Today’s long delayed topic is drinking. I wanted to write about this earlier, but found that I needed to do some important field research first. Drinking is a popular leisure activity in Japan, and one that people are fairly open and excited about. The attitudes are completely different from western countries in some ways.
Work is very busy in Japan. Salarymen, as they are known, are regularly expected to work beyond the standard 8 hour day. Some Japanese take a samurai like pride in the fact that they work 12 or 14 hours a day. Leaving the office after 8 hours is simply not the Japanese way. Working insane hours is naturally stressful, and the preferred stress relief is usually heading out for a few drinks.
Where to get your drink on
In Canada you can only buy alcohol in liquor stores, bars, beer vendors or restaurants, but you can’t drink in public. In Japan you can buy and drink alcohol almost everywhere. Alcohol can be purchased at convenience stores, supermarkets, and my personal favourite – from alcohol vending machines. Japan has a huge selection of drinking establishments to suit every taste. The best option for visitors is the izakaya, which is a Japanese style pub. Izakayas serve a variety of different drinks and have a good selection of small orders of pub food. You really haven’t truly experienced a trip to Japan without a visit to an izakaya. Big chains like Wara Wara and Watami are pretty foreigner friendly with bilingual menus and pictures of all the food.
In my limited time in Japan, I have learned the following about drinking etiquette. First, you should never fill your own glass, and you should never let your drinking companion’s glass sit empty if there is something that can be poured into it. Cheers is “kanpai” which means “empty glass”. Telling someone to chug their drink is “ikki ikki”, which should not be confused under any circumstances with “iku iku”.
One of the main differences I have observed with drinking in Japan is the frequency and vigor that it is done. It is not uncommon at all to see drunk businessmen, arms linked, stumbling to the train in the evening. Every evening. In every train station. When it is time for drinking, one or two just aren’t enough. You have to approach it with the same enthusiasm that you take to your 14 hour work day. Over serving and over consumption are concepts that don’t exist. Heading to work with a hangover is common for many people. Missing the last train because of drinking is a rite of passage for new English teachers. Even the karaoke room that you will inevitably end up in after the bar serves drinks. Students frequently boast about how much they love to drink, and how much they drank the night before. It is a badge of honour with almost no shame attached. Beware – outdrinking a foreigner is a point of pride.
Some readers may be thinking that the description above sounds a bit excessive. However, in addition to being fun, drinking serves two very important purposes. The first is stress relief after too much work. Working insane hours without an outlet is a recipe for karoshi (death from overwork). The second is “nominication”, a word formed from “nomi”, the Japanese verb to drink, and “nication” from communication. Strict standards of etiquette prevent employees from speaking their mind to their superiors. Harmony must be maintained at all costs. If you have a great idea that could save the company, you need to bring it through the proper channels and get consensus at all stages. The only place you can truly and openly speak your mind to superiors is while you are drinking. Some of the most important business conversations in the country happen over drinks at the izakaya.
Despite the liberal attitudes towards drinking in Japan, drinking and driving is taken very seriously. I thought that Canada’s drunk driving laws were strict. In most places, a blood alcohol level above .05 will get your car impounded, and over .08 will cause you to lose your license for a period of time. In Japan, the penalties start when your blood alcohol level is above zero. That’s right, ANY alcohol in your blood means losing your license for a nice long time. It may make the trains a little unpleasant at times, but keeps the roads safe. (Well, as safe as Japanese roads get…)
The information above is based entirely on my personal experience and conversations with students and teachers. I strongly suggest doing your own personal research. If seeing is believing, seeing double must be believing twice as hard, right?