Drinking in the United States is so relaxed and so much fun that sometimes I forget how important it is as a social ritual in Japan. And like any good Japanese ritual, drinking has a bevy of lovely words that float around it, providing a lesson in language as well as culture.
One of my coworkers recently moved back to Japan from the U.S., so we arranged to get drinks before he left. As we were in the process of setting up a time and location, he asked me this question via email: “You belong to which faction: beer, wine, no-thank-you-alcohol or any-alcohol-welcome?”
For a moment I delighted in the non-native construction of his English, but then I noticed something else: The use of the word “faction” is a transparently direct translation of the Japanese word ha (派, faction), which often gets used with booze. I have my feet firmly planted in the bīru-ha (ビール派, beer faction), but I have been known to hang out with the shōchū-ha (焼酎派, shōchū faction), the uisukī-ha (ウィスキー派, whiskey faction) and the nihonshu-ha (日本酒派, rice wine faction). Try as I might, I haven’t developed a taste for wain (ワイン, wine).
This is a good opportunity to note that “sake” as we think of it in U.S. and other English-speaking countries is actually nihonshu. Sake (酒), or osake (お酒), on its own means liquor of any sort, as does arukōru (アルコール, alcohol), but nihonshu (literally “the liquor of Japan”) is the lovely concoction fermented from rice.
No matter what your drink of preference happens to be, in social situations in Japan you’ll often be asked to start with nama bīru (生ビール, draft beer). “Toriaezu nama” (とりあえず生, “Draft beer for now”) is one of the most ubiquitous and useful phrases that the Japanese language has, and using it will reward you with an ice cold mug of beer. Restaurants are quick on the draw and often have the beers ready before the group even sits so they can quickly kanpai (乾杯, cheers) and get the party started.
However, other venues, especially those that host larger parties, will have uncapped bin-bīru (瓶ビール, bottled beer) waiting on the tables. Often these parties have assigned seating, at least to begin with, and guests are expected to pour for each other.
Someone, generally an important person or invitee, is tasked with giving the kanpai no kotoba (乾杯の言葉, toast), and he or she will stand in front of the group and say, “Junbi daijōbu desuka?” (準備大丈夫ですか, “Is everyone ready?”)
This is the signal to quickly (quickly!) ensure that you have a beverage ready to clink with your neighbors. But never pour for yourself! Someone must pour for you, and ideally you must pour for others: This act is known as shaku suru (酌する, pour booze for others) or kumu (酌む).
The person giving the toast will offer a few words, lift his or her glass, and shout kanpai! Clink your glasses and then take a deep, satisfying quaff of your beer. This is a key learning moment: Your initial gulp should be so deep and long (even half of your mug is acceptable) and the beer should be so cold and delicious that tears should form on the edges of your eyes. The Japanese phrase for this moment is “Umai!” (うまい, “Delicious!”) or, if the beer is appropriately cold and delicious, the abbreviated “Uma!” (うまっ!) may be called for.
If you didn’t get to shaku initially, once the drinking has started for real the seating assignments will quickly fall apart and everyone will circle around the room pouring for others, especially for those who are retiring or leaving the workplace.
You should take this opportunity to shaku for all your superiors and socialize with them briefly: This is the best way to win friends, influence people and achieve “nomyunikēshon” (ノミュニケーション, a portmanteau of the Japanese nomu, to drink, and communication).
If you’re uncomfortable in larger groups, rest assured that Japan has plenty of options for you. It only takes two to sashinomi (サシ飲み, drinking in pairs), and after a heartbreak or a job loss, you’ll most likely want to yakezake (やけ酒, drink in desperation/drink away sorrows) or yakenomi (やけ飲み) all by yourself.
Drinking can be hard to avoid in Japan. Because it’s often an activity connected to the workplace or a social group, participating can feel mandatory. But as long as you are strong in your resolve, you shouldn’t ever allow yourself to feel embarrassed about abstaining either from alcohol or the activity as a whole.
Jūsu (ジュース) is derived from the English word “juice” but has become a catchall for any nonalcoholic beverage. Just tell your coworkers, “Kyō wa jūsu ni shimasu” (今日はジュースにします, “Today I’ll be sticking with juice”), and you’ll be able to choose from ginger ale, orange drink, cola or cold oolong tea.
If you want to stop after one or two drinks, just make sure to leave your cup full (so that no one can fill it) and tell everyone, “Konya wa chotto hikaeme ni shitai desu” (今日はちょっと控えめにしたいです, “I’d like to take it a little easy tonight”).
And to skip the event altogether, you can make use of the very effective phrase enryo (遠慮, restraint/reserve/discretion), which is a polite but clear Japanese code word for “No thank you!” Just say, “Kyō wa enryo shimasu” (今日は遠慮します, “I will be abstaining today”). Level up the politeness by giving a hint of agency to the group with the causative sasete itadakimasu: “Kyō wa enryo sasete itadakimasu” (今日は遠慮させていただきます, “With your permission, I will abstain today”).
Drinking in Japan, like anywhere, can be a lot of fun. Get out there and socialize, but be careful and get home safe when you’re done: Many Japanese are frighteningly good at getting through a futsukayoi (二日酔い, hangover) the next day at work, and you’ll have to keep up.