Having lived in several different cultures it is always fun to observe and celebrate the many differences between the peoples of the Earth, but it is also surprising how similar we all are. The end of year, for example, seems to be embraced by most countries as a great excuse to get totally legless, and Japan, where people already have a loose love affair with alcohol, does it by organizing bonenkais.

If you work at a Japanese company in the period from the end of November onwards you will most likely be dragged out for one of these bonenkais, a drinking party with your colleagues, usually paid for by the company, the celebrate…um, no, just to get blind drunk really. At the start of the evening one of your superiors will kick off the proceedings with a short speech, usually amongst the lines of “next year too, good luck, chaps!” and a “kempai!” If you weren’t aware of this yet it is very rude to start drinking before everyone has raised their glasses, even in less formal situations.

These occasions are a great opportunity to see your boss stiff as an owl and making a fool of himself. Impromptu slurred speeches will occur throughout the evening and maybe some of the more attention-hungry of your colleagues will provide some entertainment, usually a comedy speech, all to be enjoyed through the veil of Bacchus.
There will be much shouting and organizing of single-handclaps that people out for a quiet snifter will find no peace anywhere. Hell has heard no cacophony as two adjoining bonenkai parties in a single izakaya.

One tradition is to pour other peoples’ drinks for them. The staff at the restaurant or izakaya will keep your table supplied with large bottles of beer and you are supposed to take one and pour some in the glass of the colleagues sitting around you. They, in turn, will keep their glasses raised to facilitate the pouring and murmur some humble appreciations. They will then rip the bottle out of your hands and pour your beer. Later on in the evening when people are too drunk to care it is acceptable to pour for yourself but as long as people are lucid this tradition of never pouring your own beer must be upheld as long as possible. This can get a bit tiresome as the glasses are often very small, but it’s a nice touch, I think.

If you’re very polite, or just want to show off that you can do “Japanese” as well as the Japanese, take a bottle off your table and bring it with you to the boss’s table and pour him a drink. Even though all bottles come from the same stock it sort of shows him you are giving him your beer as a mark of respect and appreciation. If you want to mingle and chat with colleagues at other tables, always half-inch a bottle to take with you.

At the end of the evening you will put on a bit of a show along the lines of “how much do we pay? How much is it?” as you reach for your wallet. This is so the boss can whip out the company credit card with a flair and make a great showing of his (or his company’s) magnanimity. Then most people will slink off to a self-financed “nijikai”, a “second party” where the drinking continues. “Sanjikais” and “yonjikais”, 3rd and 4th parties, are not uncommon either but be aware that as the count increases so does the chance of you ending up in a karaoke bar. You will be forced to sing and your colleagues will feign appreciation, but the best thing about thee places is that they are a fairly cheap place to continue drinking until the trains start running again.

The trains in this period offer new and exciting challenges for the average commuter. In stead of the increasingly aggressive foreigners passengers now have to deal with and avoid as much as possible the many blind drunk revelers. People falling asleep upright, leaning against doors or slowly sinking off of their seats and ending up spread-eagled in the aisles or simply flying all over the place as the trains stops and starts are not uncommon sights. I always find it a lot of fun to watch, and people are generally amazingly understanding and helpful. Once I saw an old man miss his lunge for a strap and end up three doors down on the floor on his back. Within seconds he was being helped up and put on a seat by concerned onlookers. That’s one thing you have to appreciate in Japan; drunkenness is so much part of culture that in stead of turning up their noses they nod and smile knowingly. “Ah, look, pissed as a newt, bless ‘im.”

The real danger comes from the innate inability by the Japanese to hold their liquor. The last thing you want with a dicky tummy is to be in a swaying train and small explosions of bile are all too common. I was once silently laughing at this office lady who was apparently standing asleep, obviously drunk, when suddenly she threw up horizontally against the window she was facing. After the initial shock the onlookers started handing out tissues to those “affected” and one escorted the girl out at the next station in search of an attendant to look after her.

I haven’t drunk binge for a while now, but Japan certainly is the perfect place for it and December the perfect time. Everybody expects and tolerates it and one could easily fall asleep in the middle of the street and people will pass you by unheeded; something which can be accomplished throughout the year but seems to have a special place in bonenkai season.


  1. At the company I work for, we get our wallets out... hesitantly, hoping for the boss to scream "SUCKERS! IT'S ON ME, PUT THAT CASH AWAY", then proceed to remove money from within, still with a glimmer of hope that we may be able to return it to where it rightfully belongs, only to see it grabbed up by a collector who does the rounds to make sure everyone has paid for the privelidge of seeing the boss drunk.

    That's what happens when you work at a little tiny company. Mind you, it's nice to go out with your colleagues once in a while. We have these dos quite regularly too, when new people join, when old employees leave, when we finish a game and when it's a special holiday (well, Hanami and New year at least).

    I love seeing drunks on the trains. One time I recall coming back from a trip to Miyajima island (just south of Hiroshima) and being sat amoungst a group of three very drunk and tired businessmen. They all looked like they were trying to stay awake so as to avoid missing their stop, and the one durectly in front of me kept leaning forward and nodding off. I found this very funny, and was doing my best to contain my amusement, but after a while I just couldn't and burst out laughing right in his face. It was the sort of snorty giggling laughter that one does when trying not to laugh, so I probably sprayed him with something too. I was very embarrassed, but he was too drunk to care. He later got off the train (presumably at his stop rather than to escape from me, as it was the last train) and I carried on until the service ended and left me stranded with several other businessmen outside a station 40 miles or so from my destination.


  2. Haha, poor YMLL! I guess it helps if your boss knows how disgruntled everybody is and that paying for beer is the very least he can do! :)

    We have plenty of farewell and welcome parties too, but those are usually paid for by yourself with only the guy who quits or joined getting free booze.

  3. Yeah the leaving/joining parties are the same at the company I work at.

    I think Hanami was discounted so we only had to pay 1000yen, and I have yet to experience a bonenkai, since I started in February, although we were talking about it recently so that the restaurant can be booked in advance.


  4. At my company, everything (bonenkai, shinnenkai, kangeikai, sobetsukai, etc) are all paid by us. And it's a pretty, scratch that, it's an enormous company.

  5. I think that for most of us humans, having a party with alcohol is already a part of our culture, no matter the country or the culture, partying is already a part of our traditions.