Thursday, 15 March 2012

The Izu Life: Enkai Etiquette

I’m really lucky that I work at such a relaxed, laid-back school. They don’t really care what I wear to work, if I’ve still got nail polish on from the weekend, or if they catch me a couple of times sneaking a peek on Facebook. Because everyone is so easy-going, it makes for some enjoyable enkai (“staff party”) experiences with these fellows (mostly because alcohol has been thrown into the mix). When I first arrived in Japan, I was fearful of my first enkai, sure that I would commit cultural faux pas in extreme! Well, enkai season is upon us so I decided to write a post to help guide any noobs through the choppy waters of social niceties and Japanese drinking customs…

Most enkais (I was relieved to find!) take place purposefully in the relaxed atmospheres of bars, izakayas (cheap eats and beer places), and small comfortable restaurants. The idea is that you are encouraged to relax and let go of your inhibitions a bit. It’s the end-of-year enkai after all; time to let loose! Sometimes attending the enkai will require you to chip in for the food and alcohol, and then again, sometimes this payment is merely taken from your teacher union fees so please check ahead of time with colleagues what the payment arrangements are if you feel an enkai might not fit into your budget at this time. Also worth noting is that if it is your first enkai or the enkai has been thrown in your honour to welcome you to your new workplace, you will probably not be asked to pay.

Beer/Sake Pouring

You should never pour your own drink, but rather wait for others to pour it for you. Likewise, you are responsible for topping up the glasses of your coworkers. You should lift the glass off the table and hold it with two hands when being served as this is a sign of respect. Similarly, you should hold the bottle with both hands when pouring for someone else. If someone offers you a drink it is bad manners not to accept, even if you do not intend to drink it. If you do not drink alcohol, but someone offers you some, it is perfectly acceptable to accept just a little alcohol in your glass then lift your glass upwards to get them to stop pouring. When the opening toast is over, everyone says “Kampai!” (“Cheers!”) If you are not drinking, you can just raise the glass to your lips but not drink and then ask for some oolong tea or other beverage. Make sure that those around you always have full glasses as they will find it too rude to pour for themselves. Be careful as it is difficult to know how much you are drinking when others are pouring you alcohol before you even finish one glass!

The Formal Enkai

At least once a year, you will attend a formal enkai as an ALT. The formal enkai usually takes place in a banquet hall or private function room. It could be a sit-down dinner, or traditional banquet on tatami mats.

When you arrive at the formal enkai, do not sit down straight away but wait to be seated by the other teachers as there is usually set-seating. Teachers are usually seated according to rank with those of higher status seated furthest from the door and closest to the decorations. Sometimes the seating arrangement is decided by lottery.

The formal enkai will begin with speeches. Get comfortable. If you are seated on the floor/tatami you should try to sit on your knees however this will likely become increasingly painful for the inexperienced. At no point may you sit cross-legged as this is considered far too casual for the occasion and beyond inappropriate for women to do so. Try to alleviate your pain by leaning to the side and letting your legs curl to the other side. That said, I have been told at (granted, informal) enkais that I may sit cross-legged if I wish.


Try to ask before the enkai whether you will be attending a formal or informal enkai. When I first arrived in Japan, my colleagues would let me know a few days beforehand when an enkai was going to take place. On the day of the enkai, I would be getting dressed and think ‘Oops! I forgot to ask if it was formal!’ so it became necessary to choose attire that would be suitable for both formal and informal situations…

If for whatever reason, you don’t know whether you are attending a formal or informal enkai, I have found that dressing smart-casual is a safe option. I usually wear something along the lines of a boyfriend blazer, nice blouse and trousers. This combination is relaxed enough for an izakaya and yet the blazer makes it sharp and snazzy enough if you suddenly find yourself at a formal enkai.

Informal enkais still require a bit of effort. Casual clothes probably won’t cut it. Something slightly more dressed-up would be better. To my last informal enkai, I wore a silk dress over tights with a cardigan. Pay attention to what your fellow colleagues wear to the enkais and try to emulate the same tone in your own outfit. Over time, you will learn what is appropriate enkai attire if you do this.

When all is said and done, don’t stress too much about your appearance. The idea behind the event is to celebrate the end of the school year and the beginning of a new one. Its time to relax and have fun with your work colleagues! Even at the formal enkai, I spotted some of my colleagues wearing track-pants and sneakers so, really, anything goes!

A Couple of Things to Remember

If you remember nothing else, remember this… Rule of thumb: its rude to refuse most things but its okay to accept it and not consume it. Touch/eat nothing until the speeches/opening toasts are complete. And finally, remember that the enkai is a place to let loose and, what with all the alcohol, you may not be able to look at your colleagues the same way again after you have attended an enkai with them. This is where it is important to remember: what happens at the enkai, stays at the enkai.

Do you have any advice for new enkai initiates? 

Images courtesy of JoshBerglund19 (Flickr, Creative Commons)

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