol and can manage a beer but mostly get away with a breezer or an orange juice) and more so, because my school director told me I was supposed to drink – and that if i did not drink, it would be considered very rude. Drinking, he said, is mandatory in Japan and one has to do it in case one has to mix up or socialize with the Japanese.

That was on my very first trip to Japan and I hardly knew or understood the Japanese culture. Moreover, that was the very first time in my life I had ever been away from my house and was kind of struggling to gel into the totally new culture, trying to make new friends..appearing rude to the people I was going to work with was the last thing i could unwillingly.. I took a glass of beer…and somehow forced myself to take a sip…and…uggghhh!! The taste and smell of the “beer” was too much for me to “bear”…there was no way i could gulp all that down..i just could not…I had to find a way out and thanks to a “flower pot” kept on my table, I managed to somehow pour my beer into it when no one was watching and kept on filling my glass with water (i wonder if people actually did not notice that or were just pretending not to..that is one thing that i will never know)….phew!! ….that was one long long evening…

I would learn later that although nomikais are an integral part of the work culture in Japan – but Japanese are extremely tolerant towards other’s drinking habits and culture. If you don’t drink, they will never ever force you, or even expect you to drink. And yes, that has absolutely no impact on your relationship with them. Instead, they will try to ensure you get something to drink and try to make you feel comfortable.
It makes me sad that my “first lesson on the Japanese culture” proved to be wrong….
Nomikais are sometimes followed by a Nijikai or a second party, usually at a karaoke restaurant or a bar which serve light meals and alcohol.

In the Japanese professional world, nomikais, usually held at Izakayas (restaurants serving alcohol with food), are considered as an opportunity for colleagues to let their hair after the very hectic work day/week, and bond with other co-workers. This kind of socializing and bonding between colleagues is important in a culture where people tend to work in groups as a team, quite different from the culture elsewhere in the world where individualism is a way of life. It is considered socially acceptable to get drunk at such parties and anything said or done in such a state is forgiven and not taken seriously. One can often see emotional displays and frank opinions being exchanged between colleagues, irrespective of their rank, and can sometimes get quite scary for a non-Japanese. I have experienced such scenes and have always wondered if the people on the receiving end do actually forget what is said or done? After all, human beings are basically the same everywhere. Not that I am being cynical, but isn’t that what anyone new to the people and culture think?

Frankly, even after all these years I am still struggling to understand this aspect of Nomikais. I am often baffled with questions like is it really possible for one to pretend as if nothing has happened even after somebody says or does something mean? I wonder if the people who say such things are really drunk enough to not know what they are doing? Is there a limit to what and how much you can say? Is there a protocol to all this, like everything else in Japan? And last but not the least, what if a non-Japanese co-worker was to say or do awkward things to a colleague? Would that be acceptable? What do you think?

All said and done, nomikais are excellent opportunities to understand and build good relationships with your fellow workers, especially for a non-Japanese or somebody who is new to the workplace. It is a good idea to attend one, once in a while (irrespective of whether you drink or not). For an astute businessman, it provides a marvelous opportunity to get to know your client, which sometimes help in future negotiations and decision making. But one should keep in mind that like everything Japanese, the nomikais also have an etiquette that should be stickily adhered to. Grab a book or google it to understand the rules before you attend one.

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