The enkai is where it all happens. It is the time to solidify work
relationships, air out dirty laundry
, gossip and get good and drunk. It is also the only time that you can act like a complete idiot
in front of your work colleagues and completely get away with it. Almost anything that you do or say during a night out is forgiven and forgotten by the next morning
and, in fact, outrageous behaviour
The enkai always begins in the same way, whether it more or less formal. Everyone must arrive before the appointed start time. For very formal occasions, seating is predetermined. At the more casual work enkai, seating is established by lotto. You choose a slip of paper when you arrive and this decides where you will be sitting for the evening. This forces people to mingle and get to know one another, rather than hanging out in their usual groups.
Once everyone is seated, seiza style to start, the Master of Ceremonies gives a speech. At a formal enkai, there may be more than one speaker to open the occasion, but at the standard work enkai, the MC rarely takes more than a couple of minutes. At the end of the applause the MC calls out kanpai and with everyone responding in turn and clinking glasses with everyone else, the party is officially started. It is important to note that everyone must have some beer for the opening of the enkai. Japan has zero alcohol tolerance for driving, but even if you are the designated driver, it is imperative that you at least have a sip for the opening toast. Afterwards, your glass will be replaced with a clean one and you will be given a bottle of cold tea.
Once the opening kanpai is finished, everyone begins to eat. The tables are laden with numerous dishes, all inviting, all delicious. The required pouring of beer, however, often hinders eating. It is vital that you never let your neighbour’s glass get less than half full. The thing is, once you have topped up your neighbour’s beer, s/he will be obliged to do the same for you, this irrespective of how full your glass is. If your glass is indeed completely full, you are obligated to take a sip to make some room so that your glass can be topped up. And so it goes, until bottle after bottle is emptied and replaced and you become drunker and drunker. Just when you think you can’t drink anymore, bottles of warm sake appear and the sake ritual begins.
Sake makes its appearance at the enkai when the majority of the food has already been served. At this point, people have already started to move away from their original seats to initiate and engage in conversation around the room. Small circles are formed around a bottle of sake and the members take turns pouring for one another. Once you have finished your small cup of sake, you must wipe the rim with your palm and pass it back to the person who originally served you. Always hold the sake cup with two hands. When pouring from the sake bottle, always hold that with two hands as well. Repeat and get even more drunk.
At some point, the casual work enkai turns surreal as the MC announces the enkai Olympics. The attendees are divided into groups, which compete against one another in a series of strange games, each more bizarre than the last. At a recent enkai, I had to throw various candies, chocolates and marshmallows at a fellow teacher, who attempted to catch them from ten meters away with mouth. In the next round, two teachers from each team had balloons tied to the back of their ankles with elastic bands. They had to attempt to pop the balloons of the other participants while protecting their own. Next came the pass-the-elastic-band-on-a-Pocky stick-game. Each team had to line up 8 competitors who were each given a Pocky stick. Using this, in their mouths, they had to pass an elastic band from one end of the line to the other as quickly as possible.
There was a game involving panty hose on the head, but it was too complex to explain here. Suffice it to say, that seeing the distinguished, elderly science teacher with a pair of pantyhose on his head gave me a whole new perspective on Japan.
As a lone foreigner you might feel left out or limited by the language divide in your day-to-day work relations. This is an irrelevant point during the wilder stages of the enkai. It seems that almost everyone speaks at a conversational level of English. The Japanese are shy and reticent people. They do not like making mistakes and in learning a new language, they aim for perfection. Even though most Japanese have studied English formally for at least 6 years at the junior and senior high school levels, and many at the university level, most are too shy to use it. This all goes out the window at the enkai, when all of the sudden everyone is pera pera and willing to talk to you. All those teachers or co-workers that you thought didn’t like you or were unwilling to get to know you, become fast and furious friends, at least for the duration of the evening. Furthermore, it is not surprising to find out that someone in your staff-room or office who has never spoken to you was a English major at university or spent a year learning English overseas.
The Japanese really do love karaoke. Many restaurants offer karaoke on location, so that after you have finished gorging yourself on the copious amounts of food and alcohol, you can sing to your heart’s content. Many enkais include a change in location, usually, but not always, to a karaoke bar. The ni-ji-kai and the san-ji-kai, the second and third parties, are preplanned, but attendance is not mandatory. The number of revelers decreases with each move to a new location, while the level of inebriation increases exponentially. By the second party at my welcome enkai, the principal of my school was trying to put on high heals and a group of the younger teachers were bar dancing.
The enkai, which roughly translates as drinking party, is so much more than that. It is the time to really get to know your coworkers and bond with them. To celebrate minor or major accomplishments at the office or school, to welcome or bid farewell to staff, or mark the passing of major holidays.