Another great comic strip from Machiko Hasegawa, in the book “The Best of Sazae-san: The Olympic Years“.
Sazae-san’s husband, Masuo, is coming home from work and bumps into a friend. It’s an excuse for Hasegawa to comment on the massive population of the world’s most populous city at the time – Tokyo – which in turn is an excuse for Masuo and his friend to have a drink.
Drinking alcohol in Japan has always been a significant part of Japanese society, the lubricant that eases interactions between people who ordinarily behave formally with each other, the softener that allows the hair to come down, and the relaxant that turns those frowns upside down.
This is especially true in the office life of Tokyo, where most of the populace commute via train and bus and thus have little concern about having a drink or two or three after work. And for the retired generation, those who remember the industrious days of the 1960s and 1970s, drinking together at parties and at company trips to the countryside was the best way to build camaraderie across teams and functions. Drinking with clients after a routine meeting or at the year-end parties were ideal ways to relax the tensions built up between salesmen and customers. It is called “nomunication“, a cross between the word “nomu” which is Japanese for the verb “to drink”, and communication. Here is how Japan Today describes it:
Japanese salespeople frequently woo their clients over drinks, knowing that although explicit deal making is never done during this type of socializing, a deal is rarely won with- out it. Of course, drinking to build trust is not just a Japanese custom. Across East Asia, whether you are working in China, Thailand, or Korea, doing a substantial amount of drinking with customers and collaborators is a common step in the trust-building process.
Many people from task-based cultures don’t get it. “Why would I risk making a fool of myself in front of the very people I need to impress?” they wonder. But that is exactly the point. When you share a round of drinks with a business partner, you show that person you have nothing to hide. And when they “drink until they fall down” with you, they show you that they are willing to let their guard down completely. “Don’t worry about looking stupid,” Hiroki reassured our German manager, who had begun wringing his hands nervously. “The more you are willing to remove social barriers in the evening, the more they will see you as trustworthy.”
Times are changing. Alcohol consumption among men is dropping, while alcohol consumption among Japanese women is rising. Additionally, Japanese in their 20s and 30s are less likely to go drinking with company colleagues or clients at a drop of the hat as a desire for independence has grown in recent decades. I am an internal consultant in leadership development, and I remember a conversation about a Japanese leader who had strong leadership potential in sales, but was given negative feedback because he didn’t drink alcohol. “How could he shmooze the clients if he didn’t drink with them”, went the argument. Thankfully, executives in that company ignored that particular criteria, enabling that leader to climb the ranks.
Kanpai! I’ll drink to that!