Japan is a delightful place to get your drink on. The drinking age is 20 and public drinking and intoxication are perfectly legal. Not surprisingly, alcohol is a huge part of Japanese culture. Proper drinking etiquette was briefly touched on in my Japanese Etiquette: How to Save Yourself from Embarrassment in Japan post, but I think alcohol deserves a post all its own. So if you're looking to get a bit drunk in Japan or if you just want to see how they do it over there, grab yourself a frosty beverage and read on.
What to Order First at a Japanese Bar
After a long day at school/the office/Steve's basement everyone in Japan is looking forward to that first drink at their local bar. But what should they order?
With Japan's structured drinking culture, everyone seems to enjoy sharing the same type of drink for the first round. It just feels better for that first kampai (cheers) when everyone is sharing the same beverage. Japan is a very team oriented country, and their drinking habits are no exception. So get in that team attitude and join in with the group for that first round.
It's most common for beer or sake to be ordered on the first round and then people start to branch out a bit after that to their liking since beer and sake are a lot easier to order as a group and share than mai tais and cosmos.
But How Do I Pour These Things?
Depending on the place you go, whether it be a restaurant, bar, or izakaya (combination bar and restaurant) you'll either have your drinks poured for you by the waiter/waitress, or you and your group will be in charge of pouring your own from a communal source. In the case of the latter, there is a certain process to follow.
While drinking in Japan, it is considered proper etiquette to fill everyone else's glasses and not your own. You're supposed to wait for someone else to fill yours, usually after you do the same for them. When you offer to fill someone's glass, they may refuse as a show of traditional Japanese humbleness but this is usually just a formality. Unless someone is continually and vehemently refusing your offer, they're just being polite and you should fill their glass anyway.
And like I said, once you fill someone else's glass, they'll usually return the favor in kind and fill yours for you. So be careful if you're not looking to drink anymore – if you fill someone else's glass, you're likely to get yours refilled or topped off right away in return. As such, if you feel like you've reached your limit, the best thing to do is to have your glass filled full and not drink any more of it.
The Japanese are also big fans of drinking games and you'll be sure to learn some you've never heard of before while you're there. They also seem to like testing the alcohol tolerance of foreigners, so don't be surprised if they try to pressure you into drinking more than you're normally comfortable with (at least until they discover what your actual tolerance really is).
One of my favorite drinking games from Japan is called Takenoko Takenoko Nyoki Ki. Takenoko means bamboo, nyoki is the sound that bamboo shoots make as they sprout, and ki means tree. It's an elimination game so alcohol doesn't need to be involved, but I think it works best as a drinking game.
Each person has to say a number and then nyoki (ichi-nyoki, ni-nyoki, etc) while putting their hands over their head like a bamboo shoot. You say the numbers in order from one to however many people are playing minus one with each person shouting out a number. If two people say a number at the same time, they're both out and have to drink. If you're last, then you're out and you drink alone.
So it's just like a group of people counting at random to a specified number and no one wants to count at the same time or be last. Like most games, it's a lot easier to understand if you actually play a round of it once. But trust me, it's fun.
As for the pecking order when filling other people's glasses, it is customary for the underlings at a company to fill their superiors' glasses, underclassmen to pour upperclassmens' and for females to pour for the males. It is also proper etiquette to promptly reciprocate the pour.
As with most everything that involves drinking, the rules get a bit looser as the night carries on and people get a bit more tipsy. Keeping this in mind, don't be surprised if people start filling their own glasses or going against some of the customary guidelines detailed above. As long as everyone is having a good time and not being blatantly rude, it's all gravy in the Navy.
What to do When the Check Comes
As with almost every Japanese establishment, it is up to the patrons to split the bill on their own. Pretty much always a single check will be brought to the group's table and it is up to them to figure out who owes what. Splitting the check in Japan is referred to as betsu-betsu which means separately or individually.
It's pretty common for betsu-betsu to be the go to method when paying for checks in Japan. Even when on dates betsu-betsu is not unusual, but having the guy get the entire bill is always appreciated by the lady in question, I'm sure.
In some cases, if a high ranking company official is part of the drinking group – they may insist on paying the whole check or at least a significant portion of it. It is also not unusual for one person (most often among salarymen) to foot the entire bill and then collect shares from people the following day for convenience's sake.
Late Night and Beyond
It's also fairly common for people in Japan to be out way late when they get to drinking. Some salarymen will stay out incredibly late with their coworkers and bosses. Then the only sleep they get is on the train and they spend hardly any time at home before they leave to come back to work in the morning only to repeat the entire process all over again.
And then there's the nightlife in Japan. From personal experience, it seems very popular for the young crowd to wait until midnight or so to go out to bars and clubs and then stay out all night partying until the trains start running again in the morning.
The bottom line here is to be prepared to stay out later than you're used to when you go out drinking in Japan. Of course it depends on the crowd you're with and what type of people they are, but it's definitely not unusual to be out pretty late when getting your drink on in Japan.
Feeling buzzed yet? Check out more Japanese drinking information and for more general tips on drinking (and eating) you can check out this post from SeeJapan.co.uk.