A night out with Japanese Salarymen

How To: Amy McKeever explains how to navigate an epic night of beer, yakitori and “nomunication”

Photo by MJTR via Flickr (Creative Commons)

The situation: You’ve landed in Tokyo for business and quickly discover that the deal you had planned to seal is far from complete. You can’t go home empty-handed, so you need to charm your Japanese counterparts into an agreement. The answer is at the bottom of your glass.

The backstory: Sake culture is part of Japan’s national identity, as much as samurai warriors, cherry blossoms and futuristic gizmos. Drinking with coworkers and clients is often part of the job in a Japanese company, and most employees spend many weeknights downtown doing just that. Though this usually means their families eat dinner without them, salarymen’s behavior is accepted in Japanese culture.

Verbal communication presents significant challenges for an introverted culture, so many Japanese use drinking to forge connections—as captured by the phrase “nomunication,” stemming from the Japanese verb nomu (“to drink”). A bit of social lubricant goes a long way to building confidences. Japanese journalists are expected to woo their sources over drinks, knowing that no worthy scoop is ever won during the daytime. Same goes for business, where important deals are made over private dinners.

The etiquette: If your boss or business counterpart invites you out for a drink, accept with gusto. A declined invitation from an employee is often considered an insult. So, out of respect for his or her authority, join your business partner for a beer.

Upon arrival, look for cues on where to sit. The Japanese love pampering guests and often will insist on their VIPs taking the best seat, which is usually the one closest to a wall.

It’s also considered polite to pour for your neighbor in Japan. So if the person sitting next to you orders a beer, be sure to grab the bottle and pour the brew into his or her frosted glass.

You may not always want to take your boss up on a night out after work, but here’s some incentive: The last rule of Japanese business drinking etiquette is that your superior or the party courting you always pays. Enjoy!

Why you shouldn’t order: Blend in with your Japanese counterparts by allowing your host to order for you. Beer is the Japanese salaryman’s drink of choice. Kirin, Sapporo and Asahi are some of the top brands that you’ll find on any bar menu. Another option is a tokkuri of sake or glass of shochu, a distilled grain alcohol that can either be taken straight or diluted with water. Your host will often make this crucial decision for the entire table. If your negotiations have reached the point where you can call your counterpart your friend, then you may request a specialty drink—though you should still allow him or her to order it for you.

Where to go: The most common type of watering hole in Japan is an izakaya. Traditionally, an izakaya serves Japanese staples like yakitori, sashimi and oden, although these days some of them have Western food, too. Most of these bars are known for their affordability, particularly chain izakaya restaurants that cater to large groups. Izakaya are easily found throughout Tokyo, especially near subway stations. Some of the best-known izakaya districts are Shinbashi, Kagurazaka, Akasaka and Asakusa.

In a hostess club, business partners sip whiskey. Rather than providing roving waitresses, hostess clubs employ women to sit across from patrons, refilling drinks. These women are expected to tune out any business-related conversations, but when the topics turn casual the hostesses cheerfully chat up their clients. Hostess clubs are pricey, often found in Tokyo’s fashionable Ginza neighborhood.

For the late-night crowd, a yatai offers the opportunity to eat and drink well into the night. These open-air stalls often serve just one type of food such as ramen or yakitori, while some offer a full menu to customers who sit on stools or milk crates. These places are cheap and in Tokyo they’re typically clustered around the offices of major newspapers whose employees work late nights. During festival seasons, shrines also host several yatai.

When you’re ready to call it quits for the night, check into one of Tokyo’s convenient capsule hotels. Weeknights find these cheap, coffin-sized hotel rooms packed with businessmen who’ve imbibed too much to go home. If you decide to stumble back to your own hotel, though, keep in mind that Tokyo’s trains can be as crowded at midnight as at rush hour when they shuttle sleeping salarymen home to the suburbs.

Wherever you end up, be sure to really nomunicate with your drinking buddies even after you’ve struck your deal. A night out with Japanese salarymen is a long one, sure, but these late-night revelries are a key part to forming business relationships. Your deal may have been won in five glasses of sake, but you never know what that sixth cup of sake might do to ease any future negotiations.

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