Among the Japanese language’s many unique loanword mashups is nominikeshon, a hybrid of “nomi / drinking” and the English “communication.” Nominikeshon is a term that gets applied to the common Japanese business practice of workers from the same company going out together for a beer (or six) after work, and hopefully strengthening their bond along the way.
But even if you’ve technically punched out, if you have to spend time with your boss, with a large chunk of it used to talk shop, couldn’t you make the argument that you’re still working? In which case shouldn’t you get paid for drinking with your coworkers?
A while after starting my first job in Japan, I was told by my office’s assistant manager that on an upcoming night, after my shift ended, to be present for a company mixer with the other employees and some of our clients. She didn’t ask if I could come, she simply told me what time to be there for the start, and approximately how long it would last.
At first, I didn’t particularly mind. After all, I didn’t have any plans for the night in question, so I didn’t mind sticking around for a couple of hours. If anything, picking up a little overtime would give me a couple more bucks to blow on my next day off.
Unfortunately, it turns out employees don’t get paid for nominikeshon in Japan. At our company the affairs didn’t happen more than once a month, so they were more an inconvenience than anything else. Other companies, though, have a much more intense nominikeshon schedule.
At first, the idea of your employer encouraging you to drink sounds awesome. After all, every sizeable office will yield one person who’s annoying enough you feel like you need a drink every time he’s around.
Unfortunately, the same company drinking party that gives you license to drink heavily offers the same to that annoying boss or coworker. If you don’t get along with a person ordinarily, it’s unlikely you’ll find him any more charming when he’s filled with a half-dozen hefeweizens.
▼ I take issue, both with what you’re saying, and the foul-smelling breath you use to say it.
Still, the majority of fresh-faced new recruits at Japanese companies say they’re interested in knocking back a cold one with the boss, with nearly 80 percent in a recent survey saying they’re keen to take advantage of nominikeshon opportunities.
Of course, if nearly 80 percent of employees say they want to drink with their workplace superior, that leaves more than one in five who don’t. It’s not always a clash of personalities that spoils the deal for them, either.
Not all company drinking parties are held on Friday nights. Nor is a bar the preferred spot for drinking in Japan. Instead, the most common choice is an izakaya, a restaurant specializing in snacks and easily sharable dishes that go well with alcoholic beverages.
▼ Izakaya: a sort of restaurant/pub/secondary dorm for college students
If you’re going with a group of people, and the food is being served family style, the simplest thing to do is take advantage of the all-you-can-drink deals offered. These generally last two hours, so let’s look at a likely time table for a mid-week drinking party for a Japanese company.
7:00 p.m. – Wrap up unpaid overtime, start heading to izakaya
7:30 – Get seated, start drinking
9:30 – Finish drinking, start lengthy process of saying good-bye in Japanese
10:00 – Finish saying good-bye, head to train station
10:15 – Get on train
11:15 – Get off train, start walking to home
11:30 – Arrive home, possibly vomit from all-you-could-drink beer
12:00 a.m. – Hop in the shower, following Japanese custom of bathing at night
12:45 – Crawl into bed, fall asleep
2:45 – Wake up after dreaming of water due to dry mouth, possibly vomit again, go back to sleep
6:30 – Wake up and start getting ready for work
As you can see, the timetable bears more similarities to a frat house’s than a corporation’s. Then there’s the fact that the company doesn’t always completely foot the bill, either, and employees may be required to shell out for the party they didn’t really want to attend in the first place. The whole thing becomes even less economically enticing if alcohol isn’t your thing.
▼ The last time we were excited about all-you-can-drink soda was well before the first time we were excited about girls.
Some may be saying those who dislike nominikeshon are overlooking the obvious solution: just don’t go to the party. However, certain Japanese linguistic and cultural characteristics can make this tricky to do. First, solidarity and commitment are prized, in Japanese society at large and the workplace in particular. No one wants to be seen as too lazy or self-absorbed to spend a night with the rest of the team in order to mull over the current project or just form tighter ties with one another. This often becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. If employees A and B are going to the party, which makes employee C say he’ll go even if he really doesn’t, it makes it all the more difficult for employee D to turn down the invitation.
Making matters worse is the vagueness of most sentences in Japanese. In some cases, it’s hard to directly say “no” without it sounding like “no way in hell.” Add in a boss who can’t (or won’t) take a hint when an employee says he has some things he needs to take care of instead of going drinking, and often the result is getting roped in even though you don’t feel like having anything other than a cup of coffee after work.
▼ Even if you were planning on putting a slug of bourbon in it, sometimes you just want to drink that cup at home.
Sociologist Kaoru Kawai experienced this firsthand during the time she spent working as a cabin attendant for airline ANA. “Sometimes I couldn’t figure out a way to politely say no, and I ended up having to drink with my bosses. I spent the whole time chirping, ‘Oh yes, I see’ as they talked about how great they were and their opinions on life in general.”
Kawai says the practice of nominikeshon got started during the rapid development of Japan’s bubble economy during the 1980s. While she theorizes not everyone was happy with the system then, either, Kawai believes that more workers were willing to bite their tongues due to the business atmosphere of the time. Workers were considered to be a part of the family, with employment essentially guaranteed for life, and a seniority-based wage system with periodic raises that weren’t focused on numerical performance indicators.
That’s not so much the case these days. Kawai recalls talking with the head of a large corporation during a conference, during which the executive casually tossed around the term “family” in order to show how much he valued his workers. His sentiments turned out to be hollow when just three months later his company announce large-scale layoffs. “How can you downsize your ‘family?’” asks a perplexed Kawai.
▼ “Sorry, Timmy. We’ve decided to cut the baby division by 50 percent, and you just haven’t been closing like your twin brother does.”
Kawai goes so far as to call out the whole theory that intra-office bonds can be strengthened by drinking together, especially when the relationship is between a boss and subordinate. Sure, the boss may think a few drinks helps everyone relax and see eye to eye, but many people already exert plenty of energy trying to make a good impression on their manager when they’re both sober. For them, booze isn’t so much a social lubricant as an oil slick.
The irony, Kawai points out, is that in an organization with properly developed interpersonal communications, there’s no need to hold drinking parties in order to strengthen said connections. There’s nothing wrong with people who want to go drinking, or the occasional chat over a cocktail with an employee who just feels more at ease speaking his mind away from the office. But for the 20-plus percent of Japanese workers who don’t have any interest of partaking in nominikeshon, the most efficient way to motivate them is to simply treat them as individuals, creating an office atmosphere where they can communicate openly without the need for a backup plan of saying “it must have been the beer talking.”
▼ We’ll drink to that.