If you stay in Japan long enough you will notice that within two years or so, most of foreign friends you have met here have either moved back or moved on to another assignment. People come and go and it feels much more temporary than when living in Europe.
Take a smaller version of life, a team, and the trend is similar. Add on top the rotations among different teams that are so common in Japanese companies.
All welcomes, farewells and other occasions (think that December is the high season of Bōnenkai or “forget the year” parties) deserve to be celebrated. While back in France, we would typically do a team lunch or a team dinner for a special occasion, with a bigger party reserved for Christmas and New Year season, in Japan in most cases it will be a so called drinking party or nomikai. Nomikai is an inseparable part of Japanese work culture, where colleagues would gather for an evening in Izakaya, a kind of Japanese pub, in quite many cases, smoking.
Drinking party does not imply that everyone must drink alcohol, but the bill will be shared among all irrespectively. Very often, reserving a table for a group means that a fixed price menu will be chosen including unlimited drinks for up to two hours. The unlimited drinking part is called Nomihōdai, and most likely is the reason why the whole event is known as drinking party.
Nomikai usually starts as a quite official team event, where the first toast (or kanpai) is done with beer, someone says a speech and afterwards everyone is free to choose the drinks they like (be it beer, sake, house wine, coke or oolong tea).
A number of small dishes will be delivered to the table one after another, including salads, pickled vegetable, fish and/or meat, finished with rice and soup, and maybe a small desert.
It is normal and acceptable for people to get drunk, and express themselves more frankly and openly to others irrespective of rank, and all will be forgiven or forgotten once back in the office. As a foreigner, I find this part a complete opposite to what would be considered acceptable in the Western working environment. Yet, it is not to say that such events are not fun, everything depends on occasion and the company.
Once the fixed time is over, there is a closing ceremony to be followed. Everyone stands up, opens their hands and claps once. Those who want, continue to a second party, known as nijikai, which can later be followed by the third one or more. No surprise that the last train is considered the last peak time of a day.
It goes without saying that welcomes are more joyful than farewells, while Bōnenkais are probably the best of them all – to remember and forget, to complain and leave behind, so that a new year would come as a fresh start. And it takes a nijikai to share a bottle of cava (that is not on the menu for the nomihōdai part), and toast for those who come, those who leave and those who stay… Cheers!
“Time is like a fashionable host,
That slightly shakes his parting guest by the hand;
And with his arms outstretch’d, as he would fly,
Grasps-in the comer: the welcome ever smiles,
And farewell goes out sighing.”