Why Drinking With Coworkers Is So Important In Japanese Work Culture

On November 14, 2015

Photo by koharuteisyoku

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!


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  • Samurai Slut says:

    I love drinking with my coworkers in Tokyo. Most are closeted gays, and it turns into a sexual disneyland for me once the boss leaves. We get the old guy drunk, send him home, and then all head out to private karaoke rooms. I’ve been working with this company for 3 years now and love it. Gay heaven!

  • primalxconvoy says:

    I haven’t met one single Japanese person, other than the owner/president/etc that actually wanted to be at a work party.

    The Japanese get many things wrong, and “enjoying yourself at a (work) party” is definitely one of them.

  • kayumochi says:

    I worked with plenty of younger Japanese men who did not enjoy drinking with co-workers and got out of it as often as they could. Likewise they avoided company ski trips, etc. These are the courageous salarymen. The sheep just go and drink. In a generation or less this custom will look antiquated to Japanese.

  • JohnMark Uwagbae says:

    This is really wonderful to know. I’ve always heard that eating and drinking with your co-workers was important and I always understood the slight reason why, but this brings up some good points. I think this would be something we could benefit from in the US.

  • Nos_Da says:

    “It can be useful to understand who your coworkers are, their typical mindset when they are relaxed and outside of the office”

    A drinking party is not the place you’ll find your coworkers in a relaxed state. They are probably just as stressed (if not more) as they are in work. While there is drink, they are stuck in close proximity to their bosses and have to be ‘on’ all night.

    While there are some good points here, I have found that the issue isn’t that people don’t want to grab a drink and food with their co-workers after work; the issue is that people don’t want to do it all the time, and especially not to feel like it is something they are expected to do. I don’t know a single person who would say that joining the end-of-year party or some other event had some truely awful impact on their lives, but I know more than a few people who have had to give up family time and other such things regularly because they were expected to join all of the drinking parties when they are held.

    This topic came up with a guy I know. He told me that he went to a doctor because he was having back pain, so the doctor ran tests and suspected that it was because of his liver. The doctor told him that he couldn’t drink alcohol for a few weeks until they ran some more tests, so he
    relayed the information to his boss. He was expecting to still be requried to attend, but his boss told him to take it easy for a while. It was the best few weeks he had in years because he wasn’t required to attend the drinking parties and could spend more time with his wife. A few weeks later he got his results back, and to no-one’s surprise it turns out that it was because of the amount of alcohol he had been consuming. The doctor told him he was OK but that if he continued with that lifestyle it would catch up to him soon. The doctor also told him to cut his drinking down greatly, and to take better care of himself. He told his boss everything the doctors had said, and as a celebration for his clean bill of health his boss took him to an izakaya that same night and lined up shots for him to drink. 1 for every nomikai he missed. And, like a fool, he did them all because that is what was expected of him. I felt bad for the guy when he was telling about this because he was joking about how absurd it was, but every now and then he sad and desperate look would cross his face.

    I have another anecdote about this too. I used to each company English classes, and I was talking to a staff member at one company about the existent of flexible working times in Japan. He told me that his company used to do it, so the people who stayed late at the company could then come in later the next day to make up for it. This was axed pretty soon into its implementation though. There were a few reasons; the offices were empty in the mornings because most people stayed late like they usually did, which made the company look bad; and it was harder to ‘encourage’ the staff to work OT when they weren’t coming in until later in the mornings anyway. The ultimate reason though, and the one that finally ended the flexi-time system was when the CEO wanted to have a nomikai but because so many of the staff were only about 8 hours into their shifts by the time he was leaving, there were few people who could join him, which he deemed to be the biggest offence of them all.

    These may be extreme cases, but I would guess cases like these or close to these aren’t hard to find if you talk to some people earnestly, and to be honest, I rarely hear people sing the praises of Japan’s drinking culture like this piece does. Of course there are benefits to getting to know your co-workers, but there are so many other better ways to achieve that without having to get black out drunk a few nights a week with your co-workers.

    • Anen Fairy-chan says:

      I agree with this, I have friends in japan and they absolutely loathe this practice. Its nothing but stress, stress, stress. all they want to do is go home and rest, relax, play with their friends who DON’T remind them of work. This practice is not liked by all, for sure.

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