Enkai etiquette: what NOT to do at a Japanese work party

Never wear jeans to an enkai, nor turn up late, nor cross your legs (if you’re a girl). I did all of these things with typical gaijin etiquette and spent the first thirty minutes with red cheeks from embarrassment! Thankfully by the time the first kanpai was cheered, I’d regained my normal complexion and decided to enjoy the night as much as I could. Time to start pouring the beer!

An enkai is a Japanese work party, generally involving a lot of drinking, eating and for a unknowing foreigner, embarrassment. It’s the time when office crushes are revealed, secrets are shed and the boss gets thrown up in the air (yes, that literally happened!).

I’d been to a couple of enkais before but each has been an informal occasion in an izakaya (Japanese restaurant) where we all sat round tables and shared platters of sashimi, metre long plates of sushi and other delicious Japanese dishes. Therefore I was looking forward to my third enkai as a chance to try out my improved Japanese, as well as to eat my fill of my favourite Japanese food. However this particular enkai was the retirement party of the kocho-sensei (principle), so little did I know, it was a lot more formal than I anticipated. From 6000 yen (around £40), I should’ve guessed it would be a formal affair but my supervisor had failed to mention the work dress code. Unlike other teachers did, I went home after work and changed into my smart-looking, going-out jeans, and started walking to the restaurant. 

That was infact my second error, walking to the restuarant, not getting a lift. It was a little further than I thought and the minutes flew by. I managed to beat the estimated walking time of Google Maps by a third, but when I arrivied at the building I thought it was in, it turned out to be an empty ramen restaurant. The chef and waiter looked at me with surprise when I checked if they knew the whereabouts of my school’s enkai taking place that night, well actually in five minutes time! The helpful waiter quickly called some places and found out it was just around the corner. I thanked him profusely, trying to indicate I’d manage to get there alone, but still he insisted on walking me to the door of a very posh, traditional restaurant where kimono-clad women were waiting at the door. Being escorted to the restaurant by a man wearing a dirty black apron is not the entrance I was going for.

And now for the biggest faux pas of the evening, being late. I’d been told it started at 6.30pm and I tried to get there on time, but the location error had put me behind so I reached the enkai just as it was starting at exactly 6.30pm. I mean I arrived just as my kocho-sensei was being clapped into the room. People kept clapping as I tried to hide my reddened face behind the nearest door in the room. Unfortunately, that wasn’t my allocated seating position and the vice-principle said ”Let’s wait until Sophie-san sits down, before I start”. I nearly died inside. All I could think of were my teachers tutting inside at the foreigner who has got everything wrong.

As I dared to look up and around the room, I realised that everyone else was wearing their smartest work suits. This was a completely different event as what I’d expected. It was in a large tatami room and the fifty or so teachers each had their own table with the first dishes of food laid out on it. Everyone was sitting on their knees, with their heels curled in behind them. I copied them, trying to score some cultural etiquette points, as the koto-sensei (vice-principle) made the first speech. Ten minutes in and I’d lost all sensation in my legs. By this point I’d forgotten about my earlier embarrassment and was just focusing on how to ignore the aching pain in my legs. I could see other teachers struggling too, and when my supervisor slid her legs to one side, I followed her. What made it worst is not understanding anything which is being said, so I had no distractions to take my mind off my dead legs. All I could think of, was if I’d turned my phone to silent. I was imagining what would happen if my ringtone went off as my kocho-sensei was summing up his forty years working in schools and everyone was looking more and more moved by his speech. If that happened, I was thinking I was sure to lose my job, almost certain. But my bag was out of reach so all I could do is wish that my friends wouldn’t call me at this time. A phone did go off, but thankfully it was not mine. Phew, I’m not going to be fired.

After twenty-five minutes of idly nodding and laughing to the speeches when everyone else did, I manoeuvred my numb legs into a crossed position, only to have a teacher laugh at me! What now?, I thought. Apparently only men should cross their legs. It was at this point, I questioned how much fun this evening was going to be.

Yet the teachers near me made me feel relaxed by pouring me beer and not mentioning my jeans, my lateness or my cross-legged position. I knew that the etiquette at enkais is never to let anyone pour their own drink, so I made sure to get that right at least!

My most enjoyable conversation of the night was with janitor and the Portuguese translator. The slightly orange-haired janitor came over to our tables and poured us some beer. We then proceeded in a mishmash of English and Japanese with the Portuguese translator trying her best to translate between the two! The janitor is the kind of man who laughs at everything, so he was rolling around at the bad Japanese I was coming out with! Mmmh, my evening of impressing teachers with my Japanese wasn’t going so well. Nor were my favourite dishes being served. Instead I was slurping up vinegary seaweed soup, munching on whole tiny squid and other dubious dishes.

My table laid out with sashimi, nabe and a shot of sake.

My table laid out with sashimi, nabe and a shot of sake.

The courses were interrupted by more speeches, present giving and a slideshow of present and past students thanking the principle. I couldn’t help but notice how the traditional gender roles were playing out. The young female teachers had been given many of the tasks of giving speeches and presenting the gifts to the principle. One of my JTEs didn’t have time to eat her food as she was so busy pouring beer for other teachers! These feelings of sexism may have been enhanced as my legs were still in a punishing position, whilst the male teachers sat comfortably cross-legged!

The evening ended in everyone standing in a circle to sing a slightly modified version of the school song. I hummed along merrily, watching the drunk teachers swaying to the tune. Then everyone stopped and looked around, it was time for banzai! In unison, everyone shouted ‘banzai’ three times and raised their hands to the sky, as a way to wish good health and fortune to the principle. It was followed by all the men rushing to pick the 60 year old man up and throwing him in the air three times! I really hoped he hadn’t eaten or drank too much at this point! 

This however was just the start of more raucous behaviour to come. The nijikai (after party) was a nomikai (drink all you want) at a local karaoke joint. This is where everyone really lets their hair down! Yet at this point I’d had enough of laughing at jokes I didn’t understand, trying my best to speak Japanese and eating strange food. So I went home to join my friends who I could communicate with.

But all is not lost, I’ll be more prepared for my next enkai and most definitely ask about the dress code!

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