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Japan: Drinkommunication, when drinking alcohol is a social obligation

“In wine is truth”, said the ancients. It is true that alcohol in limited quantities helps loosen one's inhibitions but in Japan it is often used as a social lubricant in a society that still sees a necessary gap between one's real feelings and intention (honne) and what one says on social occasions (tatemae).

Drinking with classmates or team mates when you are a student, or with colleagues when you are an employee is an important activity if you want to be part of the group. According to many, it is with a glass of beer or sake in hand that a new type of franker communication may occur, or a nommunication.

Nommunication (roughly translated as drinkommunication) is a term created by mixing the verb nomu (to drink) and the term ‘communication'. It can be defined as an important part of becoming a social person [en], as it deals with the working etiquette of an employee, and was created to indicate the type of communication that is established between a superior with his junior colleagues over social drinks apart from the office.

A night of drinking. By jamesjustin CC License.

The summary of an anonymous short essay [ja] titled “General Observations on Salarymen” (サラリーマンに関する一般的考察) explains the origin of the concept.

そもそも、ノミュニケーションというのが出来たのは、高度経済成長時代に、会社運営を円滑に行うために思考錯誤された結果であると考えられる。
というのも、上司というのは一般的に部下を叱責する義務がある。端的に言えば、部下というのは怒られるために存在しているようなものである。かと言って、誰でも怒られて嬉しいわけではない。
そこで、部下の様子を見て上司は一杯連れていってやるわけである。まぁ、通常は居酒屋あたりに連れていって、恐縮している部下に向かってビールを注ぎながら、「一杯飲めや」となるわけである。で、部下は「いただきます」と言いながらビールを飲みつつ、会社の愚痴を言ったり、私生活の悩みなどを相談するわけである。

Initially, the term of nommunication was created during the high economic growth era, as the result of trying different methods to strengthen a corporate mentality that would serve to make a company run more smoothly.
Put simply, bosses generally have the obligation to rebuke their subordinates. And frankly, it could be said that subordinates exist to be scolded. But of course, nobody is happy at being scolded.
So, considering the feeling of their subordinates, the superiors would invite them to have a drink. Usually they would take them to an izakaya (restaurant and bar) and provide beer to their uneasy subordinates. They would cheer them up with a “hey, here it is. Let's drink!”. The subordinate would then thank and while drinking beer, he would air his complaints of their company and problems in his private life.

Alcohol is, in some cases, a businessman's best friend as it is over a glass of shochu [en] that the best negotiations happen. As with many other cultures, inviting clients to dinner is a common habit in the Japanese working culture, and the so called settai, often translated as ‘business entertainment', is as important as the meetings that the company executives may have with their clients in the company offices.

Yellowbel confesses that while he would often refuse to drink with his colleagues when he was a simple employee, he cannot avoid wining and dining with his clients now that he runs his own company.

その後サラリーマンを辞めて、小さいながら会社を切りまわし始めると、お酒の席は断るとか断らないとかじゃない、生活の一部になってきました。
営業系の自営業にとって、酒の席で本能に限りなく近いところでおつきあいするのが、商売というかオフィシャルな自分を売り込むのに一番いい手段になるからです。

Since I quit my job as an employee and started up my own business, it has not just become a matter of drinking or not; alcohol has simply become a part of my daily life.
For a self employed person who is also a sales manager, drinking with a client until you're relating with each other as your true selves is the best tool in which to “sell” yourself.

 
If nommunication is a powerful tool in the hands of a salesman, it is sometimes the cause of pressure and stress for those junior employees who feel obliged to accept their superiors’ invitation. Male employees are more exposed to this kind of pressure as they are expected to be heavy drinkers.

A recent discussion on Twitter [ja] brought to light this deep-rooted stereotype as Twitter user @shisetsu commented that he finds it unpleasant that it is taken for granted that everybody must drink alcohol.
@shisetsu's few tweets sparked a debate on the habit of after-hours partying where colleagues often gather to drink alcohol at an izakaya as a way to relief stress but sometimes to foster the relations among the team.

While some other Twitter users agreed with him saying that sometimes they feel they obliged to drink as every one else does, @akcanon responded saying that drinking alcohol is part of a social duty for an adult.

@shisetu 飲めない事をただ強調するんじゃなくてキチンと理由まで説明すべきだと思うな。学生じゃなくて社会人だし、職場のコミュニケーションて大切なことだよ。 お金貰ってるから仕事だけしてればいいってもんじゃないよ。

@shisetu I think that if you don't drink, you must not simply say so but you must explain the reasons thoroughly. You are not a student anymore but an adult and being able to communicate is important in the working place. You are not getting paid only to do your work and that's it.

The swift reply by @shisetsu [ja] changed the tone of the conversation and later on made @akcanon apologize and reflect over the idea that being a working person is equal to being an alcohol drinker.

@akcanon 私は体質上の飲酒は全く問題ありませんが、私の父はアル中かつDVなので子供である僕と弟は反面教師で全く飲みません。これを飲み会で言って場の空気を悪くするのも酒飲みが望むご都合主義のコミュニュケーションでしょうか?人間関係を大事にするのと飲酒に因果関係はありません。

@akcanon I don't have any health reasons as to why I can’t drink alcohol but my dad was an alcoholic and this resulted in domestic violence to my brother and I when we were children. So as a reaction to this, I don't drink at all. Explaining all this at a dinner and making the mood strained … would this be the kind of atmosphere and communication that those who drink wish? There is no cause and effect relationship between valuing other people and drinking alcohol.

Working environments have been changing in the last years, mainly because of the economic crisis and the system is collapsing. Some believe also that some social obligations like nomunication are becoming less pressing and fewer and fewer younger businessmen feel it as duty to step their career up.

Blogger kikuiri, for example, believes that the reasons may also be that people are busier and busier nowadays, many use their cars to go to work and plus … the priorities are changing.

「忙しい」には、もう1種類あって、「家族の世話」で忙しいというケースがあります。
それこそ10年くらい前までは、勤めている人=飲みニュケーションに参加する人=家庭の仕事に追われていない(放棄?)男性 という図式がほぼ成り立っていたと思うのですが、今現在、その図式は成立しないと言ってもいいでしょう。
実際、「育児」に関わる人は、飲みニュケーションには少なくとも数年間は参加できないと思いますし、これから増えると思うのは「介護」に関わる人であります。

Among the category of the ‘busy people’ there is the case of those who are busy because “they have a family to take care of”.
Until 10 years ago there was the equation: employee = person who takes part in the nommunication = man who takes no part in (or rejects) the household chores. Nowadays however, that equation is no longer applicable.
As a matter of fact, those who are committed in child-rearing won't be able to take part to the nomunication for a number of years at least and also the number of people committed to nursing the elderly will increase.

Salarymen. By A Malchik! CC License

Probably to avoid the social pressure that drinking with acquaintances may cause, more and more people have also been choosing to have their drinking parties online in convenient virtual meeting places provided by major brewers, or in drinking chat sessions.
Possible side benefits include no need for make up for the women and probably no heavy drinking for the men.

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