It’s been a time of great change recently. Spring: a rebirth of nature. The birth of a new school year with new teachers. My actual birthday. A lot of things have happened over spring break. As with many great changes, there also comes a time of celebration. The ever elaborate (and expensive) nomikai.
As I mentioned in Nomikai, I have been invited to drinking parties previously by my junior high school. The two I went to cost in the range of $45-50 USD, and were very organized in nature. Something which surprised me, considering that this is seen as a time to forget about the stress and obligations of work. The week before spring break, I was invited for the first time to drink with teachers from one of my elementary schools. I was delighted, feeling like I was finally a part of their circle. I put on a nice jacket and tie and walked through the winding neighborhoods and pitch black fields to Hyakkoutei. A Chinese restaurant a few neighborhoods north of mine.
Expecting it to be some fancy spot, I walked up to an average family restaurant. Something you might find in a shopping center in your average American neighborhood. (This wasn’t American-Chinese food, by the way.) A few minutes later a car pulls up and out pops all the sixth grade sensei. All of them were wearing casual clothes and even one was wearing sweatpants. Guess I overdressed a little, eh? We walked in and a few other teachers greeted us. We then proceeded to cram into the small 8-person booth.
Up until now every assumption I had about tonight has been proven wrong. Unlike the junior high nomikai, the dress code was “fairly” relaxed. The restaurant wasn’t some elegant institution overlooking a lake. And the entire school wasn’t there; just the sixth grade teachers and substitutes. It seemed like this night would be more laid back than I had expected. It was.
We started out choosing courses. Each teacher chose two meals which would be shared among everyone. No standard meal for all. Afterwards, we got drinks and toasted to a good night.
“Eric, drink up! And eat! You must eat everything!”
Those huge courses started to come soon after we ordered, and they didn’t stop. I was an eating machine. But eventually it caught up to me and I left my plate untouched for some time. Hoping they would get the point that I was full. But they took notice eventually. “Oh Eric, you’re not eating? Here have this.” I was back at it again.
The conversations were as juicy as the karaage that night. I learned a lot about the teachers at the school and work politics. Did it smell like gossip??? You damn right it was. I didn’t think such a term existed in the Japanese workplace. But here we were, just carrying on in our opinionated ways. Well, I was more listening. I didn’t want to say anything that could potentially offend someone not in attendance.
At the end of the night, instead of paying a standard fee per person, we split the bill among all of us. I felt kinda bad for ordering a few more drinks than everyone else. I had once again made the wrong assumption that it was nomihoudai (all you can drink). One of the sensei was kind enough to drive me home since it had gotten colder.
In the following weeks I went to two separate nomikai with my junior high school. One on the last Monday before spring break, and another last Friday to welcome the ten new teachers. I originally didn’t want to go to either. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the junior high sensei were more formal in matters of intoxication. A.k.a. boring. Also, student loans have been killing my pockets slowly since November. I didn’t want to shell out all that yen for just an okay time. Yet somehow I managed to be convinced to go to the year-end party. A lot of teachers were switching schools or retiring; I’d probably not see them in a very long while.
When we arrived at the dining area, I got the feeling that this nomikai would be different from the others. First, it wasn’t a restaurant. It was an average, kinda smallish dining hall connected to a hotel. There was floor seating; no chairs, just pillows. I took my shoes off and proceeded to sit seiza: sitting with the tops of my feet flat on the floor, knees bent. But merely five minutes in, the other sensei began to realize how uncomfortable I was, and allowed me to stretch my legs out under the table. Sitting seiza and long legs don’t particularly go well together.
While waiting for the first toast to commence, I thought back to my sophomore global advertising class at Temple. The teacher was obsessed with Japanese culture, so much that it seemed more like a class on just the ad business in Japan. We watched a corporate training video one day on the importance of the nomikai in international business relations. In the video, the dining set up was very similar to the one tonight. The people being filmed also seemed fairly tipsy and were enjoying themselves. Singing songs, dancing and carrying on. Maybe my night would be the same. Well to say the least, it was definitely much less formal than usual. Gifts were presented to the leaving teachers. Speeches were made. Even I was forced to get up and say something about a departing teacher/friend. One thing that surprised me the most though: the emotion. In a culture that reinforces the idea of blending in. Where you have two personalities: one for work and one for family and close friends. The fact that I saw other sensei crying, practically bawling out of bittersweet sadness, just blew me away. I could never notice at work which sensei were particularly close friends due to how formal everyone was. That night though, I really felt the love certain teachers had for their coworkers.
To close the event, one of the youngest sensei began to yell some obscure chant at the top of his lungs. At first, I thought he had a little too much to drink. “Is somebody gonna get this guy under control?” I thought. I looked on half-worried, half-trying to contain my laughter. I didn’t know what as going on so my mind tuned out briefly. Moments later, I realized that they were now calling on me to do the chant! I did a few test runs with another sensei and then stumbled and slurred my way through the chant. Every still praised me for trying.
As much as Japanese work culture seems filled with formalities and structure, there is still some time built in to let loose and be casual. Even if it is only a few times a year in the teaching profession. It would be wise of me to keep my assumptions to a minimum. Stay Tuned.