With the arrival of chilly weather, the sniffles, “warm biz” attire and USB plug-in electric blankets; the end of the year also comes with that other great Japanese office tradition: the bonenkai, or “year end party.”
The actual nature and timing of the parties varies depending on your place of work and company budget. From my experience teaching (and given the way in which teachers here work extremely hard putting in long hours, often leaving themselves with little or no private life) the bonenkai is often seen as a prime opportunity for schools to really push the boat out, as it were, and go for a huge and expensive party.
Last year, my old school held its party in the famous Maru Building near Osaka station. The year before that, it was on the top floor of the stunning Bay Tower Hotel with a panoramic view across Osaka Bay. The common theme is that these are expensive nights out, but most definitely worth every yen.
Depending on your situation, the night out may already be paid for by the company or there may be a monthly fund to which all the staff in your division contribute. However, in the case of most native English teachers, it doesn’t always work that way — so be prepared to shell out between ¥5,000 to ¥10,000 for the event. This may seem steep, but it usually includes several courses of top-notch food and nomihodai (all you can drink) for at least a few hours. This won’t be happy hour, izakaya fare either, but proper food and drink. Fresh sushi, roasted meats and vegetables, as well as other entrées, all washed down with free-flowing wines, spirits and even champagne.
So, how does a bonenkai usually play out? Again, this varies depending on the venue, but they do tend to lean towards the formal side of things.
You should prepare your best suit (or in my case, dust off the kilt!).
Seating will, most likely, be pre-arranged, so be sure to check the seating chart on your way in. Things can seem a bit stiff and serious at first, but once the party gets going you’ll be amazed at how quickly everyone relaxes.
And now for some of the formalities.
The party will officially begin with an address and toast from your boss or department head. Good etiquette is to not eat or drink anything until the first kanpai (cheers) has been called. Once that first communal toast has completed, you are free to get stuck into all the food and drink on offer.
At this point, though, you will notice a number of your colleagues suddenly picking up bottles of beer and beginning to circle the room. You could be forgiven for wondering just what the heck is going on at this point.
This is just one of the many rituals at these kinds of parties to which— if you wish to have long-term success living in Japan — you will have to become accustomed. Your colleagues are seeking out those to whom they feel indebted: bosses, colleagues or subordinates whom they feel have been a great help to them throughout the year. They will then offer that person a drink, thank them for their efforts over the past year and engage them in small talk for a few minutes before moving on to their next target.
In doing this, as an English teacher, I always make a point of seeking out my principal, vice-principal and Japanese teachers of English (JTEs) before anyone else. Yes, it may seem a bit like “brown-nosing,” but it is an important custom here in Japan. Over the course of the evening, you can expect these people to seek you out, too, and reciprocate.
Things can then sometimes take a turn for the chaotic near the party’s official conclusion, as guests move on to the nijikai (second party). This is when your coworkers will break off into smaller groups and head to another venue — most usually an izakaya or a karaoke bar — to continue the party. By this point, everyone is quite drunk and it can be really funny, if somewhat shocking, to see your usually reserved colleagues cutting loose in such a big way.
Nothing beats watching your boss, with his tie around his head like Rambo, rapping along to Eminem in broken, heavily accented English as everyone else merrily claps along, completely oblivious to what any of the lyrics actually mean.
It goes without saying that you should be careful not to overdo it yourself, but if handled properly, these nights are a great laugh and there are few better ways to get to know your associates.
Now, if someone can just help me find some Irn-Bru, Scotland’s other national drink — and legendary hangover remedy — somewhere in Japan, I think I’m going to need some after this year’s party!