Before arriving, I had read about the enkai, the coveted Japanese office party. It was touted by many a JET as the perfect opportunity to get to know your reclusive and shy co-workers. In addition, alcohol never hurt anybody.
Throughout the month of August I tried to paint a mental picture of the celebratory affair. I saw a handful of teachers mingling on a Friday afternoon at a local bar. There was mild chitchat with the occasional interruption of thunderous laughter. Every few minutes a Japanese college student elegantly adorning shorts afraid of legs would inquire if it was time for a refill. The drunkest of all would point his fingers southward towards every cup signaling yet another round. Though, this was merely an image influenced by the American experience. Having not even a smidge of Japanese culture under my belt, I couldn’t have been, thankfully, more wrong.
One would think that parties don’t belong in the rigid working society of Japan. But in actuality, it’s the secret to their success. As the saying goes, "work as hard as you party, and party as hard as you work." And the Japanese work hard. I think part of the reason they can handle their often 12 hours a day, 7 days a week schedule is because of their ability to embrace, as opposed to shunning, alcohol. Rather than a sin, drinking in Japan is a savior.
The enkai is not a casual encounter consisting of a few co-workers going out for drinks. Instead, it is officially apart of the workplace. Often, Enkais are mandatory, well planned affairs. These parties are so important that all employees must pay monthly enkai fees. Instead of union dues paying an Italian to complain how he's not getting you a raise, teachers in Japan pony up cash for a chance to be hung-over.
At my school, each sensei pays three separate fees. I, for example, must pay a 4,000 yen ($40) school fee, a 3,000 yen ($30) English department fee, and a 2,000 yen ($20) 1-nensei (10th grade teachers) fee. In total I pay over $90 a month for the right to party. Even if I were to refrain from drinking, pay I must, for it's one for all in Japan. Though it must be said, I don't always know if I get my bang for my buck, but I could care less. I enjoy being apart of a group and whenever I do choose to attend an enkai, I can relax knowing I won't have to dip into an already depleted wallet. It depends on your workplace, but I typically average one enkai a month. In addition, sometimes the money will be used to order a special lunch during exams or field trips.
So what do these Enkais usually entail? Well first off, they all feature a tabehoudai (all-you-can-eat) and more importantly a nomihoudai (all-you-can-drink) beginning around 6:30pm and lasting for two hours.
Each enkai consists of anywhere from eight to 200 people and can range from a small sushi restaurant to an upscale hotel’s banquet hall. Strangely, the enkai is one of the rare times in Japan where there are no assigned seats. So feel free to sit where you please. Each table will be outfitted with starter foods, giant bottles of beer and if you're lucky bottles of nihonshu (sake / rice wine). Now while it is all-you-can-drink, it's typically limited to beer, sake, and/or shochu (Japan's less toxic version of vodka).
The most beautiful yet annoying part is that it's customary to pour someone else's drink. For most this equals a consistently full glass, but the gaijin (foreigner) is often forgotten. I don't know how many times I have to pour beer before some old lady comes over to relinquish the goodness into my hollow glass. Perhaps the Japanese assume impatient foreigners will pour their own beverage.
If you are to receive sake though, please always accept it holding your glass with two hands, this came straight from my 'etiquette nazi' principal. Though he looks like the kind of man who requires a robe and theme music for when he enters a room.
After a few rounds and some plates of food, it's time to play musical chairs. Out of nowhere the red-faced nihonjin will start venturing out to other corners of the gathering to strike up a chord. This is the ideal time to practice Japanese. You’ll be stunned at how the fat gym teacher who ignores you in the hallway is all of sudden asking you a variety of questions in exquisite English not to mention referring to himself as 'the fat man.’ Though my favorite part is the changing of the guard. The flurry of pale faces has now all adopted an embarrassing rosy shade of red. Often it takes just one beer to begin the transformation.
At this point it’s probably 8:30pm. While it may seem too early to end the party, one must realize that it's Wednesday. Yes, school night is a concept non-existent in Japan. Mainly because every night is a school/work night. Plus, if you're more daring, the party lives on. There is often a nijikai (2nd party) and a sanjikai (3rd party). Each usually consisting of yet another 2-hour nomihoudai. But sadly the funding for these parties must come from your pocket. Typically they will only run you $20, which isn't bad for 120 minutes of unlimited drinking.
That being said, there is no party like a Japanese work party. Long live the enkai!