For some company employees, a night out with colleagues has taken a new twist, making it different from their parents' generation.
More companies have been taking an active role in promoting the long-established concept of "nomi-nication," the process of people getting to know each other better in a relaxed setting through drinking together. The term combines the Japanese word 'nomu,' meaning to drink, and communication.
Some companies nowadays have even been subsidizing bar bills, while one has established its own izakaya in the office.
When the workday finishes at 5 p.m. at the headquarters of major agricultural machinery manufacturer Kubota Corp. in Osaka, the employees gather at the in-house izakaya, K'rossing. Some drink with colleagues who joined the company the same year they did, some drink alone, and others hold informal meetings with business associates.
A "class reunion" was held one night in mid-November, attended by Kubota employees who had all previously worked in the same department. Around 10 people sat around a table, chatting about their current activities and memories of days gone by.
"I can join when I choose after I finish my work. There's no need to stop work, and I can catch the last train home," said attendee Mitsuhiro Yamura, 46, chief of the general affairs group of the general affairs department.
K'rossing was opened in 2011 to create a place where employees can easily hang out together and talk while drinking after work. It operates as a cafe/restaurant during the day, and changes into an izakaya after 5 p.m. It closes at 8 p.m., so employees say it is a good place to have a quick drink and head home, a place where they do not drink too much.
Around 40 to 50 people are said to visit the izakaya each day.
Companies pick up the bill
More companies are also paying for their employees to go out drinking together.
Last year, the Tokyo-based web service company Uluru. Co. started company communication support measures called "Nomyun." Around once every three months, its 100 or so employees, including the president, are divided into groups of about 10 by lottery and go out to drink. The company subsidizes the drinks, from ¥3,000 (S$37) to ¥5,000 per person.
Yuki Akimoto, chief of the company's human resource department, said the programme started because "11 years after the company's creation, the number of employees had increased and we often did our jobs without meeting face-to-face. Employees who meet each other can have both business and personal interactions. It seems the power of drinking is strong."
Hitachi Solutions, Ltd. in Tokyo also provides a subsidy of ¥3,000 per employee for those who join a drinking party to encourage "opportunities where people can talk openly about things other than work." Employees who take part in this type of party are limited to those with no superior-subordinate relationship and those in separate positions. They can use the system once every six months.
While companies promote nomi-nication, it has not always been well received in recent years. Daiichi Sankyo Healthcare Co. conducted a survey in 2014, asking, "What would you do if your company organised a drinking party?"
With multiple answers allowed, the most common response, or 41 per cent, said, "Not happy about it but I would go because I'm a company employee." Twenty-one per cent answered, "I would decline for work or family reasons." Only 18 per cent said they would "actively participate."
Balancing work and child-rearing or nursing care for the elderly, as well as lifestyles that value private time, have taken root in Japan. Nowadays, coercing people to drink is recognised as "alcohol harassment." So what is behind the rise of nomi-nication?
"A drinking party is a bridge between the public and the private. Alcohol loosens people's inhibitions, enabling them to know someone's real feelings. This is the way that Japanese people are used to opening their hearts. That kind of effect is probably drawing attention again," said Takuya Kano, the head of Sakebunka Institute, Inc., a private research institute for drinking culture.
The current form of nomi-nication involves light drinking on a small budget among individuals who are free from a superior-subordinate relationship. It is also controlled to a certain degree by the company - a party is held in the office or the company subsidizes the bill.
Human resources consultant Yoshihiro Hirayasu attributed this to a change in organisations from a family-like community where people work for a long time, to a place where project teams execute specific tasks. Hirayasu said this has caused a decrease in situations where the superior commands everyone to go out drinking.
"But even so, stress does occur in the company, so nomi-nication, which is where employees can share fundamental ideas, is needed for psychological relief," Hirayasu said.
But if a company recommends or holds such activities, some employees may feel stress, he said. "[Drinking parties] must be free from superior-subordinate relationships and be held on a voluntary basis," he said.