Alcohol is a large part of business culture in Japan. Drinking occurs at events called nomikai, which translates to drinking parties. Business partners, colleagues and bosses in Japan use these social events as a way to bond and build stronger relationships. Drinking allows people to express their true feelings and convey difficult news more easily. These nomikai tend to be where business deals are discussed and promotions are given, so it is important to attend them even though they are not mandatory. Japanese alcohol etiquette differs from other countries, so you should be aware of some important dos and don’ts before going drinking with your coworkers in Japan.
Wait until everyone has a drink
When drinking with coworkers, it is proper Japanese business etiquette to wait until everyone has a drink before taking your first sip. This is considered polite, and you should also order a drink that is simple to make so your coworkers don’t have to wait for you to start drinking. When everyone has their drinks, they will usually raise their glass and say “kampai!” which translates to cheers.
Follow proper etiquette for pouring drinks
Another thing to consider is pouring drinks. When pouring drinks, it is polite to pour everyone else’s drinks first in order of seniority. Typically one of your junior level coworkers will pour drinks for everyone, but if you are responsible for pouring the drinks, expect one of your coworkers to offer to pour yours in return because it can be seen as impolite to pour your own. Keeping drinks filled is another important aspect of business etiquette in Japan. If your coworkers offer to refill your drink, you should return the favor if you notice that theirs are low.
Feel free to get drunk, but know your limits
How much you drink is another element to keep in mind. Although you might think that you should restrain yourself because of the business setting, it is common for people to drink a lot at nomikai and many of your coworkers might finish the night quite drunk. This is normal, and considered part of the culture of loosening up. However, you should know your own limits and turn down drinks when you feel like you need to stop. Japanese people may act differently when drunk than what you would expect from Americans. When Japanese businesspeople get drunk, they are typically fun and easy-going, and at their most extreme they are tired and may even fall asleep. Getting drunk to the point of being sick or getting in fights is not acceptable in Japanese business etiquette.
It’s back to business the following day
The last element of business etiquette when drinking in Japan is to not discuss that night’s activities the next day. Although everyone may have been very open during the nomikai, it is back to business as usual the next day at the office, and you should not talk about the previous night in too much detail.
As a newcomer to Japan, it’s helpful to understand Japanese business etiquette before going out with your coworkers for drinks. These guidelines can help you navigate your first time drinking with coworkers in Japan, but don’t feel too nervous. Your coworkers probably won’t expect you to understand all of their drinking customs immediately and will be willing to show you the ropes. Ultimately, you’re all there to have a good time and get to know each other, so as long as you use your common sense and keep these etiquette tips in mind, you should have a good first nomikai!