Learning Japanese Etiquette: Drinking Culture in Japan

Published February 23rd, 2015

Drinking is a part of many different cultures around the world, and almost everyone does it differently. Most countries are known to have a signature drink, and when most people think of Japan, they probably think of sake. In Japanese the word 酒 (sake) refers to any alcoholic drink. However, 日本酒 (Nihonshu), literally “Japanese liquor” refers specifically to sake. Sake can be drank hot or cold, and is usually served in an earthenware bottle known as a 徳利 (tokkuri) along with small serving glasses called **杯(**sakazuki). Sake is drank at home, in casual restaurants known as 居酒屋 (izakaya), and is also a part of many Shinto ceremonies. While sake is both delicious and ubiquitous, the drinking culture in Japan has a lot more to offer!

Whiskey bar Tokyo

As with many countries, one of the main staples of the drinking culture is beer. The biggest breweries are Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo, and Suntory. While most of these beers are relatively light in flavor (and taste pretty similar) craft beers and micro-brews are beginning to gain popularity.

Also quickly on the rise in Japan is whiskey. Suntory is easily the most famous brand (especially due in part to Bill Murray’s movie Lost in Translation) and their Hibiki whiskey has even started to win awards around the world! While whiskey bars are common in Japan, and Suntory can be found almost anywhere, it is still considered to be somewhat of a “gentlemen’s drink.”

Office Drinking Culture in Japan

If you’re working in Japan you will most likely be enjoying some of these beverages during 飲み会 (nomikai), which are after work drinking parties considered to be somewhat mandatory. Yes, you can choose not to attend these gatherings, but the bonding and communication that occurs during nomikai (often referred to with the portmanteau “nomi-nication”) can make or break your status at the work place. Because the Japanese social structure is so strict and reserved, this is the one time that coworkers are free to say what they really think. Nomikai typically occur a few times a year for special occasions such as an end of the year nomikai or a farewell nomikai for a colleague. The next morning at the office, all is forgotten except the bond that was forged the night before.

Shinjuku Tokyo Nightlife

Nomikai can certainly be fun, but they can also be quite dangerous. One of the reasons is due to 後輩先輩 (kouhai-senpai).This refers to the junior-senior relationships that exist in Japanese culture. Because of this, a junior is never to turn down a drink that is offered from his superior. While adults in Japan are mostly responsible with their drinking, college nomikai can often get out of hand. Frequently, a drink forced by senpai comes with the instruction: イッキ飲み (ikki-nomi, or “down in one”). As you can imagine, finishing drink after drink in one go can lead to some pretty rowdy nights out. Because no one wants to appear rude by saying no, nights will often go on until sunrise, and some may find themselves throwing up on the sidewalk before passing out on the subway. This relatively common behavior is not particularly frowned upon, but is simply seen as a part of nomikai.

While nomikai may have its own rules, there is a certain etiquette to be followed no matter where or with whom you are drinking in Japan. The most important of these rules is to always pour drinks for others, and to never pour your own. Usually, the younger or more junior person will pour for the elders or those with more seniority. Don’t worry though, someone will immediately pour yours once you finish. When they do, it is polite to raise the glass with your right hand and place your left hand just under the cup. But be careful, if you don’t want to keep drinking, then don’t empty your glass because it will get filled again, and again, and again! Also, make sure to remember who filled your glass so you can return the favor as soon as their glass is empty. And of course, don’t forget to say 乾杯 (kanpai!) each time you toast!