Japanese business etiquette is very interesting, even puzzling at times, but of all Japanese business traditions the one that still interests me the most is the “nomikai.” But what’s a nomikai you would ask? It means “drinking party”. And it is one of the most important business rituals in Japan. If you are a non-Japanese person and luck strikes you, you’ll be asked to join a “nomikai,” but remember that you are not simply asked to participate in a dinner party. But entering a sort of entrance ritual to belong to the group, which in Japan is very important, because we are a culture that takes pride in belonging to groups.
In these gatherings, as you are an outsider (a person that does not belong to the group yet), people will observe you, they will want to know how approachable you are. And the longer you stay at the drinking party, the more trustworthy and open you are to have an everlasting business relationship, you appear to be. These invitations to “nomikai” should be accepted and taken as part of the business courtship, especially when you are a non-Japanese person. And if you were here for a short period of time, e.g., business trip, then the “nomikai” opportunities should be grasped at once, as the chance to seal the deal.
Most westerners come out of the negotiation rooms thinking they had made a deal with their Japanese counterparts when these only meant to say they will think about it. So, just a piece of advice, if you want to be sure you will get the deal, invest time building personal relationships here. It will help you in the long run.
The “nomikai” scene is far from wild, but it is carefree, happy and sometimes silly, everything but violence is allowed. But remember, Japanese people like discretion, so whatever happens in the “nomikai” stays in the “nomikia”, you will not reveal either comment about people’s behavior, possible episodes that might have happened or spread rumors about people. The next day you go the office clean shaved and showered as if nothing had happened and work your normal shift. But one of the bosses will send you an e-mail thanking you for your participation in the “nomikai” , reply as soon as possible. It is all part of the business etiquette protocol.
The japanese drinking party, as puzzling as might look for the Western world, is the free space where the Japanese businesspeople freed themselves from the mental weight of our extreme severe protocol, and all hierarchy seemed to disappear for just a few hours. “Nomikai” is the space where we get rid of our duties and embrace one another to show our gratitude and appreciation for the people who help us succeed in business. Therefore, “nomikai” not simply should be considered as the place where people get drunk but as the moment that allows Japanese businesspeople to be themselves.
And keep in mind that “nomikai” is the shortcut to have connections in Japan, and if you don’t have connections here, then you will have no business.