In late December, each Japanese company throws an end-of-year shindig called a “bonenkai,” where employees can bid farewell to the year by getting plastered on the company dime. Very much in the same spirit as the office Christmas parties at home, with less photocopying of arses.
My company had a bonenkai last week and, never one to turn down a free drink, I obligingly attended. Typically, the party was an all-you-can-eat-and-drink deal and, being entirely broke after Christmas shopping, I took full advantage of the arrangement, digging into endless silver platters of pasta, pizza, roast beef and seafood, and glugging down glasses of red wine, beer and sake.
While the consumption of copious quantities of booze is necessary for the Japanese to let off steam in such uncomfortable social situations, there are still certain codes of conduct that must be observed- you can’t turn up in a toga fashioned from a bed-sheet, pour a pint of beer over the boss’s head and propose a panty raid on the local nursing college.
Before the festivities begin, you must wait until everybody’s glass has been filled, and say “kampai” (“cheers”) before you start to guzzle your drink down. Failing to do so gets the same frosty reaction you might get after merrily tucking into supper at an Amish household before grace.
When the dinner plates had been cleared, the boss stood up, and the table fell silent. He asked everyone to make a short speech reflecting on the year just passed and expressing hopes for the coming year. Far from being a great lover of public speaking, I sat, nervously drinking, trying to make sense of my co-workers’ slurred Japanese speeches, awaiting my turn with mounting dread. When the boss eventually gestured for me to speak, I mumbled a few platitudes. This was greeted by a painfully long, awkward silence, followed a little polite clapping.
As the night grew longer, I glanced at my watch and realized I’d have to leave soon to catch the last train home, or be stranded in the city and forced to sleep in a karaoke box or an internet cafe, like some kind of high-tech tramp. Japanese etiquette dictates that you can’t just grab your coat and sneak out the back door. You have to wait for the end of the party to be formally announced by the boss, who does so by leading the partygoers in a loud clap and exclaiming “ippon jime!”
My coworkers were taken-aback by my amusement at this protocol. “So how do you end parties in England?” they asked.
“Parties at home always finish when the barman shouts, ‘all right everyone, piss off, it’s closing time.'”
Thanks to my high alcohol threshold and the sobering effect of public speaking, I managed to get through the party without making a drunken spectacle of myself, unlike most of my co-workers who were red-faced and cackling, singing, stumbling over, and pestering waitresses with lewd comments. Of course, all this would be forgotten the next morning. In Japan, if you drink excessively at a work function, your colleagues will give you an enthusiastic slap on the back, rather than recommend a trip to an alcoholics anonymous meeting.
In a couple of weeks we’ll be having a “New Year party,” I’m told.