Kanpai to serious business in Japan

Communicating with colleagues, business partners and especially the boss is crucial for doing business in Japan, and drinking outside of the workplace is regarded as a very important mode of communication. If you’re planning a business trip to Tokyo, here the lowdown on Japanese drinking culture to take heed.

Drinking on the job

In Japan, after-work drinks are often held to welcome a new recruit, or to ‘bid farewell’ to a colleague who is transferred to a different department. Drinking sessions are also scheduled for end-of-year and New Year celebrations, among many other occasions. They are often held on the weekends, but can also take place on a weekday evening. Technically, after-work drinks are optional, although refusing an invitation to a session may cause one to be labelled as "anti-social", depending on the company culture.

From the office to the bar

As soon as the sun goes down on a weekday or a weekend, ‘salarymen’ – a term the Japanese use to denote office workers – fill up the bars in the city. Salarymen are serious businessmen by day, but even more serious bar-room drinkers by night. There are tens of thousands of bars in Tokyo city alone, and they are all well stocked with plenty to eat and drink. The legal drinking age in Japan starts from 20 years old, thus Japanese bars only sell soft drinks to minors.

Don't be late

Regardless of whether your bosses are there or not, you need to get yourself to the bar at least 10 to 15 minutes before the arranged time. If you can't make it on time, make sure you contact whoever is organising the drinking session as soon as you realise you're going to be running late.

Watch where you sit

Seating is based on a person’s position in the Japanese company, and there are some very important rules to remember. Usually, bosses take the ‘upper seats’ farthest from the door, while the newest or most junior employees settle closest to the door in the 'lower seats'. Be careful too where you stand in the elevator to the bar. The newest employees stand at the front, near the button panel, but without turning their backs on the bosses who stand right at the back.

Bottoms up!

Be sure to hold your glass slightly lower than that of someone senior when you clank your drinks. Never touch your glass before your boss does. If you don't drink alcohol and somebody offers a toast to you, just let the rim of the glass touch your lips. If you see your boss’s glass start to empty, ask if he would like a refill (rifiru o shitai to omoimasu ka?) or something else to drink (nanika nomimasu ka?). And don’t forget to hold the bottle with both hands when you fill your boss’s glass.

Taking care of the bill

The method of settling a bill varies from company to company. Usually you would have paid a set amount before you start drinking, but splitting the bill or even having the boss pick up the tab is possible too. At any rate, it is best to ask the organiser about the cost (ikura desu ka?) to show him that you are more than happy to hand over some of your hard-earned yen.

The next day

At the end of the drinking session, you will make a good impression if you thank the organiser, and let him know that you had a good time (tanoshikatta desu). If you can’t thank him on the spot, do so when you see him at work next (senjitsu wa arigato gozaimashita), or drop him a quick email of appreciation.

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