Have you noticed more taxis than usually on the roads, and in front of restaurants? Yes? You might have also noticed there are many more people walking (or in most cases, staggering) around at night these days. Perhaps it seems more impossible than usual to book a table recently? Oh, and what’s with the multitude of salarymen passed out on the streets (at night) in the last few weeks – especially in the night-life districts? Yep, the signs are all in place, which can only mean one thing -> it’s Bonenkai season again.

Bonenkai in Japan

The Time-honoured tradition of drinking with friends, co-workers, and sometimes even family in order to forget all the troubles of the past year is in full swing; the liqueur is flowing freely, 2nd hand smoke is filling rooms like cancer just went out of style, and the troubles… well they are forgotten… at least until after the new year’s holiday.

So what exactly is Bonenkai? The Kanji 忘年会 translate literally to “forget the year gathering”, and, as the name would suggest, is a drinking party held towards the very end of the year, to … well forget the woes and troubles of the past 12 months. This is accomplished with lots and lots and lots of liqueur, of course. You can pretty much imagine that these gatherings can get a bit boisterous on occasion. The saying

All’s fair in love and beer

by Kurt Paradis seems rather appropriate in this instance, since if you want to say anything directly about your Boss or Co-Workers, the only chance you’ll get all year is when everyone is drunk at a Bonenkai.  Alcohol is widely considered a social lubricant, after all . Not only is it permitted to (within reason, of course) tell your boss and/or co-workers what you think of the past year, but it will be quickly forgotten come morning (hopefully).

Two drunk salarymen

Since these parties are usually held by groups, and the Japanese take great pride in belonging to several groups at once, whether they be company sections, clubs, hobby groups, teams or classes, family, a circle of old friends or even just a pair of friends, etc…, one person can often have a heavy load of Bonenkai at the end of the year.  Most people have anywhere between 3-10 of these events to attend.  As you can imagine, this can get rather stressful – especially if you are “the lucky one” chosen by your boss to organise the event for your company.

The tradition of Bonenkai dates back to the 15th Century, at which time it was a simple gathering to express gratitude. It became closer to what is now the biggest workout for your Liver during the 18th Century.  In more modern times, it has evolved into a sort of safety valve for the usual, ordered, rehearsed formal interactions most people engage in from day to day.  It is the one chance to really let loose and get everything that’s been piling up, off your chest…  It is that one chance to perhaps take some non-flattering photos, and/or recordings of bosses and co-workers, which might, coincidentally, pop up again during the next Salary Negotiation perhaps…. 😀

So, what should and shouldn’t you do if you are invited? 
As with most other things in Japan, there’s a certain Etiquette to follow:

  • You must wait until everybody’s glass has been filled, and say “kampai” (“cheers”) before you start to guzzle your drink down, lest you bear the full brunt of your friends’/co-workers’/boss’ dissatisfaction of your rude, barbaric ways.
  • Don’t fill your own glass… Someone will fill it for you, and you are expected to repay the favour.  If receiving a drink, raise your glass up a bit to “honour” the person pouring it for you.  It is considered extremely rude to pour your own drinks.  Also, if you pour a drink for someone else, never do the one-handed pour.  Use both hands to hold the bottle.
  • It is generally accepted –> highly encouraged being drunk at these events. Consequently, there are sometimes frank and emotional displays between coworkers, regardless of rank, which may not occur during normal working hours. This phenomenon is called bureikō (無礼講) in Japanese.
  • Repeat after me: “What happens at a Bonenkai stays at a Bonenkai”. Principally, nothing said or done (in jest or otherwise) ever leaves the confines of the Izakaya or Restaurant, and is quickly forgotten.
  • The check is shared by everyone equally, no matter the actual amount of food or drinks you imbibe, so make sure to get your money’s worth!
  • Don’t treat it like a dating event for a chance to hit on the cute Temp in Marketing. While there certainly may be some romance in the cards for you, an office party with your co-workers is generally not the place to bring out your inner Casanova or Femme Fatale.
  • Don’t talk shop all night.  These are social events to forget about work, not to make everyone more depressed – leave that kind of talk for the office.
  • Don’t try to collect everyone’s money and then pay with your credit card to collect points.  That’s just rude!  Reach deep inside your pocket and pay, just like everyone else!

There will undoubtedly be a Nijikai (二次会), or 2nd Party. This is not mandatory to attend, however, unless you’ve got your eye on getting that promotion next year…. 😀

Got all that? Good! Now you’re prepared to dive headfirst into the Bonenkai season, young Padawan. Leave your Liver at home, and partake in all the festivities!  One last parting advice – if you actually want to make it through the season, curb your drinking by leaving your glass FULL.  You see, in Japan, if the glass is empty, that means it has to be filled.  By leaving the glass full when you’ve had enough, you might actually make it home that night, rather than snuggling up to the curb until the next morning.

drunk salaryman

I would love to give you more details about these uniquely Japanese parties, but as you can probably imagine, I have a Bonenkai to attend and must get ready…
Why do I have that famous song by Chumbawamba stuck in my head all of a sudden… ;D

Hope you all enjoy your end of year parties!

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