A drinking culture that is literally workaholic.
Downtown Tokyo: A day at work typically finishes at six PM, when a full night on the streets teeters into view. White-collar workers banish their desks and the high-strung air calls for a release. The izakaya—Japanese hybrids of bar and restaurant—are what greet them with their eager webs all across the business district, snagging onto entire throngs of sweaty suits and shedded neckties. As night falls, the izakaya bloom as little squares of light along clean pavement, outbursts of neon and drunken jokes.
A typical izakaya is divided up into cubicles so that every party can have their own private space. These cubicles will vary from small family-sized spaces with four seats to large ones that can fit an entire company department, from the boss down to the newest post-grad hire. The latter is precisely where you would encounter a “drinking party,” or nomikai.
For the nomikai, izakaya strikes many chords at once: cheap alcohol with fried meats and fish combine with the secluded space to promise an atmosphere where anything can happen. The boss who is usually nothing better than a rich bully can, once drunk enough, open up about his first love many lost decades ago. Another member will, wishing to alleviate the melancholy that suddenly permeates the table, perform a poor stand-up comedy routine. Being the “butt of the joke” is an everyday occurrence at the nomikai—after all, the more absurd the night grows, the farther away it floats from the grounded dullness of the day.
Nomikai: Work that is not work
Nomikai—literally translated to “drinking event”—is a staple of Japanese corporate life. It is neither work nor non-work, but something that oscillates in between, a space that does not fit into the “work-life balance” dichotomy that has become all the rage in the international community. A Japanese style of “happy hour,” nomikai is a dinner you would go to with your co-workers at the end of a long day.
Japan is notorious for its long working hours—working in Japan, on a good day, you might get off work well after dark. Karoshi, or death caused by working too much, is a concept that materialized out of Japanese corporate culture post-WWII when the country experienced one of history’s largest economic bubbles. Overwork is a national threat that has only begun to be scrutinized within the last decade. Not only does it pose a risk to individuals in the labor force, it wears out family dynamics and local neighborhood ties as people enjoy less time to spend at home, a social disease that tears at the fabric of modern Japanese society.
Now, things have been slowly calming down, as more people are speaking up about the perils of overwork. But in the renewed emphasis of a better work-life balance, something else feels amiss. It’s the uniquely Japanese culture of nomikai, or corporate drinking parties, that seems also to be disappearing off the surface of traditional work.
Where one lets down one’s guard
In a society obsessed with economic performance, Keiko Kato explains the nomikai to be a hypothetically ideal space where employees can relax and enjoy emotional communion with the people they work with. Although nomikai is commonly seen as “unproductive” or “silly” by Japanese society, it undoubtedly supports the emotional affinity of each individual to their group, and by extension, the group’s economic performance. Nomikai is a necessary cog in the machine, but on top of that, it is an emotional outlet for those whose emotions are too often repressed in the corporate world.
Modern public discourse, however, has grown more wary of the nomikai. Where it was previously considered a silly pastime, it is becoming increasingly scrutinized on ethical grounds as something that infiltrates one’s personal life and tips their work-life balance in work’s favor. Nomikai are growing decidedly more unpopular as of recent years, more notably among female employees—concerns regarding sexual harassment and childcare expectations are, of course, abound.
On its path to obsolescence, the nomikai is increasingly being seen as a hindrance to one’s personal life rather than an addition to it. As the expectations for work-life balance grow, work and life are seen more as two separate and unrelated entities, where “work” is a mechanical chore and “life” is where human emotions take place. Understandably, many Japanese laborers no longer want their work to take up any of their personal life, including the people they work with. One’s social life consists of a much smaller circle now, restricted to family and old friends. In many ways, it reflects a modern Western approach to well-being, in which human connections at work should be kept in the office and should be abandoned promptly at six PM.
There are still many who lament the slow decline of nomikai, however. In a survey by Nippon Life Insurance Company (NISSAY), almost a half of respondents supported the tradition. I, too, am unsure if the nomikai culture must be so black-and-white that it should be entirely abolished. Rather than cutting into personal hours that should be spent with family, nomikai can be revised to fit individual needs and comfort. It can take place within work hours, for instance. They can be company-sponsored, once organizations realize the benefits of offering informal spaces of communication. There can be tighter regulations around power harassment and alcohol consumption. Building solidarity with one’s team members is not only potentially fun, but could preserve Japanese pro-social behaviors that won’t succumb without a backward glance to a modern individualistic rhetoric.