Why Drinking With Coworkers Is So Important In Japanese Work Culture
By Kay Sakamoto
In Japan, dining and drinking with your coworkers is very common, in fact it can be an unspoken requirement in some companies. Many Japanese feel that after work parties are an important way to enhance relationships. It can be useful to understand who your coworkers are, their typical mindset when they are relaxed and outside of the office.
The background of this activity may have a lot to do with the fact that lifetime employment was the standard in Japan for a long time. Establishing good relationship with your coworkers was very important as you may spend nearly forty years with them. It even had a name – nominication (coined word combining “nomu(drinking)” and “communication”).
In a typical Japanese company every aspect of the employee’s work is regulated. Everyone is seated right at the start of the day, lunch is strictly one hour from twelve noon sharp. Talking with your colleagues is considered as “shigo (private talk)” and should be kept to a minimum. Since there is not much room for establishing good or personal relationships at work, it was taken outside office where it won’t disturb their time dedicated to the company.
Bosses, “Joshi,” and senior team members ,“Senpai,” invite the team, “Buka,” or junior staff, “Kohai,” to a quick dinner or a drink (which is never quick nor just one drink). The invitation is often with good intentions, to give them a chance to talk in case they had issues at work. Even if the conversation is not interesting, most of the Buka and Kohai just deal with it as it usually means a free drink or meal at a place they could not afford on their own.
A common saying in Japan is, “if you want to work your way up the corporate ladder you have to drink”. This was how many older generation workers established relationships and considered this the normal way of doing business.
The corporate life and culture has changed a lot in the last decade or so. The work environment is more flexible and accommodates the needs of individuals according to their lifestyle and stage of life. Career changes are more common and easier. If one corporate culture is not a fit, moving on is an option and there is less emphasis on building relationships that need to last a lifetime. The majority of the younger generation who started their career in such environment with more freedom tends to spend less time with their coworkers, and focus more on their life and relationships outside work.
A lot of those who experienced the culture of dining and drinking with coworkers agree that they did benefit from the time spent. They found it easier to talk to their boss in a relaxed atmosphere outside work. Relationships with coworkers developed closer after casual talks, sharing concerns about their work or about other coworkers. Some become more than just a coworker and a friend. A lot of Japanese coworkers marry one another. How does that happen? Like many other relationships, dining brought them closer, and even luckier ones found their future partner.
The bonenkai (year end party) / shin-nenkai (new year party) season is coming up. If you never tried it, I would recommend giving some thoughts to join in. You could be pleasantly surprised how entertaining some of your colleagues (and even bosses) are once they step outside office!