What is the meaning of “Nomikai” in Japanese?

Alcohol is one of the most effective social lubricants and this holds true in professional situations and relationships, too. Nowadays, “Nomikai [Drinking Party]” are held anytime and anywhere, including online or at someone’s home. A typical nomikai venue, however, is an Izakaya (Japanese-style pub).

If you come to Japan, you will invite some Nomikai from your friends, colleagues, clients, or suppliers at some point. Nomikai is an intrinsic part of the work-life in Japan, used within and between companies, schools, and governments for this reason and many more.

Most people in Japan attend “Nomikai” and can attest to the value-added to their professional life in this extracurricular form of bonding with coworkers. This provides a basic overview of Japan’s “Nomikai” drinking culture!!

1. What is the meaning of “Nomikai” in Japanese?

“Nomikai” is a drinking party and usually a group of friends, but often co-workers too. It’s often meant to “Improve communications” amongst co-workers. But many feel burdened and obliged to attend.

To the Japanese, “Nomikai” is an informal session for coworkers and friends to bond in a relaxed environment. After drinking, people are generally less reserved, and this encourages even the shyest of the crowd to become more sociable. More common in the workplace setting, nomikai thus aims to promote relationship-building among coworkers and particularly among bosses and employees.

Also “Nomikai” is held among members of the same team or department. Attendance is voluntary, but depending on the occasion, showing up might be strongly recommended. Typically, the event will last 2-3 hours and often come with a “Nomihodai (飲み放題, all-you-can-drink plan)” and a set menu of dishes that everyone can share. The cost of all this fun is typically around 3500-4000 yen per person.

“Nomikai” is a chance to bond with your colleagues, talk about things other than work, and after the first couple of glasses, witness how everyone becomes more open, saying their opinion in a straightforward manner that might surprise you.

2. Japanese Drinking Culture

Many Japanese feel that after-work drinking parties are an important way to enhance relationships. As people need to switch between “Honne” [Real Intention] and “Tatemae” [Non-real Intention] every day, spending some casual time with co-workers will surely be helpful in understanding each other. There is even a word, nomination (combined word of 飲む/Drink and Communication), which is a way to build good relationships with colleagues and bosses by drinking together.

When lifetime employment was the standard in Japan, workers would say “You have to do Nomination if you want to work your way up the corporate ladder”. Many older generations worked and established relationships this way. However, the time is changing. The economy is unstable and career changes are more common and it’s easier to accommodate the needs of individuals now. The work environment is a lot more flexible than it used to be, and younger generations are more focused on their life and prefer spending less time with colleagues. Still, a lot of people find that drinking and dining with teammates and bosses casually are important to develop closer relationships to build trust and share ideas and concerns about work and life.

In a collectivist society like Japan, it’s important for the individual to feel connected and committed to the group, and vice versa. In Japanese work style that have specific rules such as being seated immediately when arriving at the office and keeping small talk with other employees to an absolute minimum, so it is the time spent together outside of the office that helps bring company employees closer together, which is what makes “Nomikai” so important.

While attending a drinking party is not explicitly mandatory, it is understood that is usually in your best interest to attend for forming stronger bonds if you work in a Japanese office, or for closing the deal when doing international business with a Japanese company.

3. Rules and Manners for Enjoying a Japanese “Nomikai”

The party is usually held at “Izakaya”. “Izakaya” is a kind of bar-restaurant that serves alcoholic beverages such as beer and sake and light meals called “Otsumami”.

1. Seating

“Nomikai” typically takes place in private rooms of restaurants and there will be an implicit seating order. It is hierarchical and the logic is the same as in meeting rooms. The boss will sit on the far end of the table, on the side furthest away from the door. The second-ranking participant will sit across from him, the third will sit next to the boss, the fourth across from the third, and so on.

As a newcomer, you will want to get a seat close to the door. (It’s quite convenient if you need to excuse yourself for a bit for any reason.)

2. Opening

When everyone and their glasses are assembled, the boss will give a speech to get the event started. Often you will see people already holding on to their glasses, eagerly awaiting the end of the speech. Keep that in mind if it is ever your turn to speak and maybe try to go for something short and engaging.

3. Ordering

Once you sit down at your venue, your group will order drinks. If you’re at an izakaya, the waiter will come to you and ask everyone for their beverage order.

The classic starting drink for Nomikai is draft beer “Namabi-ru(生ビール)”. The phrase “Toriaezu Nama” (とりあえず生) is what people often say when discussing their first beverage order. After everyone has gotten their beverage, it will be time to say cheers and kanpai to the end of the year, the end of the week, or the end of the day. Of course, you can order something different if you want.

If it is your first “Nomikai”, or if you are invited after a job fair as a foreigner and basically enjoy the guest treatment, you don’t have to worry about taking anyone’s orders. You can show your consideration by keeping in mind the following points.

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4. Kanpai!

Different cultures and languages have different customs for starting to drink, such as “Cheers” in English, “Santé” in French.

After the final words of the speech subside, everyone rises for the communal Kampai. In Japan, you don’t pour your first drink yourself. It’s important to wait for someone to fill the glass. Then wait until everyone has a drink and start drinking with the “Cheers!” before putting your mouth in the glass. You want to make sure that when clinking glasses, the rim of your glass is slightly lower than of your superiors. These trivial manners are the first step in building a better relationship as a respect for the other person. After taking a sip, put the glass down to get your hands free for a round of applause. After the official start of the party, go ahead and drink at your own pace.

5. Eating

Before the kanpai, nobody will touch any of the food on the table. Even after having the first drink, you will see people be reluctant and wait for the boss to start eating, before joining in.

One thing you can do is to offer to fill up the plates of your co-workers, maybe start distributing the salad. If you do, make sure everyone gets a fair share of the toppings. If one poor guy is only left with green leaves while the one next to him is enjoying his with tomato and shrimp, you might have dampened his mood even though he won’t say anything.

6. Drinking

6.1 Rule in Nomikai

The most important rule at nomikai is to refill the glasses of people around you. Even if you forget everything else, remember this one and you will have a solid foundation. It is customary to pour each other’s drinks in Japan. Usually, the lower-ranking person does most of the pouring, subordinates for their bosses, traditionally also wives for their husbands, etc. It shows respect by doing something nice to one another.

6.2 Manner when Pouring

When you notice that your neighbor’s glass’ contents are dwindling offer to order or pour them another drink. Refilling someone’s drink is called “Oshaku (御酌)” in Japanese. You can simply say “Ikagadesuka? (いかがですか)” while pointing at glass or bottle. When you pour, place your left hand at the top of the bottle, your right hand at its bottom for support, and make sure that the label of the bottle faces upwards.

7. Refilling a glass of Beer.

7.1 When Receiving

When someone pours you a drink, hold your glass with both hands one at the side, one at the bottom of the glass. It’s not nice to leave it on the table while someone else is doing you a favor. Make sure to convey your appreciation with an ”Arigatougozaimasu ありがとうございます” or “Itadakimasu いただきます

7.2 When Declining

You had too much already or just don’t want to drink alcohol? It is perfectly fine to decline a drink and switch to soft drinks. When someone is taking orders or asking you for your preference just tell them honestly what you would like to drink.

8. Engaging

“Nomikai” are the Japanese safe space to let go of the usual rules, with many taking this opportunity to speak up more frankly, joke or criticize in ways that didn’t seem possible during office hours. Whether it is with the person next to you, in a small group, or across the whole table, it’s time to dive in, enjoy the event, and get to know the other participants better.

Don’t get too drunk.

Don’t get too casual.

Don’t reveal too much

Don’t badmouth or gossip of other people.

Don’t look bored.

Try to stay aware and be mindful of the others’ reactions towards you, this is the fastest way to get a feel for what’s okay and what’s not in the group.

9. Paying

“Nomikai” where the boss is paying the whole bill surely have received some attention, but it would be dangerous to take this for granted. Assume you must pay your share, if you end up paying less or nothing, count yourself lucky. One person will be responsible for the payment and collection of the money. If there is no announcement at the end of the event, approach them directly to find out about the cost of your share.

Almost unheard of in Japan, even when drinking among friends, is everyone paying only their own stuff. Food often is shared anyway, and since it’s a communal event it’s common to split the bill equally. This practice is called “Warikan割り勘 (わりかん)”.

10. Hands-Clapping

At the closing of the event, again someone might say a few words, thanking everyone for their participation, saying something about what’s next at work, and so on. This whole event is often closed with a ceremonial clap. While the idea of a clapping ritual might seem funny at first, in Japan it is used to signify the good ending of something.

There are multiple versions of it, varying in formality and by region, but there is one that is widely spread across all of Japan, the single clap “Ippon-Jime一本締め (いっぽんじめ)”. Standing with their hands held high, silently, waiting on someone’s sign so that everyone will clap their hands once at the same time. After a split-second of silence, the serene atmosphere of the moment still lingering, will be taken over by tumultuous thank yous, good-byes.

11. Nijikai

At the end of the event, someone may start inviting to a “Nijikai二次会”, the afterparty. The after party so to speak. Participation is voluntary, and member numbers will dwindle. This is the time for karaoke, girls’ bars, and other entertaining venues.

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Great Tips you need to know in Drinking

As with many customs in Japan, there are rules and expectations within Japanese drinking culture as well. As with many things in Japan or indeed when traveling in any country. Here is some tips you need to make sure. Please check it out!

Don’t pour your own drink

When out in a party, always pour for others around you and then wait for them to return the favour and pour your drink for you. While there is no hierarchy with friends, when out with coworkers it is expected that you would pour a drink for your boss.

Don’t drink before everyone has been served

Similarly, to the expectation that you wouldn’t start your meal until everyone has been served, it’s the same with drinks. Make sure everyone has something in their glass before swigging back your highball.

Order the same on the first round

Not as common as the others, but it does make the waiters like much easier. People often order the same drink for the first round of orders and it’s often beer. We guarantee you won’t regret this when it’s the height of summer.

Don’t drink from the bottle

An important one to remember particularly for those from the UK, US, or Australia. As you know portion sizes are different in Japan, especially for beer, and sharing is very common with both food and drink. Drinking directly from the bottle doesn’t really fit the sharing culture even if it’s just for you. If you are sharing, it’s even worse and not very sanitary.

Kanpai!

Everywhere you travel in the world, you are likely to toast before you drink, and Japan is no different. Before you take that first refreshing sip, remember to Kanpai! [かんぱい], as youclink your glasses with your friends and colleagues. Don’t be afraid to stand up and reach over to make sure you reach everyone. Sometimes people like to drop in their own local saying for Kanpai or cheers.

How was it? There are some rules and Etiquette in Japanese “Nomikai”, but please do not take so seriously, if you have never been to “Nomikai”, you should go there, and experience a lot of things. First, Let’s go out and join some “Nomikai”! I’m sure everyone is kind to welcome and talk with you. You make a lot of friends and a nice moment in “Nomikai”! Enjoy yourself!

Summarize

  • “Nomikai” are a chance to bond with your colleagues, talk about things other than work, the Japanese safe space to let go of the usual rules, with many taking this opportunity to speak up more frankly, joke or criticize in ways that didn’t seem possible during office hours.
  • While attending a “Nomikai” is not explicitly mandatory, it is understood that is usually in your best interest to attend for forming stronger bonds
  • It is customary to pour each other’s drinks in Japan. Usually, the lower ranking person doing most of the pouring, subordinates for their bosses, traditionally also wives for their husbands, etc. It shows respect by doing something nice for one another.
  • When clinking glasses, the rim of your glass is slightly lower than of your superiors. These trivial manners are the first step in building a better relationship as a respect for the other person.
  • Before the kanpai, nobody will touch any of the food on the table.
  • First, Let’s go out and join some “Nomikai” and experience a lot of Japanese cultures!
About Yuri Sensei 25 Articles
I am Yuri. I have worked for several companies, involved in assisting foreigners and teaching Japanese. I have also worked in Vietnam, teaching Japanese. I would like to help students abroad and teach Japanese culture. My hobbies are traveling abroad and sports, like tennis. Following excitement and discovering new things inspires me a lot. My joy in life is to help people overseas so that I can pass on the charm of Japanese culture.