Japanese Drinking Culture

Do you like to drink? Do you like Japanese culture? Do you like just one or the other? Or are you a person of culture who likes both!? If so, I have some excellent information to share with you!

Here’s an excerpt from my book on speaking Japanese, about Japan’s drinking culture.


Which (sic) paves way to another side of Nihon: Japan’s love for alcohol.

Drinking is a normal part of everyday life, which is why it’s not surprising to find a passed-out salaryman on your morning densha (train). Nihon has an intense work culture, and nomu (drinking) is one way for people to loosen up from all the stress they’ve built up from a long day at work.

But aside from drowning away the pent-up office tension, nomu also had another purpose: it’s a way for people to form connections with each other. Not only will you see colleagues nomu merrily in parks during hanami (flower-viewing), you will also see families, friends and classmates sharing a toast to boisterous laughter.

The nomu (drinking) parties aren’t just limited to seasonal cherry-blossom picnics, you’d find them in any place that offers food and alcohol.

These gatherings are called nomikai.

It’s a combination of the word Nomi (“drink”), and Kai (“party”). When you get invited to a nomikai, it means that they are asking you to have a round of drinks with everyone. I, for one, wouldn’t refuse a few glasses of ramu (rum) – besides, you’ll be surrounded by people who want to get to know you. It’s a perfect time to just chill and be yourselves – heck, you can even exchange a good joke or two with your senpai. But be sure to keep your manners in check, too!

People who happen to work in Nihon’s corporate scenes would also be familiar with another version of the drinking party, the bonenkai.

This is what they would usually call a year-end gathering, and it’s larger than the regular nomikai. I say larger because it’s usually hosted by the company itself – a kind-of official celebration with everyone. It’s a time to let go of the negativity you’ve gathered the year and look forward to a fresh start.

Bonenkai means, “the party to forget the year”. In other words: It’s time to throw away all the crap you’ve experienced. To hell with that, let’s party! Haha.

Even with all the drinking, though, it is omoshiroi (interesting) to know that etiquette is still taken into consideration. So if you find yourself sandwiched in between colleagues in a nomikai or bonenkai, knowing these might come in hand for you.

Firstly, people don’t pour nomimono (drinks) for themselves. It’s a polite gesture to pour for others instead, and wait for them to return the favor – especially when the boss is around: when out with coworkers, especially, one is expected to pour a drink for their superior. It’s not viewed as an attempt to curry favor, but as a sincere gesture for workplace harmony.

Honestly however, this doesn’t come up as often as you might think – because many nomikai take place at a bar or restaurant where the staff are very attentive about your drinks. And quite a few people order large beers instead of sake, much to my chagrin (I’m a sake fan).

Second, don’t drink until everyone’s been served. This works the same way when it comes to tabemono. It’s rude to start chugging when not everyone’s had their glass filled.

The next one isn’t as common, but – order the same drink on the first round. It’s not really a must, but it does spare the waiters a huge deal of effort, don’t you think?

So if one person orders beer, everyone orders beer. This is just being polite, and only really matters in a large group. If you’re drinking with 30 people, your fellow co-workers will appreciate the speed at which the beer is delivered as they’re not spending time making several different kinds of cocktails. Nomabeeru is the word for draft beer.

Buuut if you’re not a drinker yourself, and you worry about your gut’s tolerance – you can choose to nurse your drink as a discreet sign that that’s all you will be having. Otherwise, you can opt for a non-alcoholic beverage. No one will take that against you.

This next one goes without saying, too. Don’t drink straight from the bottle.

Okay, I know that would sound new to some of you. Most drinkers outside of Japan wouldn’t blink an eye at fellows who skip the glass and down their alcohol right away.

It’s not really a question of “table manners”, though. It has to do with the idea of “sharing”. Portion sizes are smaller in Japan, especially with liquor. Sharing is common on the table, so drinking directly from the bottle contradicts that – there won’t be much left for everyone after that swig. Besides, it’s even worse if you ARE sharing after gulping from the bottle.

Hygiene, hygiene.


I hope to see you next time I visit Japan and I hope you appreciate some of these words!

Please login to post.