Thursday, 2 February 2017

Drinking Your Way Into Japanese Culture

Hisashiburi. It's been over half a year. I guess I just kinda forgot I had a blog. And it probably would have stayed that way too, except a tall, handsome, southern gent from the states asked me to write a piece for the AJET Connect magazine. If you haven't heard of it, I don't blame you - It's basically an online publication for people just like me, written by people just like me: JET program English Teachers.

So over Christmas I sharpened my favorite pencil, took out a fresh new pad of paper, then put them away. No one writes on paper anymore. So clunky. On my laptop I can edit again and again and again and again... days of fun.

I eventually got round to submitting the article. After a wrestling match with the Connect editor, we reached a version that is suitable for the general public. It may be in an obscure online magazine for Assistant Language Teachers in Japan, but I've been published, and I'm counting it.

My friend Ashuu-Chan did the layout for it, making me look far more professional than I deserve. It's on page 20 Please go and take a look, if only to see her artwork.

Below is the article converted to blog form (minus most of the editor's edits). I had so much fun putting it together that I'm gonna try and write one a month for the rest of the year. The first is only 2 days past the deadline. Clearly a good omen.

Drinking your way into Japanese Culture

Last month at the end-of-year work party, I had one of those glorious moments of belonging that make the whole Japan adventure worthwhile. The food is all but finished. Everyone is beginning to get those tell-tale pink cheeks. I can see a glint in the school Principal's eyes. Kocho-Sensei is clearly gearing himself up to leap across the cultural gap.

K: Licha-do sensei... Can you drink Japanese sake?

Classic. Why don't you ask me about sashimi and natto, too? Maybe  even finish off by complimenting my chopstick skills.

R: Of course! I love nihonshu. I went to Sake no Jin last year.

The magic words. It's as if I've gained a whole new dimension that Kocho-Sensei is seeing for the first time. But, maybe it's a trick. He has to make sure.

K: Really...? What do you like?

I don't wanna come across too keen. "Licha-do sensei, the alcoholic" is hardly the tag I want, but this is a chance to change Kocho-Sensei's perspective on foreign folk forever. I might actually manage to fit in.

R: Recently, I've been drinking Katafune (a local brewery which just won an award), but my real favorite is Nigorizake. Do you know Bishamon?

Kocho-Sensei only just catches his surprise before his eyes pop out, then breaks into the biggest cheeky grin I've ever seen this steely man pull.

K: So, you'll drink some with me tonight, right? What's your recommendation?

He hands me a list of incomprehensible names, all in kanji.

R: Ah... chotto... I can't read...

So close. So very close. Next time.


The longer you stay in Japan, the more you want to prove you aren't the typical Naruto fan foreigner, trying to buy a samurai sword, before going home to brag about your unique experiences in glorious sunrise land. Not that there's anything wrong with anime and history. Its just I don't want to be put into a little gaijin-shaped-box like that. After you've been here for two or three years, it becomes a compulsion. We long time sufferers desperately try to break expectations so that people engage with us, not as gaijin, but as real flesh and blood human beings.

If you're looking to be taken seriously in Japan, my first recommendation is to become fluent in Japanese. How enlightening. Almost like saying "All you need to do to become a pro footballer... is kick the football like a pro." And after studying for 10 years or more, you'll still slip up. It's almost enough to drive you to drinking.

Which is where my second recommendation comes in. Why drink thin, tasteless Asahi* when you can sample the real pinnacle of Japanese drinking culture: sake, otherwise known as nihonshu. For most, it's something you regret drinking with the sociology teacher at the nijikai, right before you butcher "Hey Jude" on the karaoke box. However, sake can, and should, be so much more. It's a chance to connect cultures without the social barriers that soberness creates. So much so that the concept has  entered many Japanese dictionaries:  ノミュニケーション (nomyu-nication).

Shameless Event Plugging 101

Now at this point in the Connect article, I go into advertisement mode and start gushing about how great Niigata's huge two day sake-tasting festival is. If you like the sound of that, and happen to live in Japan please check out the details. In fact, ill put the ending of the article as a footnote. For everyone else, don't read it. I totally sold out. It wasn't even subtle.**

The Day After the Enkai

Everyone in Japan sings the praises of nomyunication. And its true. Drinking parties are an incredible chance to break down social awkwardness and professional pretenses. A chance to actually get to know your enigmatic co-workers. A chance to actually talk like normal people about normal people things. Turns out the secretary at my main school is married with 3 kids. Found that out a month ago after 2 years of knowing her. Who knew.

Next day it's back to work. I look deep into my coworkers' eyes for a glimmer of the warm closeness I felt the night before. But I look in vain. The maths teacher will never bring up those super cool Japanese rock bands we spoke about together. Kocho-Sensei will never mention the 4 flasks of sake we shared. The secretary may as well not have a family. Its as if I dreamed the whole thing. They all follow the unspoken rule: What happens at enkai stays at enkai.***

Until finally on the way to class after lunch, the only young English teacher turns to me, and almost in a whisper says,

"Licha-do sensei... I heard that you can drink nihonshu."

A small smile creeps into the corner of his mouth. He knows what he's doing. Breaking the number one rule of enaki. But he doesn't care. Because we are more than co-workers. We are kinda-sorta friends. Everything is gonna be fine. His smile is contagious. I think I'm finally starting to fit in.


* This is of course all hyperbole. I actually do love Japanese Lager, as is obvious from the rotund beer belly Ive been carrying around recently.

 **"The Rest of the Article

I am of course extremely biased. I live in Niigata, which is famous for being an utterly boring prefecture full of rice fields.  We use that rice to make over 65% of Japan's nihonshu. As a result, there's a huge sake culture here. Living in Niigata, you quickly realize that nihonshu is the craft beer of Japan. Every city has its own local specialty. The variety is endless.

If you wanna become fluent in nomyu-nication but don't know where to start, look no further. Niigata's Sake no Jin (にいがた酒の陣) is being held this year on the 11th and 12th of March. If sake is the craft beer of Japan, then going to Sake no Jin is like hitting up Munich during Oktoberfest. 90 local breweries offer more than 500 different varieties to make it the biggest Japanese rice wine tasting event of the year. In exchange for your 2000-3000 yen entry fee, they arm you with a sake cup, and send you out into the stalls to try whatever you like the look of. I've gone every year since coming to Japan, and every year I leave with a new favorite.

Due to its fierce popularity, Sake no Jin has been designated this year's official Niigata AJET block event. We're grabbing a ryokan (complete with an onsen) for people who'd like to spend the night, and buses will be arranged to and from the event. If you're interested in joining us, you can RSVP here. There's loads more information on the AJET Block 2 Facebook group, or at Sake no Jin's website.

Richard is from Grimsby, U.K. and now lives in Joetsu, Niigata. He doesn’t drink as heavily as this article implies."

*** enkai  is usually translated to work party, although sometimes used for sports team drinking parties etc.