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Nomikai Culture in Japan: The Liquid Approach to Building Bonds and Social Capital

by CarterJMRN


In Japan, a drink or three temporarily flattens hierarchies and loosens tongues and inhibitions in all sorts of social environments, from companies to schools to clubs and beyond. What’s known as nomikai culture—which literally means “meeting to drink”—is most prevalent in business. The objective is to build up serious social capital with the boss and bond with the rest of the crew.

The importance of nomunication – drinking to communicate

This practice gave rise to the term “nomunication” (or its even clumsier alternative, nominication)—a mashup of the Japanese word nomu, which means “to drink,” and the English word communication. Socializing at the office is minimal in Japan (although if the workplace trends mentioned in this June 27 post take hold, the whole dynamic may change radically), so this is a crucial outlet for many. Employees get to know each other, bond, share a joke, talk about projects, and even fall in love. Those who don’t come along run the risk of missing out on promotions and even being ostracized.

Since many firms in Japan lack formal evaluation systems for employees, managers also use nomikai sessions to assess their minions from a variety of perspectives. How do they interact with other employees? Are they team players? What talents, personality traits and flaws do they reveal? And most crucially, how well do they relate to their superiors?

The pressure is on: You can’t get out easily of the nomikai

Bonenkai and shinnenkai—year-end and New Year’s parties, respectively—are compulsory affairs. All of the other times you could go drinking with your office mates and bosses add up. There’s usually an outing when new staff members join the firm or someone leaves, or perhaps to celebrate the end of a big project. The regular nomikai that follow work and even on weekends are the real grind, though.

The compulsory aspect of nomikai depends greatly on the nature of the corporate culture and the industry sector. If you work for a gaishikei (foreign firm), nomikai sessions may not be a priority. At a traditional Japanese firm, however, chances are you’ll spend a fair amount of time after office hours with a glass in your hand getting sloppy, often visiting more than one pub for a nijikai and sanjikai (second and third “meetings”).

Not surprisingly, Japan’s late-night trains are littered with the paralytic aftermath, and these walking dead then have to get up and do it all again all too soon.

Japan’s forceful drinking sessions are hard to swallow for many

The frequency of these nocturnal drinking sessions and their effect on health are both fraught with issues. Being required to go drinking, for example, just feels like overtime to many younger employees. The never-ending dogfight known as work-life balance is the crux here. If Japan wants more kids, for example, people need some time at home (preferably sober). After that, spending time with the family is generally considered beneficial as well.

Female Japanese executives are saying ‘no’ to binge-drinking

This past May a bank executive at Mitsubishi UFJ, Saiko Nanri, declared that for her crew the nomikai’s happy hour is over. Her logic is that after-hours socializing is unproductive and penalizes the parents of young children, especially working women.

Kumiko Nemoto, a Kyoto University of Foreign Studies professor who has written about gender inequality in the workplace, agrees: “Stopping nominication is the first step to increasing diversity, performance-based promotion and open communication during work hours,” she says. She adds that the practice shuts out working mothers, along with fathers who want to help out more at home, and foreigners used to a better work-life balance.

Greater labor mobility and the shallowest labor pool in decades have given employees not into nomikai culture a powerful lever. In fact, statistics reveal that there are currently around 2.5 jobs for every candidate out there. This is true even in regions such as Okinawa where job hunters traditionally faced a tough hunt.  

Health consequences of constant binge-drinking are a hard pill to swallow

Another key factor is that alcohol is literally intolerable for a significant percentage of Japanese, because they’ve got a genetic metabolic disorder commonly known as the Asian Flush that causes them to flush red, get nauseated, experience heart palpitations, get headaches and suffer fatigue when they imbibe alcohol. According to this study, around 36 percent of Japanese, Koreans and Chinese have this genetic mutation.

There’s an odd Catch-22 situation and sociological disconnect in Japan as well: Being drunk in public is perfectly acceptable, but being pegged as an alcoholic most definitely isn’t. It’s considered a sign of a weak character to lose to booze, and besides the health risks you can end up crashing a career, a relationship or maybe a car, all with devastating consequences.

A widening market for convincing alcohol substitutes & hangover cures

Nonalcoholic beverages—including near beer, alcohol-free beer, and now even gin—should save some livers, lives, and careers. For example, Japan is big on beer alternatives such as Hoppy, which has been around since the forties, and more recently alcohol-free beer such as Suntory’s clear and zero-calorie All-Free All-Time and Kirin’s Perfect Free.

Japan now also has its first nonalcoholic gin, known as Nema. Distilled in Nagano Prefecture from botanicals—primarily rose petals from the famed Asaoka Rose Garden—Nema takes after Seedlip, another zero-alcohol gin that debuted four years ago that has shaken and stirred the industry. A 1651 book called The Art of Distillation with distilling instructions and nonalcoholic herbal remedies inspired Seedlip.

There’s some interesting buzz as well about a synthetic alcohol a British scientist named David Nutt has concocted called Alcarelle that promises to get you happy but not ravage your liver or leave you hungover. Nutt’s alcosynth molecules are tailored to target and stimulate the GABA receptors in the brain that dictate how alcohol affects you, and can be tweaked to produce various effects. Alcarelle could go on the market in five years after running the gauntlet of safety testing and regulatory hurdles. If it’s approved here in Japan and beverage firms buy in, nomikai culture will be a lot easier for many to swallow.

Bottom line: If you’re selling hangover cures or nonalcoholic beverages that taste like the real thing, Japan is a great testing ground and market. Bars, restaurants, hotels and other venues that stock tasty alternatives to alcohol will have an advantage over the competition. If you’ve got a business in Japan, ba no kuuki o yomu (read the air/atmosphere) or even take an informal survey to see how your employees feel about after-work socializing, and alter your policies accordingly—it may save you some key people. 

As one of four Japanese societal macro trends monitored regularly by CarterJMRN (along with Women Power, Generational Dynamics, and Internationalization), the Changing World of Work impacts consumer behavior across many age groups as attitudes toward work continue to evolve in relation to lifestyle, including availability and use of personal and leisure time.