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Tuesday, October 2, 2018

The Enkai - Japanese Banquet

Since 2006, when I first began this blog, I have often and casually mentioned the Japanese term “enkai” referring to it as a “party”. 

It certainly is, but unlike the standard work party the rest of the world is familiar with, the Japanese enkai has, as you might suspect, has its own unique flavor. 

The enkai is indeed an office party, and can involve the entire company, or perhaps just a department, but here’s the most important part… it’s not held on the company premises. 

Yup… an office enkai is held in a private room or a part of a restaurant and tavern, and features a legitimate banquet dinner feast. 

There are many types of enkai. For example, when I arrived in Japan on the JET Programme, my Ohtawara Board of Education (OBOE) held a welcome enkai for myself. And when I left, there was a good bye feast… perhaps with more joy shown there. (That's me at my good-bye enkai in the photo at the very top.) 
Kidding. I left on very good terms… in fact… I didn’t want to go… and while the OBOE wanted to keep me on, the City wanted to replace me with a representative from their new sister city of St. Andrew’s, Scotland.  

It wasn’t anything personal, either, it was just good politics. I respect that, despite my disappointment.

Other forms of enkai are the bonenkai (year-end party) and the shinnenkai (New year party). 

Okay… but other than booking space a t a restaurant, and mandatory attendance (It’s not really mandatory, but when it comes to an office enkai, planned so far in advance… other than a death in the family, there’s no getting out of it. 

There is one person, called the kanji, who is responsible for the arranging of the enkai, including room/restaurant reservations, setting the attendance list, settling the bill, and depending on the person, being the MOC (master of ceremonies). 

The enkai begins with an official welcome and greeting from the kanji, immediately followed by a beer toast (kanpai!). 

Large bottles of beer have already been placed on each table, and everyone pours a small amount of beer into someone else’s glass - you never pour your own beer in Japan, enkai or otherwise. 
That's my secret fiance Noboko pouring me a beer at my good-bye enkai. Beats me why I am so happy... probably because I know that I'll see her again in a few hours time...
After the toast, it’s onto more talking and eating. Oh… and drinking. 

A Japanese enkai is a real booze fest. 

I’ve been asked this before:  what if I don’t drink alcohol (because of religious, health reasons, or maybe you just don’t care for drinking and it’s raucous aftereffects)? 

If it’s not an affront to your well being, I’d suggest informing the kanji ahead of time, but still having a sip anyway when presented. Or, after the first sip, request orange juice, or some other beverage. This should be mentioned to the kanji ahead of time… because you don’t want to look rude, especially when the choice to drink is your own.

So… after the toast, some drinking and eating, some enkai will have a talent show. Buddha help me, but in my case every time I attended, there was a karaoke machine. I don’t read Japanese, so I was relegated to only the songs available that had English subtitles. 

Those songs are invariably: My Way (Frank Sinatra); Country Roads; and Love Me Tender. I ain’t joking when I tell you that my karaoke machine mixed up the L with an R on Love, making it “Rove Me Tender”… which sounds a whole lot like “Rub me Tender” when sung by a drunk Japanese office worker. 

I opted for My Way, the first year… but rather than do the Sinatra version, I did the Johnny Rotten version. This was one of Johnny’s solo pieces after breaking away from the punk rock group, The Sex Pistols. 

Johnny had a warble in his voice, and because of my ability to mimic things, I was able to do a passable copy of Johnny Rotten doing My Way. The problem was, is that no one at the OBOE had ever heard the Johnny Rotten version… as such, despite my angry warble being spot on (I even changed my voice to sound like his), I’m afraid that I merely came across as sounding like someone who can not sing. 

Which I suppose is true. 

I don’t think the OBOE ever invited me to sing again at one of their enkai… though I did do Country Roads with my fellow AETs (assistant English teachers) at a Tochigi-ken JET weekend. I probably should have done Johnny Rotten version for the JETs, and stuck with taking it home via the Country Roads for the OBOE. Oh well. Live and learn. Next life. 
Kevin Blacburn, myself, Jeff Seaman, Matthew Hall, and Tim Mould doing karaoke at a Tochigi-ken JET Programme function. Go ahead and click on the photo and see what song we're singing. I dare ya. At least I was wearing underwear.
Anyhow… while everyone at the enkai is in rapt engagement listening to a co-worker croon some Japanese enka (folk song)… once that is done, it’s time for the free-for-all, which really means it’s time to move around and talk with others.       

This, my friends, is where everyone goes around to their boss et al, and pours a small amount of beer into their glass. 

Some people are so pissed drunk by this time, however, that they open their mouth and spew angry diatribes at their superiors. Good news, however, is that a Japanese enkai is like Las Vegas. Whatever happens at Las enkai, stays at Las enkai. 

It really is no big deal. The hierarchy of boss and peon is now reduced to drinking person and drinking person with a less expensive suit. 

Usually, these enkai will last either two or three hours… and dammit all, it ends right on the prescribed dot. 

But, as is usually the case, when one enkai ends, a group of committed party-goers will head of to a noodle shop or another bar, and continue the fun times, with a second, or Buddha help you, a third enkai. 

Been there, done that. 

I’ve been called a  "hebi-durinkah”, which is Japlish for “heavy drinker”. Yeah, I could drink more than most people… or at worst, would drink as much as the worst drinker (best drinker) at an enkai, and not look the worse for wear… IE, I don’t appear to be pissed three sheets to the wind. 
Myself and a local Ohtawara-shi sake maker. He offered me my very first glass of sake to welcome me to Ohtawara at the o-bon festival in August of 1990. It's here that I earned my pseudonym of "hebi-durinkah", after nearly emptying his cache of rice wine meant to be sold to the rest of the city during this festival. That is a Donald Duck mask I have on my head, as well as a festival jacket given to me by one of the festival workers. Donald Duck is my favorite comic book character (no, not Batman). To paraphrase: "I'm Donald Duck." Someone will get that joke. And yes... this was my second glass of sake. It was 37C at 10PM, and I was thirsty. It went down like water.
It was at a JET enkai, that I engaged in the infamous sake drinking contest with myself, a fellow AET, and a Japanese educational head. 

My fellow AET literally passed out after his 10th shot of sake - to be fair he had been drink aforehand, because this was at the end of the enkai evening. 

Myself and the Japanese head, we literally went head-to-head - each of us swallowing 47 shots of sake… and we both realized that no one was going to win, and he had a meeting to attend  - so we called it a draw. 
Mr. Arakawa and myself one evening after our infamous drinking battle, toasting each other with a very small shot of sake.
Who has a meeting after an enkai? No one… He probably wanted to go and be sick, the poor retching soul. Me? I went dancing. Got kicked out of the club. Went and passed out in a forest diorama under a deer. Apparently I had to break into the diorama in order to pass out, but I did so without damaging anything. I awoke after a few hours, and went to my room. I think I made out with a female AET from my prefecture. Canadian redhead. yeah. I did. Woke up in my own room, refreshed and happy - but with a dry mouth.       

I was not susceptible to hangovers. Never had one. Not in my DNA. 

Personally, the enkai is a fun time for bonding, and this is where you discover just who the hell can really speak English, and you get to wonder why they are so afraid to speak it with you when they aren’t drunk. 
Yes, enkai are a lot of fun... or so I've been told. My memory is a little fuzzy.
Andrew Joseph

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