Dear Gaijin Girl,
I’ve just started working at a Japanese office and I have been invited to go to a cherry blossom viewing party with my colleagues but I don’t like to drink. What should I do?
Oh my poor, sweet and ridiculously silly Tom. If you do not like alcohol, why in the name of Jim Beam, Johnnie Walker and Shirley Buddhist Temple are you in Japan of all places?! Did you fly in direct from Salt Lake City or what?
In Japan, alcohol does not merely help lubricate social and work events, it is the fuel that propels society, family and business into the future. As an employee and team member you will be required to eat and drink with your boss and colleagues more often than you ever will with your spouse. You’ll be obliged to pour your boss’s beer again and again whenever the tiny glass threatens to go empty. You are never allowed to pour your own drink. Someone else will be in charge of filling your own glass, probably a coworker that is three years your senior and already hates your guts because your English is much better than his and you get paid slightly more than him as you are as considered part guest, part circus sideshow and part office pet, in that you aren’t expected be around in two years time. This man will do everything in his power to oblige you to bow to the social pressure of drinking too much and then eating ramen until you are projectile vomiting all over your boss at the train station. (A sublime job perk not mentioned in your contract. )
Sakura (cherry blossom) season is upon us. It’s the time when the nation collectively responds to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” with “Who cares?! Look at the pretty flowers! Here, drink this and when you feel sick just be sure to aim away from the blue tarp. We don’t want anyone thinking it’s a monjayaki buffet.”
There are a lot of Japanese people who do not drink. They are a silent minority that frequently “pass” as drinkers in order to escape being socially and ultimately monetarily punished for not “being a team player”. Many pretend to be wildly drunk, dancing around the bar or izakaya singing Elvis Presley until everyone looks as uncomfortable as George Bush did when Koizumi had a religious experience in Graceland.
Women have it easier in that they are not expected to drink nearly as much but also have to sidestep comments from male and female colleagues about their breast size, backside and speculation as to whether they’d be maguro (move like a dead fish) in bed. There may or may not be any groping to contend with. Oddly, I’ve been groped by Japanese women far more than I’ve been groped by men. Women have grabbed or “honked” my breasts on a train platform in the middle of the day. I’d yell at them, “What are you, crazy?” Stop it!” They wouldn’t. My offended reaction egged them on so I learned through exasperation that the only way to make them stop was to grope them in return. If a woman “honked” my boob, I’d honk them right back. If they grabbed my ample life raft of an ass, I’d manage to get a handful of their nonexistent one. It worked.
Once, I was groped on the street by a man on a bicycle. I had just stepped out of a taxi and turned around to go up the street and suddenly this bald dude that was sweating alcohol was in my face. He gave my boob a hard squeeze. I screamed, he grunted and then he took off on his bike. If you have to be sexual assaulted, that’s the kind you want, quick and relatively painless but it really irked me that someone could be so mentally ill and have such good coordination and balance skills at the same time. It’s just not fair. In hindsight, I wished I’d been grocery shopping earlier and had a tin can of tomato sauce to hurl and dent the other side of his bald head with as he rode away. Call me a romantic, it’s just a better end to the story.
Anyway, you will sooner or later be required to drink with your coworkers, clients, and future in-laws. Japanese style bars frequently have plastic potted plants near the table for you to discreetly dump your drink if you want. Learn how to act drunk. Also, develop a repertoire of different kinds of drunk, ranging from mildly tipsy to wandering naked in a park so you are ready for any occasion or alcohol level. Don’t be afraid to get yourself in embarrassing situations. Japanese love nothing more that to be told a story about how you woke up at the station in a pool of your own vomit, decided to write your bicycle home where you lost control, hit the curb, fell off face first into the sidewalk, breaking your jaw. They LOVE stories like that because it’s what their wife did last week after the PTA meeting. (Actually that example came from a Japanese grandmother. That jaw break earned her all kinds of street cred and is now considered a legend in her community.) It’ll bring you closer together as coworkers and comrades.
I don’t judge you for not liking drinking. I don’t drink much myself. (My drug of choice is sugar) It’s just so much easier to fit in Japan if you do. I’m not saying you’ll be any happier or more financially secure. I’m just saying people will be less annoyed with you and see you less as an outsider. I guess what I’m saying is, “ If you’re not planning on becoming a drinker, GET OUT OF HERE!" If you don't, it's only a matter of time before you're cleaning up your inebriated coworker's urine puddle at the station with spare tissue you found at the bottom of your briefcase, on a Saturday night. I seriously doubt your company pays you enough to put up with that.