I Can Has Nomikai?!

I know, I used this picture on my other blog.  So sue me.

I know, I used this picture on my other blog. So sue me.

So here’s a little something I’ve learned about Japan.  Nomikai are great places to learn things about Japan.  For those of you just coming in (or I suppose there could be a few who have forgotten already), a nomikai is a drinking party ‚Äì Japanese style.  The word literally means “drinking-meeting.”  This is where Japanese people really kind of let loose and show their true colors, provided that they don’t get completely wasted, in which case they just get really stupid.

So I have some interesting notes on drinking parties in Japan.  These are to be taken as a case study and not as general overarching rules, though I imagine many would not be far off from the majority of situations.

First off, the nomikai take place in restaurants.  Most smaller Japanese restaurants have a more traditionally-arranged room in the back which is generally more dedicated to large groups.  The students (or office-workers, etc…) pre-arrange with a location to have a nomikai, and the restaurant makes preparations.  Sometimes the room is a somewhat sectioned off normal part of a larger restaurant, and sometimes it’s a much more traditional-looking section with squat tables and pillows on which to rest your rump (allegedly making the restaurant home for a while). ^_^

Second, nomikai have a small group of people (2 or 3) who are more-or-less ‘in charge’ of the event.  These people are the go-between for the group and the restaurant, meaning they handle the check, ordering food, etc…  During the event they double-check with everyone what they’re drinking, making sure to take care of special orders for anyone NOT drinking beer.  In my case, they verify that I’m drinking some kind of juice, but a few others sometimes refrain as well and opt instead for oolong-tea or Calpis (Calpico in the non-Japanese arts of the world) or something.  Mostly, though, everyone drinks beer, even if they don’t much like beer.  Also, these nomikai moderators wander the event, checking on tables, and are responsible for making sure that a full bottle of beer is well within anyone’s reach, and remove empty bottles with surprising skill.  Not that they’re good at taking the bottles so much as they’re good at noticing empty bottles and exchanging them for full ones.  (I have to believe that the bottles aren’t individually packaged and opened, but rather just refilled from a tap or something, because the sheer number of bottles gone through would be insane otherwise.)

Third, and this is something that many may already know, is that everyone must have SOMETHING in their glass that they can drink at any given time.  The corollary to this is that one must never be required to refill their own glass at all, with a sub-clause which mandates that if anyone looks to pour you more to drink, you must roughly finish off whatever is currently in your glass (optionally vocalizing some distress that they’re making you drink more) and then hold the newly emptied vessel for them to pour more into.  Once the drink has been poured, it seems, to be polite you take at least a tiny sip of whatever is in your glass.  This is a very interesting set of steps for me, mostly because it’s very much a game.  I’ll get into the game later, though.

Fourth, before anyone drinks anything, one of the moderators (usually the head moderator) must make a speech which at least (and often at most) announces the group, the fact that it’s a nomikai, and that we should begin the event.  He shouts, “Kanpai!” followed by the group joining in, glasses are clinked, and then you have the single quietest three seconds of the evening as everyone downs their glass (except for me, because the juice usually comes in larger glasses, and is likely more difficult to get refilled, so I just take a drink and assume that whatever rules I may be pushing will be forgiven because I’m a crazy foreigner).  The moderator has, on occasion, made small reference to this being the last nomikai before school starts again (and everyone groans), or saying that school has recently begun and we’re all working hard on studying (and everyone laughs), but these sorts of current-events announcements are purely optional as far as I can tell.

Fifth comes the interactions.  Nomikai seem to me to be really the single biggest (if not ONLY) mode of real social interaction between people in clubs here in Japan.  Back home, as I’m sure you know, people would sometimes get together at someone’s house and watch a movie, or they’d go to a park and hang out (a task which is made somewhat rather more dangerous in Japan due to the status of their parks…), or sometimes even a restaurant, which I guess is kind of the same thing.  But the house option is pretty common in America.  Here, there’s practice where people actually practice and pay attention and are generally very serious about it, and then there’s nomikai.  Everything else is seeing them in passing and waving.  So a lot of mingling goes on.

When you first get to the nomikai, you sit down in rather haphazard fashion.  That is, pretty much anywhere is okay.  Not too many people willingly sit by me, but I think that’s partly because I’m white and don’t really look like I should speak Japanese, which I don’t generally do that well.  (Nomikai get pretty loud, and as much as you have to ask people what they said in America at loud parties, imagine now that you’re not even sure if you KNOW the words someone is saying to you, and think about how many times you have to ask for explanations and people to repeat themselves.)  And anyway, being the introvert I generally like to be, I’m totally cool with only a few of the braver, more English-versed kids coming to hang out.  Not that we speak a lot of English, mind you, it’s just that having SOME small command of my native language seems to give them more confidence that when speaking to me they’ll be understood.  Even though the speak in Japanese. ^_^  I generally get along pretty well, and haven’t too often had to rely on a dictionary, though there will occasionally be a question posed to one of those who’re REALLY good at English as to what a word means.  But I digress.

So you’ve sat down next to… whomever, the ‘Kanpai‘ is said and the silence squashed, and now you have to come up with things to talk about.  Thus far at all the nomikai there have been new people and old people in the club getting to know each other, so discussion topics have been pretty much uniformly about who’s who and what they like.  I often get the, “Where are you from?” which for a while I used to answer, “Colorado,” but eventually I got someone who said, “What country is that in?”  I guess I looked Italian or something. ^_^  So now I say, “Colorado, in America.”  Well, I say the Japanese version of that…  Inevitably, and much to my compounded consternation, there has been some kind of talk about girlfriends, and how apparently I look like either Johnny Depp or (last time I got) Orlando Bloom.  I think that last one is because I hadn’t shaved in a week or so, and thus had a fairly visible 5-o’clock shadow.  (Yes, it takes me almost a week to grow what takes most men 8 hours.  I’m okay with that.  It’s part of who I am.  And it affords me the ability to be lazy and not shave every day! >.<)  I have, in the last week, I think been hit on by more Japanese girls in this dance club than by the sum total of girls who have ever directly hit on me at any other time in my life, and I used to work at the Renaissance Festival!  (For those who don’t know, Rennies hot on each other rather a lot, and I was called, with some frequency, “jail bait,” as I was yet under the legal age for consensual relations. ^_^)

The flow of the “girlfriend” conversation, by the way is very interesting.  I should say, the Girlfriend Conversation™, because the thing is so exactly the same each time I get it that I was very amazed!  It must be like one of those scripts they do in English classes:

Girl:  So do you have a girlfriend?
Boy:  Nope.
Girl:  Oh, wow, I was sure that you did!
Boy:  Yeah, well…
Girl:  So have you EVER had a girlfriend?
Boy:  Yeah, sure I have.
Girl:  How many?
Boy:  Oh, really just one.
[Note:  This is mostly true…  I don’t really count the only other one that I could, but that’s another matter altogether.]
Girl:  Wow!  I figured you’d have had a lot!
Girl 2(who’s been listening in): What’s the normal number?
Girl 1:  I think it’s probably about three, right?
Girl 2:  Yeah, I think three is about right.
Girl 1:  So how long did you go out with her?
Boy:  Um… *embarrassed* Only about a week.
Girl 1:  Ah, I see.  So you’re sure you’re single?
Boy:  Yeah, I don’t have a girlfriend.
Girl 2:  Are you looking for a girlfriend?
Boy:  Of course I am! ^_^
Girl 1:  What do you think about Japanese girls?
Boy:  I think they’re fine. [Fine as in suitable, guys.  As in “I have no problem with the idea of dating a Japanese girl.”]
Girls laugh.
Girl 1:  So what kinds of girls do you like?

And the conversation proceeds from there.  The fun thing is that when you say what attracts you in girls, whichever ones are paying attention to the conversation (I had as many as four once) all look around and consider themselves and each other for the qualifications.  Thus when I say, “She should be smart,” they all look around and groan, saying how that rules them out.  Sometimes they’ll gang up on one girl and make her out to be smart, but I know better. ^_^  They do the same sorts of things for “cute,” too.  I really like to throw out “She should like to dance,” when I’m in the proximity of girls who are exclusively in the dance club.  That one’s fun and gets all of their hopes up.  If they weren’t already a little tipsy to begin with, I’d say that this means I’m going to Hell, but as screwing around with intoxicated friends is one of the more forgivable sins (as I perceive it to be), I think I’m going to be okay. ^_^

I talk about this like it happens all the time, by the way, and you should all know that this has only happened a couple of times.  Of the four nomikai I’ve been to since being here, I think I’ve only ever gotten seriously hit on at three of them, and the above conversation was the more involved conglomeration of all of them put together.  Though the majority of the conversation was present for at least 2/3 of the events. ^_^

Lastly, you have the Game™.  Hmm…  I wonder if “Game” has already been trademarked?  Ah, well, whatever, I’ll probably trademark it for something completely unrelated later anyway!  This is, in fact a drinking game, and the rules are this:

1.  Every time you get burned, you must take a drink.  This is ‘burn’ in the terms used in “That 70’s Show,” whereby if someone makes a joke that makes you look worse for it, everyone laughs and says, “Ohhhhh!” and someone grabs the beer bottle ready to pour your drink because you have to finish it off, ’cause you got BURNED!

2.  If anyone ever says anything extremely NICE to you, you take a drink.  The best example of this was in the “Who Would You Go Out With™” portion of talking, where after you’ve established what KINDS of girls you like, you then look around the table and must confess to who you find the most attractive.  And then they must drink.  The caveat to this rule is that if someone was trying REALLY hard to be the one chosen (up to and including offering you money if you pick them [note: I was never offered money]) and then they LOSE, they must instead take the drink for failing.  This is, in hindsight, probably related to rule 1 above.

3.  If you say something crazy, and everyone agrees with you, you all must clink glasses and drink, followed by frantic refill.

4.  If you burn someone, and they accept it tactfully and act like it’s a good thing, you must all clink glasses and drink, and refill.

5.  If someone doesn’t like something you said, or thought it was mean or whatever, they may grab the beer bottle and you must drink, and then they pour you more.

I think that’s about it. ^_^  Thus goes the flow of the nomikai drinking game.  There are, of course, rules of etiquette as well.  For instance, if you lose at the “WWYGOW” game (see above in rule #2), you must lose gracefully.  That is, you can make a big show of how much it ruins your life, and your hopes and dreams have all been dashed out upon the rocks of fate by the cruel, twisted arms of whoever refused you, so long as it’s all in fun and over the top.  You are also encouraged to be like, “Well of course, that’s the better choice!  Now you two should DEFINITELY go out!”  This is certainly a place for you to be creative and let your true colors show.

So now, if any of you are wondering just how on earth any of the Japanese youth are still alive, or live long enough to become the robots of the Japanese workforce that is their inevitable destination, I should probably have explained earlier that the amount in any one of these glasses is only around two shots, and we’re talking about CHEAP beer, so the alcohol percentage is pretty weak in them.  Not very many people tend to get very drunk at these.  I mean, SOMEWHAT drunk, but not to the point where they really need someone’s help to walk or anything.

On a more serious note, there are some very interesting things I HAVE observed.  For instance people are more than willing and ready to set someone up with someone else if there seems to be any kind of mutual interest between them.  At these parties, it’s perfectly acceptable to suggest that someone should go out with someone else.  I was pretty readily hooked up with one of the new first-year students at the last one where we played the WWYGOW game, since we both chose each other as probably being the most interesting amongst those at the table, to the point where they even moved me around to be sitting next to her.  We chatted for a while, and had an interesting conversation.  Yes, I know that’s weak.  But while SHE stated that older men interest her, the fact that I’m about 6-7 years older than me caused me to hesitate a bit.  Call it my weakness, but I would rather not get into a situation where (not likely, mind you) I may be dating a freshman in college and have to return to America for six months, but we’re very much in love, and to move to America WITH me would screw up all of her plans for her future, and my staying in Japan (somehow?!?) would screw up most of mine.  Yes, I know, “love finds a way,” “compromise,” and all that.  I’ve still got time, I’m not making my choices quite yet on who I’m going to pursue here, okay? ^_^

Let’s see, there were other things.  Oh!  So if someone DOES end up getting completely shit-faced (sorry, there’s really not a nice way to say it and still get the right meaning across), then a few people from the group really step up to take care of them.  I seem to recall this sort of ting happening in America, as well, but somehow it surprised me.  I’m probably just not used to that sort of thing.

I posted a more in-depth view of some of the more personal matters herein alluded to on my personal blog.  But one last thing is I did meet one girl there who was very attractive and is a pseudo-fifth-year student at the university, I think because she’s doing this last year to actually go out and find a job (which the university is kind of obliged to assist with in this culture).  She was in the club last year, but I guess you can only be a member for four years, so she’s not really doing it anymore.  Moving on, she and I talked for a bit, and her being only TWO years younger than I kind of interests me a bit.  I’m seriously the oldest guy on the team now, which sucks.  But she said that since she’s on campus we’ll definitely see each other around fairly frequently.  Maybe she’ll be going to a lot of the nomikai in the future, or perhaps even the practices?

Oh yeah!  And one other thing I noticed, it seems in poor etiquette to spend too much time with one person or group of people at these things.  You know how, in America, if you’re talking to a girl (or guy, since I know at least a few girls read this) and you really start to get into it that you may well spend the rest of the evening just kind of talking together, and if people go anywhere else that evening you may also try to find yourselves seated next to that person?  Yeah, that sort of thing really doesn’t happen at all, and I can tell you it is a little hard to deal with! ^_^  But that may also be the desperately single guy in me talking.  I really couldn’t say for sure! ^_^

That’s it from this side of the ocean!  See you all later!


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