‘Tis the season to get drunk and candid, at least with your work colleagues. The term bonenkai literally means “a meeting to forget the year,” which always sounded inauspicious to us, especially considering it’s used to describe a Japanese custom that is supposed to be festive. But bonenkai tend to be associated in people’s minds with the companies they work for, and there’s the rub.
Protocol dictates that the company bonenkai tantosha (person-in-charge) schedule the party as close to the end of the year as possible and, ideally, just before a holiday or the weekend; which means the peak days for bonenkai this year are Dec. 17 and Dec. 22, since the 23rd is a national holiday and the 24th is Christmas Eve, when a lot of people have plans of their own. Company bonenkai are, of course, paid for by the company, and though no one says so, all employees are expected, if not outright obligated, to show up, since it is considered a part of “company activities,” a chance to blow off steam and one of the few settings where an employee can be frank to his superiors and co-workers. “Communication” is supposedly an important element of bonenkai, though the obligatory aspect often just makes people more uncomfortable. According to a survey carried out by Kirin, a company that has a lot at stake in bonenkai, only 33.5 percent of the 6,000 people they questioned nationwide said they were “eager” to attend their companies’ bonenkai.