Focus On: The Nommunication Culture in Japan

Japan has long practiced the saying "in vino veritas" at work and beyond.

Hello, Market Shakers! 

This week’s issue is a little bit special. Before we move on to our consumers’ voices, we thought it interesting to first offer insights into the Japanese drinking culture, closely tied with how Japanese people conduct (or used to conduct) business. For a long time, alcohol was part of the package deal when entering a company, but a new generation of employees opt out of drinks with the boss. 

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Japan isn’t the only country where the business world believes a bottle of alcohol gets some things done.

But the local working culture has long been paired with a strong inclination for after-work drinks, so much the language has a word for it: nommunication. 

The nommunication culture is a social ‘lubricant.’

Nommunication is a mash-up of the Japanese verb ‘to drink’ (nomu) and communication. The term was coined in the 70s when the salaryman culture was settling its roots. The lifetime employment system was at its highest. Encouraging drinking parties enabled higher productivity by cementing teams and building a solid corporate spirit. Because social hierarchy often came in the way of good communication, Japanese management took on this habit to pay their subordinates drinks after work to encourage communication. The drinking parties offered the opportunity for employees to speak up and share their grievances in a ‘safe’ environment. 

With the lifetime employment system, companies became employees’ second home (if not the first). So, while the drinking happens outside of their working hours, it’s considered part of employees’ work duties. Officially, they’re not forced to join the fun, but not doing so would symbolically exclude them from the group and damper any prospect of a promotion. 

Like elsewhere, the drinking culture goes beyond the relationships inside a company. High-stake decisions are often made outside of offices. Business people strive to settle with a decision to maintain a harmonious relationship with all the parties involved in a deal. So, informal meetings open more freedom to discuss controversial points and develop a satisfying consensus for everyone. The necessity to meet and drink with clients can even be mentioned during job interviews, ensuring the candidate knows when to expect. Drinking alcohol fosters trust and loyalty, gets the conversations flowing, and down the line, gets contracts done.

From ‘in vino veritas’ to dangerous consumption

Japanese society has long considered—and still, for the most part, nommunication as unavoidable in the workplace. The ability of an employee to embrace the drinking culture is valued as a social skill needed for the workplace. Of course, joining the party doesn’t equate to drinking alcohol. But escaping the calls to drink is easier said than done, and nommunication took a sour turn. 

In the 80s, the nommunication hit full stride in the workplaces, universities, sports clubs, and basically, all social organizations. Unfortunately, excessive drinking lead to people dying from alcohol poisoning. A decade later, in the 90s, the expression ‘alcohol harassment’ (shortened to ‘aruhara’) appeared. People noticed how quickly nommunication’s ability to build teams and smooth out business could lead to peer pressure and dangerous behavior, especially among men. 

Today still, the nommunication culture somewhat rules Japanese salarymen’s work life, especially in traditional-style corporations where old practices die hard. In pre-pandemic times, employees’ heavy drinking at restaurants and bars was a common sore sight on evenings. No wonder the government thought no better than to limit, then, to forbid, alcohol consumptions in the evening to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus. 

But younger generations are not keen on spending extra time with their colleagues after work and even less on drinking alcohol. 

Is nommunication on its way out with millennials?

Japan’s traditional lifetime employment system is on its way out with more employee mobility than ever before. The economic slump that Japan is going through is speeding up the way the Japanese workplace is mutating. New generations are splitting from the ancient ways. Young (and not so young) employees are not on board with overtime and drinking with the boss. Not only did the consumption of alcohol in Japan drop considerably, but millennials are not afraid to say they don’t drink.

The pandemic further encouraged people to shun drinking parties, especially work-related ones. A survey conducted conjointly by Nexer Inc. and Diamond Online in March revealed that more people than ever were turning down invitations from superiors (70.3%) or clients (60.2%). Only 22% of the respondents thought it necessary to accept invitations—a drastic change from the nommunication culture! The survey further showed that “Young employees generally don’t like drinking together with superiors or colleagues. (Japan Times)”

See you next Tuesday!

Next week, let’s hear out what Japanese consumers have to say about non-alcoholic beverages.

Reach out for questions and comments!

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