Drinking alcohol is an important social ritual that helps the Japanese to relax and serves as a social lubricant for essential bonding.
It is considered rude to pour a drink for oneself. In a gesture of hospitality, your drinking partner will pour your drink. It is polite to be helpful and raise your glass with both hands and at a light slightly angle in acceptance, with a slight nod or bow of thanks. You then reciprocate by pouring theirs, again holding the tokkuri (sake flask) or beer bottle with both hands. If you are attending a gathering or banquet, do not drink until everyone has a glass and raises it in a collective ”kampai” (cheers!).
Keep watch to make sure the people sitting around you have something in their glass at all times. If you aren’t paying attention, your partners will invariably keep insisting on filling your glass, even if you don’t want to continue drinking. This is partly because they genuinely want you to enjoy yourself, but also because their glass is empty and they can’t fill their own glass. This takes some getting used to, especially when you are enjoying the conversation. If you are drinking sake and someone holds a tokkuri, ready to pour, drink what is left in your cup before holding it up to them. Then, reciprocate. But be careful, as this custom encourages quick intoxication. If you’re not a heavy drinker, keep your glass almost full. You can certainly try to decline additional pours, but this is sometimes seen as modesty and you will be encouraged to drink up. If you don’t drink at all, try to at least accept a glass and sip at it, as it is also considered rude not to drink.
If you’re at a business outing, you’ll probably notice that the junior members take on the task of pouring and ordering drinks. You need not worry much about this, as you are a visitor, and therefore seen as an honored guest. The social and corporate hierarchy is difficult to understand to an outsider. However, these barriers tend to melt away, or at least soften, during excessive drinking. Many of my friends in the corporate world tell me the real conversations occur at the izakaya (pub) after work, when they are free to let loose with their feelings and opinions, even to their supervisors. The next morning, all is forgotten on the surface, but the subtext is not.
Visitors will likely be treated with great warmth, care and hospitality, to an extent that is almost embarrassing. Just remember to return the favor when you have Japanese (or other foreign) friends visiting you back home. While you may never get to reciprocate the kindness shown to you during your travels to the same people who were so good to you, ”paying it forward” is not only a Japanese — but also universal — way of thinking that helps make the world a warmer place.
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Risa Sekiguchi is co-owner of Mizuya, an online gallery for Japanese tableware, and the founder of Savory Japan, a website dedicated to Japanese cuisine and culture.
Essay by Risa Sekiguchi
Photos by Hotaru Images
Edited by : Arlynne Hurley