Surviving the Enkai: How to Prepare for Japanese Drinking Culture at Work
By Alfie Blincowe
On September 13, 2018
Although it might go against many people’s image of the stern, no-nonsense Japanese work environment, going out and drinking with colleagues is a big part of Japanese culture.
Whether you work in an office or teach in a classroom, enkai, or work parties, are a Japanese custom for blowing off steam and showing team spirit. You might be familiar with nomikai, a Japanese drinking party that is just for fun, but enkai have a few more rules. There will be food and drink and a more relaxed atmosphere but it is still an extension of work.It’s a practice that a lot of foreigners are not prepared for when they arrive. These events are similar to Western work parties — a chance for everyone to be more relaxed outside the constraints of the office — but the whole concept is steeped in traditional Japanese ideals and values.
I am not a big drinker. When I go out, it’s because I want to have a chat. Very rarely is it because I fancy a pint, but I still do make the effort to go out. I’ve met people in Japan who despise drinking and refuse to go to enkai but these people are actually making life a lot harder for themselves.
Why you should go
As well as bonding with your team, it can also be an opportunity for networking.
Some workers drink their way up the corporate ladder. Impressing a boss at the enkai can lead to impressing them in the office. Unfortunately, if you don’t attend these parties it can have the opposite effect. I’ve known people who were seen as outsiders to the group just because they wouldn’t go out drinking. If you turn down an invitation and use a mundane excuse like “I’m washing my hair,” your teammates will probably feel disrespected. You need to deflect them with a good excuse like a family emergency or medical issue but be aware that you can only use so many excuses before your colleagues may become annoyed. If there is no bonding at the bar — there is no bonding at the office.
What should I do at the enkai?
Enkai are your chance to make a deeper connection with your colleagues and to be truly accepted as part of the team. If you join in properly, you might find these nights are the best part of your job — but you do have to be careful not to offend anyone.
When you are still new, coworkers might be excited to see if you act differently in this type of situation. Try to communicate early on if you don’t drink alcohol or have a low tolerance, that way people be won’t pressure you into drinking something you don’t want to drink. I made the mistake of telling people I had a high alcohol tolerance that they seemed to think meant I could drink my own body weight in sake.
A big part of the enkai is the pouring of drinks. Find someone who you’d like to thank for all their hard work and pour them a drink, it shows that you value them. Don’t pour yourself a drink as it can be seen as rude and wait until everybody’s glass is full so that you can all toast together before starting. At more traditional workplaces, everyone will be filling up the boss’s glass but a more modern leader might fill up the glasses of their employees. When in doubt just copy someone else.
Depending on how serious the party is, you might have to listen to long speeches from colleagues or just a short thank you to the staff. While this is happening, make sure to concentrate on the speaker and wait for them to finish before you start talking or drinking. Raise your glass with everyone else at the end of the toast, and as you do so, shout: “Kanpai!” Make sure your superiors glass is slightly higher than yours to show respect. This might not be the only toast of the night. Be ready to kanpai a few times before it’s over.
Enkai are your chance to make a deeper connection with your colleagues and to be truly accepted as part of the team.
If you want to make the most of the evening, keep emptying your glass and someone will find a way to fill it. Don’t refuse a drink. If you don’t want to drink so much just show people that your glass is already full. It doesn’t have to be full of alcohol just so long as you have something with which to toast.
Bottles will probably be ordered for the table. Most of them will be around your boss or the host of the party. That’s the place to sit if you’re looking for constant refills. Alternatively, you can slip away to a quieter corner. The further you are from the boss, the less likely you are to get a refill.
Drinking parties usually involve plenty of eating, as well. Large orders of food to share at izakaya (Japanese pub) are the norm. Here, the food is offered around just like drinks. You should try and eat everything you’re offered but real party animals know to save room as there is more food to come.
Be ready to pay. Some enkai might require everybody to chip in beforehand, especially if it is a large group. It is very rare that your boss won’t want to cover the whole bill themselves. Politely offer to pay for your own food but don’t force the issue as it can be seen as being ungrateful. Make sure you do, though, because not offering to pay at all can also be seen as taking your boss’s kindness for granted. You have to walk a fine line.
When to leave
Usually people will start leaving around 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. — quite early compared to some Western nights out, but pretty normal for Japan. The more introverted people have put their time in and can leave now but for the more adventurous this is just the end of one party and the start of another.
Hosts regularly invite the remaining few to a nijikai, or after party. Here is where the night can get wild. You might end up at a nightclub or even a hostess bar where your coworkers will spill their innermost secrets. Whatever happens, it always ends with a bowl of ramen.
Types of enkai
While this is a rough guide of what to do at enkai in general, there are many different types, all subtly different. Here is a crash course.
- Nomikai (weekday): Everybody has work the next day and being sluggish from a hangover is frowned upon. Probably no nijikai after one of these.
- Nomikai (weekend): More intense. A chance for you and coworkers to get very drunk and reveal your true selves. Most definitely a nijikai (or two) afterward.
- Bounenkai (year-end party): The end-of-year party is the biggest of them all. People might raise issues with you or tell you the raw truth, but you’ve got to get this all out in the open so it can be dealt with and next year can start with a clean slate.
- Christmas party: Obviously not a Japanese tradition and a lot less of a big deal than in the West. This will probably be a quieter party, likely in the office/workplace with a small nijikai after.
- Shinenkai (New Year’s party): Everybody comes back from the holidays ready to do their best for another year. This is the best time to network and to impress the higher ups.
- Kangeikai (welcome party): A way to make people feel welcome. Usually not too much drinking and more talking as everyone wants to get to know the new employees.
- Soubetsukai (leaving party): A chance to say goodbye. There might be goodbye speeches and small gifts going around. Try and go in on a group gift or ask for recommendations of what to buy if you are close to the person leaving.
- Kansoukangeikai (end of season party): Similar to the bounenkai, this is about turning over a new leaf and people might suggest company changes going forward.
- Joshikai (women-only party). More about food and talking than drinking. Because the men are excluded, it is a lot more social and less about work. Staff might act very differently without any men around.
How to recover the next day
Photo by Jeff W. Richards
After all this drinking you’ll need some hangover protection, especially for those weekday parties.
Obviously there are the sports drinks like Pocari Sweat, but a small and more potent antidote are the ukon (turmeric) drinks. These little liver revitalizers come in small bottles, usually gold, and are full of vitamins to help get your electrolytes recharged for the next day. You can also get them in pill or powdered form. Make sure to drink one of these and a bottle of water before you start on the sake. They can also be effective if taken after drinking. Japanese salarymen swear by them.
Drinking — especially those outings tied to work — is a large part of Japanese culture. If you’re working in Japan, it’s a good idea to drink with your coworkers at least some of the time or if you are a teetotaler, to be around (or at least be seen around) while they drink. It can be a lot of fun, whether you’re imbibing or not, and if you get in the spirit it will surely lead to some unforgeable experiences.
Do you enjoy work-related drinking parties? Are you a non-drinker with some tips and advice for handling these situations at your place of employment? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!