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Ask James: I Don’t Drink but I’ve Been Invited to my First Nomikai

Sometimes there is pressure to drink to excess and let off steam at Japanese office parties. What do you do if you don't drink — and don't want to jeopardize your standing at work?

By 3 min read 5

Our resident working-in-Japan writer, James Winovich, answers your questions on everything from finding a job to networking to having more fun during school lunches and more. Got a question you’d like to ask James? Email it to editorial@gplusmedia.co.

Pretty pushy parties

Hi James,

I recently began working in Japan and was just invited to my first nomikai (drinking party). I’m a little worried because I don’t drink. There is no real reason, but it’s something I just don’t want to do. I’ve heard that things can get pretty pushy at drinking parties in Japan. Should I be worried? Should I just not go?

— Nervous Teetotaler

You mean you don’t want to fall asleep on the floor of an izakaya while your boss sings “Don’t Stop Believin’” with a necktie around his head?

But seriously, though, what you’ve heard is correct. At a work drinking party, there is an expectation that almost everyone will be drinking some amount. So when someone doesn’t, it can sometimes become a “big deal.”

“What! You’re not drinking?”

“Just have one beer!”

“Have some fun!”

It is called a nomikai, or drinking meeting, for a reason, after all.

Since not going in the first place isn’t really a smart option, especially if you’re a new employee, you’ll have to deal with this. However, in most cases, your coworkers will be totally fine with you not drinking and you have nothing to worry about. Sure, there might be a person or two who keeps pushing the issue, but politely declining each time is totally fine. The smaller the company or gathering, the easier this usually is.

If you’re still a bit worried or don’t want to deal with it at all, you have several options to take drinking out of the equation. You can drive to the party, (in your real or imaginary car), which means you’ll have to drive home and nobody will reasonably try to pressure you to drive drunk. You can say you have an allergy, which is very common in Japan. Or you can just say that you think you’re coming down with something. Along with letting whoever is organizing the party know that you don’t drink when you confirm your attendance, these methods will usually let everyone know that you are there for the “kai” more than the “nomi.”

These parties can be a blast and are often good team-building affairs. And luckily for you — you’ll be able to remember it.

Now, go have fun.

P.S. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that at most companies, what happens at a nomikai stays at a nomikai. So, even though you might have seen some stuff you can’t wait to talk about on your next day at work, it’s better if you keep it to yourself.

Do you have experiences attending organized Japanese work parties as a nondrinker? Got any advice or tips for ALTs who may be in the same situation or are just a little unsure of the drinking culture? Share your thoughts in the comments below! 

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