In Japan you don't simply express your feelings and inner thoughts nor speak up about your issues. As Japanese society highly values the group harmony over the individual's needs, people will be reluctant to express their true opinions. Moreover, the culture is driven by this deeply rooted concept of "face": how to save face and not cause someone to lose face. However, Japanese people obviously needs to steam out once in a while, especially in the workplace... That's when nommunication plays its part: drinking alcohol to get the conversation flowing.
Strongly critized in the last few years, the culture of nommunication still rules Japanese salarymen’s daily life, especially in traditional-style corporations. This made-up word is built with the verb ‘to drink’ (飲む, nomu) and communication. Groups of noisy salarymen heavily drinking at popular izakayas are a common sight on weekday evenings. Although those parties called nomikai (飲み会, meeting to drink) may happen outside of their working hours, they are definitely a part of work duties and crucial for team building in Japan.
The nommunication is like a social lubricant.
In Japanese work culture, trust and loyalty are important values that cement a team and good teamwork can only take place if people communicate. However, for various reasons (modesty, respect for hierarchy and so on), Japanese employees aren’t the best communicators. A necessary step to build a functioning team is for the manager to go grab a bite and heavily drink with colleagues after work hours. This may sound quite odd, but these casual parties are considered to be part of their duties as company-dedicated employees. After a few beers, workers will feel at ease and comfortable enough to speak openly about delicate topics and projects.
The term 飲みニケーション was coined in the 70s, when the salaryman’s culture was booming and the lifetime employment system was at its best. The idea behind nommunication was to build a corporate spirit enabling a higher productivity. Managers and employees had to find some kind of balance so they could share the same fate, thus fostering corporate loyalty. A manager can scold an employee. But the employee also needs to speak freely once in a while in order for their relationship not to deteriorate. As a consequence, Japanese managers got the habit to pay them beers to comfort and encourage their teams after their workday.
In vino veritas maxim pushed to the perfection
Although questionable, nommunication was considered by Japanese society as an inevitable component of your work life. It has to do with the deeply rooted Japanese concepts of honne (true feelings, true intents) and tatemae (the side you show to other). The uninhibiting effect of alcohol opens the door to the « honne » of a Japanese person, who will let go of the tatemae for a few hours. Drinking offers a time-out from social rules which for example, help them tell what they really think of Tanaka’s marketing plan or Daisuke’s newest business strategy without fear of repercussions at work. In short, drinking leads to laying out the truth.
Very often, the boss or supervisor is the one who suggest the nomikai knowing that the team members will be able to share some feedback thus improving the general atmosphere at the office if not solving some on-underlying issues.
A Professional Etiquette…
Officially, you’re not forced to join the fun. But not doing so could cost you a lot. First of all, you would miss out on getting to know more your colleagues. Symbolically, you will also exclude yourself from the group which will considerably slow down your integration and prospect of a promotion.
Your ability to participate to the nommunication culture is valued as a social skill you need to learn in a Japanese company. In Japan, a good employee is a sociable employee who enjoys activities with their colleagues. Luckily, joining a nomikai doesn’t imply that you have to drink a lot. More than drinking alcohol, it’s actually joining the group to maintain a good relationship with your colleagues that matter.
… And a business « lubricant ».
The Japanese cultural managing style loves nothing more than having a lot of meetings. However, surprisingly (or not), lots of high-stake decisions are actually made outside of the office. Indeed, Japanese businessmen strive to settle with a decision that will preserve a harmonious relationship with all the parties involved in a deal. Informal meetings at restaurants and bars gives them more freedom to lay out some controversial points and to create a satisfying consensus for everyone.
This is probably not limited to Japan’s business scene. After all, going for a drink with clients is quite a frequent image regardless of the country. However, in Japan, if you want to speak business, you can’t cut through hours of those informal drinking sessions. And you’ll have to entertain your clients quite well before they trust you enough to start talking money. Sake is said to be the businessman’s best friend.
Nommunication and « alcohol harassment »
In the 90s, appeared another newly coined expression, alcohol harassment (アルコールハラスメントand its shorten version アルハラ), after a dramatic rise of alcohol poisoning leading to deaths in the 80s. It didn’t take long to connect the dot with the booming culture of nommunication. However, more factors are to be taken into account, many cases taking place among university student circles.
Alcohol harassment is characterised by encouraging or forcing someone to drink a lot of alcohol until they pass out and also by mocking someone who doesn’t wish to drink alcohol. In Japan, hierarchy rules people’s interpersonal relationships and you may not always be in a position to firmly refuse a drink if an older student, a teacher or a boss order you to do so.
Nommunication’s ability to build good teamwork and to smooth the business process is also the door to peer-pressure, stress and dangerous behaviors for employees, men in particular, as in Japan, « a real man should be able to hold his liquor ».
Is nommunication disappearing with the millennial generation? Seems like it.
The economic slump that Japan is currently going through is influencing, if not speeding up the way the Japanese workplace is mutating. The traditional system is on its way out. Slowly but surely, new generations of Japanese employees refuse to follow their elders’ path and that includes alcohol as well. As the consumption of alcohol in Japan drops considerably, comes the biggest blow for the nommunication culture: Japanese millennial men don’t drink and aren’t afraid to say so.