A Year to forget – 忘年会・(ぼうねんかい)

No, no it was not all that bad, the passing year, however as we are going towards the end of it, I would like to talk about the custom of year-end parties in Japan, which are the so called BOUNENKAI (忘年会・ぼうねんかい). It is yet another and last occasion of the year for the festive people of Japan to throw their parties. The country has a vibrant festival culture, but unlike many seasonal events, bounenkai has no religious connotation or specific event protocol what so ever. Nonetheless, it can be said that it still carries a not unimportant social relevance and therefore is not to be missed out.

Bounenkai literally translates to ‘forgetting () the year () gathering ()’. So actually this is what I refer to in the title more precisely. It is the time, when people come together for some carefree hours of partying to throw all their hardships and troubles of the fading year over board. In the article I talk about what a bounenkai night could look like, by which I hope to provide a few interesting references for readers not yet familiar to the topic and to stir memories of the ones, who made their own bounenkai impressions. Well then, here we go!
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「最初にビール、お願いします・さいしょにビール、おねがいします」・’First a beer, please’; not only for bounenkai, but ordering a beer for a first drink is kind of a common thing in Japan, when going out for dinner or drinks with co-workers and friends. At least that is pretty much true for the guys. Ladies normally would go soft with their first beverages. Later on they maybe pivoting to sparkling or PLUM WINE (梅酒・うめしゅ). Against popular believe, Japanese people (incl. women), can pour down quite a bit of liquor – particularly in the South.

Surprisingly for many foreign visitors, the night of 31st will be oddly quiet in terms of events for most of the country. There won’t be even a firecracker taking off, despite Japan’s fame for stunning fireworks. It might even be a bit disappointing to guests from overseas because the actual partying all takes place before that. It is the bounenkai season near the end of the year when Japan really goes it all out. A hectic, but then very profitable time for eateries, bars and other entertainment facilities, most establishments completely booked out for the whole of December.

First gatherings are sometimes held as early as the end of November due to space availability. Especially popular venues are booked out way in advance for certain dates, so some groups fix their parties earlier on in the calendar to safe their favorite spots. People gather for private occasions, mainly in the circles of friends, as well as attend company arranged parties. The latter ones are said not being mandatory, however, knowing the group oriented fabric of Japanese society and company structures, I personally think it would not be well perceived skipping out on it, unless there is a veritable reason for no-show. Foreign staff might be exempt to this ‘unspoken rule’ as I call it, but then I think one would miss out on a great experience and opportunity to socialize with co-workers in a more relaxed setting. Bounenkai is something I personally miss from my time in Japan. Especially the foods were always generously chosen, a delectable highlight to close the year on a nice note :).

A photo of my last bounenkai. After plentiful appetizers, main courses would either consist of sushi assortments or a variety of NABE (鍋・なべ), a savory hot pot dish popular for the colder season and local specialty.

Depending on the social network one is embedded in, the period can turn out in marathon of meetings. While some feel obliged to fulfill the group expectations, for others it is shackles off and pure enjoyment. In either way, it will not be easy on the wallet. Bills in relation with the event for private gatherings are generally settled by the WARIKAN (割り勘・わりかん) principle, basically splitting the total costs equally among heads. Its opposite would be BETSU BETSU (別々・べつべつ; separately), everyone paying one’s own share. For companies, from own experience, the first, more formal round would be on one’s own bill. Second and third rounds would commonly be on the business’ tab or a superior would generously sponsor. But then it probably depends on the mood of the bosses as well as how yielding the overall year has been. It can also be that the entire costs are covered by the business.

As far as goes entertainment, in recent years there has been a trend towards more Western-style amusement for company gatherings, although staff itself might be more in favor of traditional ways. A small company as we were, we would keep it simple by playing bingo and such, which was nevertheless great fun and to everyone’s delight a prize could be fetched for each staff in the end. Whatever the group though, one is for certain, people will often drink hard, in particular bands of young, mid-aged salary men, on various opportunities to really ensure the memory is relieved of all the woes from the old year ;). Obviously this doesn’t apply to everyone, but the otherwise restrained Japanese soul for most of the year will be set free. One thing I need to add in here though, despite the carousing, one will hardly ever be talked into drinks or glasses poured against one’s will. Japanese friends and colleagues are very understanding and tolerant when someone refrains from the revelry.

The frisky ‘ridding of hardship process’ is facilitated by the in other countries unthinkable, yet in IZAKAYA (居酒屋・いざかや; Japanese style bar) and restaurants well-established system Japan knows by the name of NOMIHOUDAI (飲み放題・にみほうだい), or all-you-can- drink catering within a certain time window (normally ranging 1-2 hours). Therefore the bounenkai parties usually run under the motto of BUREIKOU (無礼講・ぶれいこう), which means that ranks are put aside for once, eventual omission of etiquette forgiven … kind of ;). Alcohol consumed in certain quantities, has the property of stripping out bluntly one’s ‘true face’, hasn’t it?! Oh we know’em all! While some participants start clinging like a Kuala bear or turn into the harmless, but a bit disturbing WHINY TYPES (泣き上戸・なきじょうご), others might let off steam verbally at their colleagues and superiors that accumulated throughout the year after they could help themselves to liquid courage with several  IKKI NOMI (一気飲み・いっきのみ; gulp down a drink in one go). One would never see is any aggressive behavior such as shouting or physical contact, instead complaints would be uttered in normal tone, but pointed and unmistakable way for the receiver. Such verbal ‘rants’, although said to be pardoned under the code of bureikou at the occasion, I got the feeling that this is not entirely the case and should be taken with a pinch of salt. Some bosses might well remember what they were alleged of. Maybe next time a salary increase or a bonus is due this card comes into the game. The culprits of course wouldn’t recall any of this the next day, while either ailing along in front of their desks, if showing up at all.

Not coming to the office next day is another unspoken, technically accepted rule, of which anyone could make use of. So it can well happen, one finding only about half of the office/department being physically present for the day – mental presence aside. However, if the day following the recovery everyone is returning to duty, vigorously pursuing work with cleared spirit and hard feelings washed pure, all is good. This is what bounenkai supposedly is all about.

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Drinking games I could never really observe. Similar to other countries, I am sure they exist in Japan as well in some forms. Probably more likely a guys thing, the ladies well-mannered standing back and behold in bewilderment of this ‘strange’ behavior, right?!

The first rounds end around 9, 10-ish. A first grape of participants will then head home, primarily people with kids or the ones, who have homes in the far distance. When people part, the practice of MIOKURI (見送り・みおくり; farewell so.) may be seen, as described it in an earlier post of mine. After seeing off the first fraction, the remaining group would move to a different location for the SECOND PARTY/AFTERPARTY (二次会・にじかい) of the same night, often a KARAOKE BAR. While drinks consumed and cigarettes smoked, the group would cheer and dance to the person singing. Duets are not a bad thing, when having not quite as much confidence. Many of the Japanese go to karaoke early on, so one really needs to give it the best to top them in their discipline. Everyone should take a turn, so even if you are a gifted singer, make sure to pass around the microphone – it could be a mood killer otherwise ;).

By the time the second round ends it is just about midnight when last trains/subways depart in Japan. Definitely the main portion of staff would call it a day now, leaving only a core behind that would spend the rest of the night together till the very early morning hours when public transport picks up operation again. Once  arrived at this stage, best to pull it through all the way, there could be some sneering when dropping out halfway from now – besides, many consider what is coming now the most interesting part of bounenkai. People might still all of a sudden disappear traceless when moving between venues however – all seen ;).

Next up in the program, either another round of singing and drinking or if the group consists of mainly men also a KYABAKURA (キャバクラ, hostess bar) is not seldomly visited. There is not much to it though and as a matter of fact female staff is invited to join too. These kind of establishments are by standard considered more upscale in interior and service than regular bars, however are not related to erotica in anyway. Waitresses could be scarcely dressed in bikinis for example, definitely nice to look at, in the end though it serves all one purpose that is the more customers drink the more lucrative for the pocket of the hostess and the business. Kyabakura and SNACK (スナックバー; snack bar with female hosts called MAMA・ママ, who are often mid-aged women, very skilled in talking) are often mistaken by foreigners for some kind of contact bar with amorous tête-à-têtes after a couple drinks. While this can’t be completely excluded, it’s really more all about talking and socializing with the opposite gender there.

For shy people and foreigners alike, it can be a unique chance at the bounenkai to visit such an establishment, because often times it may feel intimidating to go alone and also some venues could refuse entry to individuals or groups of foreigners. If one has some personal concerns or reservation before entering – for foreigners anyway – it is all justified under the slogan BUNKA NO KENKYUU NO TAME (文化の研究のため; for the sake of studying the culture). Usually one hostess is allocated for one or two heads, so it makes also for rare speaking practice for students of Japanese language that would be otherwise rather expensive ‘conversation lessons’ when paid out of the own pocket – got to take full advantage of every aspect ;).

On the clock it shows around 4 to 5 a.m. in the mornings when the SANJIKAI (三次会・さんじかい; third party round) is finishing. From here there could be still some time to kill until public transportation is open again, so the last station of the night could be a stop at one of the RAMEN (拉麺・ラーメン; Chinese style noodles) shops, to take in a bowl of noodles, which is said to be beneficial to cure/prevent from HANGOVERS (二日酔い・ふつかよい).

After a night out it tastes even better – TONKATSU (豚カツ・とんかつ) RAMEN in a thick, creamy pork broth with lots of green onion.

When the noodles are all slurped up, tummies satisfied, people would disperse into all directions going home, trying to get a little bit of rest in a CAPSULE HOTEL (カプセルホテル) or NET CAFE (ネットカフェ) before returning to work or heading directly to the office to nap at the desk for a few hours to later resume work. Every year the internet and social media will have its share of posts showing knocked out party animals on the way home sleeping on either train benches/floors or sober out in parks in the most hilarious of positions – watch out for those and hope you are not among them :).

For me, since I had conveniently lived close to both the company and the part of the city, where bounenkai were held, I always managed to get home one or the other way. When luck had it, my shifts fell the way that the following working day I had my usual days off and therefore didn’t have to make any use of excuse. I am not a big drinker myself, but lacking my obligatory 8-hours, I prefer to stay home anyway. Well, this is what a long bounenkai night could turn out like. One thing to be kept in mind though, after the bounenkai is before SHINNENKAI (新年会・しんねんかい, new year gathering) in Japan, in other words the next opportunity for partying is just around the corner and something to look forward to in the coming year.

Herewith I have come the end of the article about bounenkai. I have mainly experienced year-end parties within the company and that is what I have given to account above. Not necessarily a topic of significant importance, nevertheless I hope that it evoked some smiles and that I could bring this custom a bit closer to readers. Should you reside in Japan hopefully some of the expressions will become in handy for you. This is likely going to be my last post for 2015 because duty is calling at work. I thank everyone following my humble blog and the readership in general for the support granted. If I can post the same way next year, this needs to be seen as I have some upcoming projects on the start. I will inform about the coverage of the blog when I also know more about it myself. This all said, have a good rest of the current year…

…じゃ、カンパイ! – Well then, bottoms up!

©MyLittle Dejima

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