It’s no secret that the Japanese love to drink. Most people have been to at least one “nomikai,” usually a business- or work-related event where a group goes to an izakaya (Japanese pub or bar) to drink and bond. Although cocktails, bottled alcoholic drinks, and beer are very popular in Japan, there is also the traditional drink sake, or rice wine, shochu, and nihonshu that locals love. Drinking is a big part of Japanese culture and at some point or another, it is very likely that you will either be expected to attend a nomikai or a “bonenkai” (end-of-year party), or you will be invited to go out drinking with your friends.
Like many things, drinking also has its own set of rules in Japan. Here are seven things you should know before you go out to a bar or pub to drink.
Of course, you’ll know that the legal drinking age varies by country. Canada, the United Kingdom, and parts of Europe allow drinking from 18, whereas in the United States, you have to be 21 to purchase and consume alcohol. The year of coming of age in Japan is 20, and it is also the age for smoking and drinking. Be aware of these rules when you plan to go out.
If you’re in a large group, the first thing people will likely order is “nama-biru,” or a glass of draft beer. You don’t have to order a beer if you don’t want to, but it’s typically the starting drink for most. Sake and wine come later.
If you get a drink such as “bin-biru” (bottled beer) or a bottle of wine, the server will also bring glasses so that you can share the bottled drink. Never pour a drink for yourself! Everyone will pour a drink for each other, and you will be expected to do the same. Pour a generous helping for the person sitting next to you, and hold your glass while someone else pours yours.
It can be tempting to take a sip as soon as your glass is poured, but make sure you wait until everyone at your table has a glass. That way, everybody can start together.
When everyone has their own drink and is ready to begin, everyone will clink their glasses together in unison and say “Kanpai!” meaning “Cheers!” That indicates that everyone is ready to begin drinking. You may also hear “Otsukaresama desu!” if they are people you work with, which is a way of thanking each other for everyone’s hard work.
During “kanpai,” the position of your glass is important. Be sure that your glass is at a lower level than anyone who is considered “above” you, such as your boss.
Some bars and restaurants offer special “nomihoudai” sets where you can order an unlimited amount of drinks within a time limit, typically ranging from 90 minutes to up to three hours. If you are planning a nomikai or just a night out with your friends, be sure to check whether the establishment offers any sets of nomihoudai for a set price. That way, you can drink all you like while already knowing how much the bill is going to be.
Drinking in Japan is a lot of fun, and nomikais are often seen as opportunities to relax and bond with workmates or fellow students. With these seven rules and tips, you will be drinking like a local in no time at all! Be sure to visit a karaoke bar later for a purely typical Japanese night out!