Things you learn that no one will remember to tell you: don’t go to the Nomihodai unless you’re planning on eating and drinking!

Posted on 16.12.2015

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There are a lot of ‘Office Drinking Parties’ that happen here in Japan, and the ‘Bonenkai’ End-of-Year Party is a popular one. At the end of the year, companies hold a kind of party or celebration, usually at a restaurant or an Izakaya, and you should go to it.

I have a problem at work: I’m generally too busy to socialize with my coworkers during the work day, because I spend my free time writing feedback, so I can leave when the work is done. Therefore, I like to try to go to the parties when I can, since it’s often the only time I can talk to the people I work with. I’ve been there for 2 years now and have hardly spoken more than a few times to most of them.

p01So this year, my office planned to have the party at an Izakaya (pub/bar). There was a Nomihodai plan, which meant that everyone going had to pay Y3,000 for all-you-can-eat and drink.

Sometimes that means you can order whatever you want from a special menu, but sometimes it means you have no choice about the food or the drinks, as that’s all a part of the deal. As I am not Japanese and haven’t been to this kind of party very often, I thought that I could just go along and NOT be a part of the special deal, and still sit in the same general area as my coworkers. Or maybe I could sit near them and order whatever I wanted, again, not being a part of the deal.

The reason I made this decision was that I wanted to bring Mark, so everyone could meet him. Mark’s a vegetarian, and I had the idea that he wouldn’t be able to eat much of what they served if it was the ‘no choice’ option, since Japan seems to think every meal should have meat involved (including the damn salad). So we ate before we went to the party, and thought we might just sit with them and order some drinks.

As it turns out, that was absolutely NOT allowed. Since I had put my and Mark’s names on the list (which I thought was to say ‘coming to the party’), we got included in the overall head-count by the restaurant. This means that even if we had not come, the office would still have to pay for us, since our names were counted.

We asked to not be included in the Nomihodai, as we wouldn’t be eating or taking any of their alcohol, and the restaurant forbid it outright. My manager and the counselors tried to argue that we were just bodies in the room, bodies that would not be eating or drinking, but the restaurant didn’t care.

So in the end, the manager got angry with the restaurant and paid for us. Even though we had the money. It was a damn disaster.

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This issue is one that comes in a long line of events lately that show me the bad side of Japanese customer service. Japan likes to brag about its high level of client satisfaction, but the service can be deplorable sometimes, all because of rules, or a lack of problem-solving skills.

It also flies in the face of the Japanese honor system, which seems to be in place everywhere else. I can leave my purse on the floor in a shop and walk around, and know no one will touch it. I leave my laptop, open to my email on a table in Starbucks to claim my seat while I’m ordering a drink. People sleep on the train all the time, because they know no one will mess with them.

So if the restaurant says they have to charge us to sit with our friends, because they can’t be sure we won’t sneak a drink or eat some meat-covered salad, it’s either a downright lie (and probably a racist one) or a total lack of problem-solving skills.

The Nomihodai isn’t really going to continue to work in the future. The reason I say this is because it relies on everyone drinking the same drinks, and liking the same food. Especially as Japan begins to diversify (and I know it might end up taking generations at the rate they’re moving now), the introduction of people who are not monks who don’t eat meat, or don’t eat pork, or can’t eat peanuts is going to wreak havoc on the ‘everyone is exactly the same’ way of life here.

The lesson I’ve learned from this: I won’t be going to any more parties that are Nomihodai. I never drink enough to warrant it, I most likely have to work the next day and can’t stay, and I usually don’t like the food they’re serving, either.

So we will agree to disagree on this one.