Japanese Drinking Culture



When working in Japan, off-hour socialization is valued as much as work hours. It may be grabbing lunch at the office cafeteria, a team dinner, or grabbing drinks. While the conversations may not necessarily be work-related, it is a way of building trust and relationships with your team. 
So to prepare you for these off-hour socializations called nomikai (飲み会), here are some etiquette tips to keep in mind when dining and drinking with your colleagues. Depending on your work environment, it may be a casual affair or be a formal affair, so knowing some manners will avoid offending your companions. 

The first drink 

Japanese tend to order beer for the first drink, then choose other types of alcohol such as sake, wine, or shochu (Japanese distilled alcohol) later on. While you don’t necessarily need to order the same or choose to drink alcohol, know that the first round of drinks calls for a toast. It would be best if you generally refrained from ordering sake, as the cups are smaller and thus tricky to clink glasses. 

Say cheers!

Kampai (乾杯, literally “dry cup”) means cheers in Japanese. But it doesn’t mean you need to finish your cup, so it’s perfectly acceptable to take a sip before putting your glass down. 
Do make eye contact with your neighbors as you raise your glass. Position yourself to look at the person giving the toast. Whether clinking glasses or not, the glass of the most senior person should be slightly higher than yours.

Serve others before pouring yourself a drink

Remember to be mindful of others when drinking. Never pour yourself a drink, and instead, pour for others. Someone should notice and reciprocate the action. 
When pouring a drink, make sure to hold the bottle or vessel with both hands. That’ll help with steadying your hand. 

When receiving a drink

Hold the cup with both hands and thank the person who poured you a drink. Don’t forget to thank her/him, whether it be a word of thanks, a smile, or a nod. 

Make sure to pace yourself

If the rounds of drinks are overwhelming your alcohol tolerance, feel free to pass and ask for non-alcoholic beverages or step outside. There tends to be an assortment of food ordered with drinks, so feel free to fill up while you rest.

Keep it fun

You may be surprised that the usually reserved Japanese business people can get rowdy after a few drinks. Just make sure to keep the drinking fun by not pressing yourself or others to drink more than they can handle. 

Say thanks

Depending on the situation, the drinks may be covered by company expenses, the most senior person present, or split among the attendees. Regardless, when you’re getting ready to pack up, do say “arigato gozaimashita” (thank you very much) and “otsukare samadeshita” (thank you for your work) to everyone.