Oh no! Here it comes again: Bonenkai season in Japan!
You’ve heard wild, unsubstantiated, stories that people in Japan like to drink? Rumors that many Japanese get drunk daily? You’ve also heard sordid tales of drunk Japanese businessmen terrorizing the streets of Tokyo at night? “Tondemonai!” (Poppy-cock) I say! I deny that completely… I haven’t had a drink for at least several hours now.
“Bonenkai” literally translates into “Forget the year party.” And the Japanese love Bonenkai. It’s a time to eat and drink until you want to explode. It is somewhat like Thanksgiving in America.
With the year-end party season to get under way soon, a very popular magazine in Japan called Nikkan Gendai issued this warning the other day:
“Women who become obnoxious while in their cups are on the increase.”
Yes, you may want to re-read that sentence again. Got it? Well, learn it, know it, live it — because it’s completely true.
I think what they are really trying to say is:
“Very drunk women can be obnoxious.” But I’m not sure. I didn’t translate this, and I haven’t seen the original text; so I’m only guessing here.
“Very drunk women can be obnoxious”!? Look who’s talking!
At Bonenkai, the people all get together with their work associates and have a huge year-end bash and eat and drink. Some of us have a ‘drinking problem’ and we drink a wee-bit too much — when we have one, well then we have to have two, then three, four, seven, twelve, sixteen — who knows? I always lose count.
I’m sitting in a room-full of strangers. I shuffle my feet and look at the floor and mumble:
“Hi! My name is Mike, and I’m an alcoholic.”
“Hello! Mike. Welcome!” They all say.
The big problem with Bonenkai is that part about drinking with ‘work associates’. That is where this entire Bonenkai business gets just a tad bit out of hand. When the Japanese say ‘work associates’ that doesn’t mean just the people you work with in your office. Oh no! That means all work associates.
Let’s say you are a salesman. Great! You have a job — you get to go to Bonenkai with the co-workers from your own office. And you also get invited to Bonenkai to several of your clients’ company parties too. If you are a typical employee of some company, you may get invited to anywhere between 3 to 10 (maybe even more!) Bonenkai parties starting about December 10th until December 28th or so… That’s a lot of drinking!
Too much drinking, if you ask me.
Drinking can be an interesting experience anywhere you go in the world. But in Japan, it can be especially interesting as there are all sorts of rules of etiquette that must be followed in order to make the drinking experience a good one for you and your guests. Unless, of course, you are like me and wind up being one of the first people ‘on the floor’ and sliding under the table like melting Jell-o. In this case, the Japanese are kind. They will always ‘let you slide’ on your manners and behavior if you are so drunk you have no ability to control any of your sensory or motor functions.
If you are a guest (the drinker) or the host (the drinkee) you must follow a strict set of rules.
In Japan, whether you are the drinkee or drinker, it is considered polite to always do these things while drinking:
First, you must absolutely never pour your own drink first. You must always pour your guests’ drinks first. And there is a proper way to pour drinks. You must never ‘backhand pour’ a drink; this is considered extremely rude — the palm of your hand has to be towards the guest for whom you are pouring — and your other hand must be held flat on the bottom of the bottle you are pouring. Never pour a drink using just one hand.
The receiver of the drink must hold their glass up in an honorable “receiving of the booze” ritual. To not hold your glass up is rude — people will think that you consider yourself a snotty-nosed king or queen or something.
This part often can lead to heated (but friendly) discussions on who pours the other person’s drink first. The drinkee (host) wants to pour for the drinker (guests) as the drinkee feels it is his or her obligation under Japanese ancient moral codes (Bushido-Edo Law section 209.1.0). But the drinker must at least feign a desire to want to pour the hosts drink first as an appreciation of being invited to the party (Zenigata Heiji Law section 112.0098). The drinkee and drinker will battle it out in a test of etiquette will until one of the two gives in to the demands of the other, and allows their drink to be poured. In this case, and especially if it is the first drink of the evening, the host (drinkee) will usually win out as a matter of custom (you wouldn’t want the host losing face and committing ‘Hari-Kiri’ at the start of the party, thereby putting a damper on the evening’s festivities).
This life and death struggle for who gets to pour the drinks, and save their families’ honor, will continue for the entire evening until either the drinker or drinkee becomes too drunk to care anymore.
Second, your guests’ drinking glass must never be empty. This is a huge faux pas in Japan and a sign that you are a manner-less, barbarian, savage — or an American (like me).
It took me years to figure this part out; that’s why I always drank too much: It wasn’t my fault.
You see, the Japanese never say, “No!” Nor do they ever say, “Yes!”
I remember years ago, when I was living in the United States and I was unfamiliar with this peculiarly Japanese way of thinking. I had a Japanese guest, named Mr. Yamada, staying at my home. Mr. Yamada could speak a very little bit of English but I couldn’t speak Japanese at all at the time, and I did not know the ways of the Japanese.
Well, every morning for about three days, I would get up and make breakfast. Mr. Yamada would be sitting in the living room wearing a suit and necktie. I would stagger into the kitchen in a tee-shirt and shorts — looking my usual disheveled self.
“Would you like breakfast, Mr. Yamada?” I’d ask in my surly ‘just-woke-up-so-don’t-bother-me’ tone of voice.
“No, thank you.” He’d smile and reply.
“Alright then, suit yourself.”
“No wonder these Japanese guys are so skinny. I thought, “They never eat.”
A few days later, my Japanese mother got mad at me and asked me why I wasn’t giving Mr. Yamada anything to eat while he was at my house. She told me that he had politely brought it up to her that he was always starving at my home.
“What? But mom! I protested, “He always says he doesn’t want to eat! What am I, a mind reader?”
My mom just told me to make food for him and put it on the table. If he doesn’t want to eat it, he doesn’t have to. If he is hungry, he’ll eat it. So I did what my mom ordered me to do. Man! Did that Yamada guy eat like a horse, or what?
Anyhow the point of this little vignette is to point out to you folks in the west how to stop drinking in Japan. You see, the Japanese think that if you say:
“No thanks. I’ve had enough to drink.” Then you are actually being polite and showing manners and reserve. They like that. So that’s why, like I said, it wasn’t my fault that I drank too much at a Bonenkai party. It was the fault of the drinkee: She or he kept filling my glass when I wasn’t looking.
I’d say, “Okay. That’s it. This is my last drink.” And I’d down my beer. Then I would look away for just a second to talk to somebody and when I looked back, my glass was full again.
“What!? Hey! Didn’t I just drink that?” I’d ask my Japanese friends who were all sitting next to me. They would act like they didn’t hear me and I’d wonder if I did or didn’t drink that last one, so I would drink it again.
Now, in this case, I was the guest — the drinker. So it was the moral duty of the modern day Japanese who all descended from the ancient Samurai (well, not actually, but it sounds cooler that way) to make sure I had a good time — so they would just keep filling my glass.
“Now look here, I’m serious you guys. Don’t pour me another drink! Really.” And I would down the next one and make small talk with someone else. I’d look back seconds later and my glass is filled again! Like I said, Japanese people don’t say “No!” or “Yes!” So they would think I’m being polite when I said, “No more” when in all actuality, I didn’t have a clue as to table mannerisms in Japan.
So this may sound strange to you in the west, but if you are in Japan, and you don’t want to drink anymore, then don’t. It’s kind of a Zen Buddhist type of thinking: When your glass is full, and remains that way, that is a sign that you are full. Get it? When you think you’ve had enough, just leave your full glass on the table and don’t touch it. The Japanese will make a few efforts to get you to drink at least one or two more. Okay, maybe. But after that, don’t fall into the trap. Leave the glass full.
In this way, and in only this way, can you stay ‘relatively’ sober and make it through the Bonenkai season and the other New Years celebrations without having a stroke, heart attack, or needing kidney dialysis.
Then you can start out the new year, fresh and invigorated: A healthy new you!
That is, until the Shinenkai (Welcome the New Year) parties with all your work associates begins on about January 10th through January 24th or so.
So, “Happy New Year!”
By the way, we do have a “Happy New Year” expression in Japan, but it is reserved for after the new year starts. The Japanese say, “Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu!” But, in my case, I think I better say it to all you folks now… Why? I have to go to at least 10 Bonenkai parties this year — I may not make it to New Years!
So, “Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu!”
Mike (in Tokyo) Rogers [send him mail] was born and raised in the USA and moved to Japan in 1984. He has worked as an independent writer, producer, and personality in the mass media for nearly 30 years.