“I think that I shall never hear
A poem lovelier than beer;
The stuff that the corner bar
has on tap,
With golden base and snowy cap...
The stuff that I can drink all day
Until my mem'ry melts away…”
—from “Ode to Beer”
At last, the chilly winds of winter begin to surrender to the warm and flowery blossoms of spring. Spring in Japan celebrates several major events: the graduation ceremony, school entrance ceremony, passing the school entrance exams, and the first day of work for freshmen company employees. That is why, for Japanese, spring is the beginning of a new life. When colorful blossoms start to sprout, the Japanese know that the dark cycle of winter has ended, and a new cycle of hope begins. And, where there is celebration, there is also the occasion for drinking. In Japan, celebration equals alcohol—or, as I was told.
I was not an avid drinker before coming to Japan. But as a foreign student, I learned that drinking is an important aspect of social interaction for Japanese. In the university, we were often pulled by senpais (seniors) to go out for a konpa (drinking party) to one of those local and smoky izakayas (night bar and restaurant) with private rooms—start with tall mugs of beer, a senior or sensei makes a boring speech, everyone cheers “Kampai!” then, digs into those yakitori, age dofu or edamame, while laughing, talking loudly (sometimes, singing), and just half understanding where the conversation was going. Even if you don’t drink, you’d be led to do so. Once your sensei hands you the glass of beer, it seems you just can’t refuse it. I witnessed in these konpas how Japanese pour drinks on each other’s glasses endlessly, like every five minutes, even if you haven’t finished your drink yet. And, I’m sure you’ve noticed that women are expected to serve the men. Then, they move from beer to wine, and to the finale saké, or mixing them all. They even drink wine the same way they drink beer—in gulps, instead of sips—and fill up the glass almost until the brim, instead of halfway. Then, you see them all rosy-cheeked (or rosy-eared); the once poised seiza (Japanese squat) slowly shifts to a slouch, to legs spread apart, and when they’re all burned out from all that booze, to the sleeping position.
When I started to work in a Japanese company, the konpa became the nomikai. Basically, they are both the same, except that, the smart business suit replaces the rugged student’s attire, and the leather portfolio replaces the backpack. But, it is the same endless pouring of drinks (and also the women being expected to do that “duty”), the same red faces, the same loud laughter, slouching, and sleeping. A nomikai can be organized for any reason: welcoming a freshman, sending off a retiree, congratulating an engaged couple, celebrating a successful project, and so on. Then, when the izakaya gives you the warning of the last order (usually around 9 or 10 p.m.), the group will suggest a nijikai (second venue), which can easily turn into a sanjikai (third venue), and so on, until the favorite stop at a karaoke, as though the night will never end. Actually, sometimes, it really never does. Some Japanese like to make a final stop at a small ramen house or the yatai (mobile eating stall, usually serving ramen or oden) where they can enjoy their final gulp of shochu.
To foreigners, Japanese are known for doing business negotiations over drinks. Going out to drinks after office is as normal as buying your daily newspaper. Bars are extended office annexes. Even I, myself, had been pulled to such kind of “office annexes” where you can see clients and your colleagues showing off their worst behaviors. Then, the most horrific part of this drinking culture is the night train ride going home. Any time between 7 pm to midnight (or after), night trains will be packed with red-faced Japanese salary men (and salary women) smelling like rotten alcohol—the kind of fume that wasn’t inhaled properly and pumps out from within their intestines to their breath, their noses, their sweat, and the fabric of their suits. Ughh! Totally disgusting! These red-faced and red-eyed predators will either be babbling loudly to their companions, the stranger seated next to them, or worse, to themselves. Some of the males may harass you (if you’re a woman), puke on the floor (or puke at you), piss unconsciously (I’ve witnessed one pissing on the train tracks), or just go to sleep (yes, standing up, too), dropping their heads on your shoulders now and then, or just fart the night away! Imagine this scenario in a jam-packed train in the peak of summer! That’s right, a late night train ride in Japan can be your worst Japanese culture nightmare.
What bothers me about the drinking culture here is why and how the Japanese almost force you to drink even if you say “no.” It has happened to me, not only during the konpa or nomikai but also in home parties. Refusing a drink can be taken as impolite, unsociable, ill mannered, disrespectful (especially if the one offering you the glass is a higher-ranking or older person), or simply boring. A Japanese man once told me that, to have fun is to drink. Well...shall I rest my case? And, it is not only the over 20-year olds that you see drinking but also teenagers, which is causing a big problem in Japanese society.
Why do Japanese drink a lot? While some may think that they just want to have fun, many drink, in fact, to relieve stress: from hard work, frustration in the office or at home, marital friction, or any kind of personal reason. After all, it is said that Japanese started drinking since the 3rd century. And, saké was an important ingredient in all ceremonies during those days.
With spring just around the corner, Japanese will be flocking the parks for hanami. And, hanami is no hanami without beer, wine, or saké. Kaya, maghanda. The hanami is just a sophisticated version of the konpa and the nomikai, beautified by the sakura blossoms around you. But, just the same, you will find the same red faces, slouching, sleeping or pissing positions amidst loud laughter and singing. For Japanese, this is the occasion to be excused for displaying your worst behavior, like finding a niche where they can turn wild and shed off the inhibitions and frustrations they have kept for so long in their offices and homes. Come to think of it, this article is making me drunk…hic, hic…oops, I forgot my “vomit bag…”
Have a merry spring holiday!