On the Town With Japanese Businessmen
A few weeks
ago, I experienced something I had studied about in university and heard
much about during my stay in Japan - the company after-work party. Of all
the things that make Japan different from western countries, the after-work
party always seemed to me to be the one experience that would not be open
to me. Japan has a very strict corporate environment. Following World War
II, Japan`s push to rebuild its economy left no room for non-comformity.
Business men (and recently, businesswomen) habitually worked longer
than the western standard of 8 hours, sometimes staying over at the office
when they missed the last train home.
and the job became these men's lives. Going home to one's family was not
a priority. Instead, many of them ended up staying out until the last train
drinking with their colleagues.
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to the Japanese working environment is the idea of harmony. Everyone
works towards the success of the company and not, as in the west, towards
individual success. Workers, in order to work at maximum efficiency, become
part of the bigger machine which is the company.
|But this connectedness
to the company does not end at the end of the work day. The concept extends
to all aspects of an employee`s life. Working together extends to
playing together. The after-work party is a time when co-workers bond and
can openly express their grievances towards each other and the company
with no negative consequences.
I have often
seen the aftermath of these company get-togethers. Getting the last train
from Tokyo out to the suburbs is something I hate. The train is crowded
with businessmen (and oftentimes, women as well) reeking of alcohol,
stumbling on their way home. I have seen people pass out, get head butted
in a drunken fight, and even had one fall on top of me.The strange thing
is, no one gets mad at these drunkards or looks at them in pity.
People make room for those who throw up and allow those sleeping in the
train stations to lie still until they are able to move again.
once, late at night, as I was going home I came across a man lying in the
middle of the sidewalk. He was well-dressed so I assumed he was not a homeless
man trying to take a nap. I assumed something was seriously wrong, that
he might need medial care. Using my limited Japanese I asked him if he
was okay. No answer. I asked him again. Suddenly, another businessman
appeared by my side and said `it`s okay. He`s drunk`, laughed and
walked on. Not speaking enough of the language, I moved on and hoped that
if the man really did need medical attention, someone would stop and help
him. I had learnt my lesson: businessmen (and women) are expected
to get so drunk that they cannot even find their way home. And, surprisingly
they were not getting drunk with friends, but most often with their coworkers.
people that I have spoken to have generally expressed negative opinions
of after-work drinking parties. I have heard of people being pressured
(and by pressured, I do not mean that they can refuse - maybe forced would
be a better word) to go out 3-4 times per week. Of course, I have also
met people who enjoy it. One of my students, a middle-aged head of his
company`s Japan office, loved testing out new restaurants on the company`s
guests (on average, once or twice a week) this man drops about 10,000
yen (roughly $100 US) per person per meal. Our classes were on Saturday
mornings. Except for one or two times, every class he came in hung-over
and with interesting stories from the night before. Recently I finally
got to experience what I had heard so much about-the company party.
got my very first gig teaching English to company employees. My students
are not what I think of as typical businessmen and businesswomen.
laidback and genuinely interested in learning English (many companies
force their employees to study English which, as you can imagine, does
not make for a very happy classroom environment). Therefore, when they
invited me out to a welcoming party, I thought we would have a nice, relaxed
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of the party came and as I walked into the restaurant, so did the company
president, i.e. the person who had hired me. Immediately, I started to
regret having come. Would this guy be able to speak English? What would
I say to him? How would my students act around him? I was no longer
looking forward to the night. We all sat down and the president introduced
himself (I had only met him briefly before). Luckily he spoke passable
English. And, this being Japan, he next ordered a round of beer. I guess
I should not have been surprised. The unexpectedness of seeing the president
arrive at the party had caused me to forget all that I had heard about
Japanese company parties. This would be very different from anything that
I could expect to happen in North America. My students, the company employees,
all began to relax in front of the president. Some of them seemed to be
making a special effort to be polite to the president, but as the night
wore on, and the drinks were poured, it was everyone for themself.
out to be quite pleasant. I do not remember the conversation in detail.
It was typical of many conversations I have had in Japan - comparing cultural
differences between Japan and my home country, seeing how much the foreigner
knows about Japanese food, etc. What I do remember is the continuous flow
of beer and that, at the end, no one made a move to pay except the president.
Not to worry though, this was a company party and so he would be reimbursed
later when he put in his claim for entertainment expenses.
had been nice (and probably quite expensive) so I was expecting the evening
to end there. Soon, though, the president was suggesting karaoke. Back
in the US, I would never have considered spending an evening with people
I hardly knew singing karaoke. But, in Japan, I have learnt to respect
and enjoy karaoke on a whole new level. It`s hard to explain to people
who have not experienced karaoke in a country where it is popular (so far
in my experience, I have only seen this in Asian countries), but I will
just say that lately I have been doing it at least once a week.
All of us piled
into cabs (paid for, again, by the company) and headed for the karaoke
club. As soon as we got into our private room the drinks started arriving.
I was getting quite drunk, but I was still able to act somewhat normally.
Many of the others, however, had passed that point. I remember one of my
students repeating `fuck work` over and over again. When I nervously looked
over at the president, he just smiled and commented that his employee gets
crazy when he drinks. The same student then started talking about having
had sex with his wife that morning. Again I started feeling uncomfortable,
but everyone else was laughing, so I tried to join in. As much as I tried,
though, I could not forget my cultural biases. I could not help feeling
that no matter how drunk you are, you never should say certain things.
Two hours of
karaoke later, we all stepped out into the fresh air. I was extremely drunk,
full, and sung-out. I was ready to go home and sleep. It was only 11pm,
but we had been drinking since 6. I soon learned, though, that the night
does not end until the boss says it is over. The president invited everyone
to go for ramen (Japanese noodles). I considered it and decided that the
night should end there for me. I had had fun, really enjoyed myself, but
I felt that staying out any longer would be too much. One of my students
felt the same way and we both started to say our goodbyes. Unfortunately,
however, the president had decided it was not yet time to go home. He proceeded
to quite forcibly persuade us to stay out. He said it would only be for
a little while and the restaurant was quite close. Right away I got the
message - it would be inappropriate to leave until the president himself
was ready to go home.
We all trooped
off to the restaurant. As soon as we got there…you guessed it - more beer
was ordered. And…pork ramen. I guess the president had forgotten
that I am a vegetarian. The combination of all that beer and the smell
of pork started to make me feel nauseous. I sat there trying to smile while
I wondered what to do with my pork ramen. I did not want to be rude by
not eating it, but, well, I couldn't. Luckily, one of my students noticed
my discomfort and offered to eat my ramen. Thank God for guys with large
appetites! He was able to finish his own ramen and mine. He also continued
drinking the beer that kept arriving at our table. I had to put my hand
over the top of my glass and keep it there to ensure that no more beer
would be poured into my glass.
At this point
the president finally started to notice that I was tired out. The next
thing I knew, he was motioning me outside into a waiting cab. Everybody
quickly said their goodbyes and I was told to take the cab all the way
home on the company bill. Taxis are extremely expensive in Japan so at
first I protested at such an extravagance. But, I figured, if I was really
going to experience Japanese corporate culture, I might as well experience
this part as well.
I reached home
exhausted. The evening had been fun and quite educational. Now when my
students say that they went out the night before with their colleagues,
I understand what that entails and I try to go easy on them. For as fun
as company drinking parties can be, I cannot imagine having to attend them
all the time.
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