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Bonenkai – Uninhibited Party Time for Office Colleagues

By: Stephen Carr

Date Posted: 2000-12-15

It’s that time of year again, when Bonenkai celebrations take place all over Japan. Bonenkai literally means “year forgetting” and it is a time for company staff, members of clubs and groups of friends to eat, drink - particularly to drink - and be merry, getting together to forge closer bonds.

This is usually done in an Izakaya or traditional Japanese pub. Food served at these events is traditionally cooked in a pot – the warming fish and meat soups being the perfect antidote to cold December weather.

Groups in Bonenkai celebrations are most commonly people who work in the same company and there is scarcely a firm in the country that does not lay on such an event for its employees. The company often does a deal with the Izakaya it has chosen, for its group to eat and drink as much as they like.

Copious amounts of alcohol are one of the distinguishing features of the celebration. Bonenkai is seen as a time when it possible to drop the inhibitions that may have been in place between co-workers during the year. It is a time when it is possible to get closer, on a personal level, to colleagues one has seen almost every day during the year but with whom the formal, polite barriers of office etiquette have never been breached.

Every year stories of uncharacteristically uninhibited behavior emerge from Bonenkai celebrations, providing scope for incredulous recounting of the incidents throughout the following year. An example is the young lady who worked for a tour company at whose Bonenkai the combination of whisky and sake proved a bit too much for her. She went around the table and insisted on kissing every one of her colleagues. Some of them she knew hardly at all. She was mortified when she recollected what she had done the next day. For her workmates however, the incident was the highlight of the Bonenkai, giving them much opportunity for amused recollection the next year and increasing their affection for her.

At another end of year feast a salaryman, well in his cups, suddenly started complaining that he had missed out on the beef stew, pointing at the empty pot on the table and accusing his colleagues of thoughtlessness and greed. He became highly emotional on the subject, wailing and moaning about being deprived of the best dish on the table. Unfortunately he had consumed far too much alcohol for his constitution to stand. Staggering outside he bent over and was treated to a second viewing of what he had consumed that evening. Two co-workers helping him stay on his feet could not help noticing in the mess, numerous morsels of beef. They of course reported this fact back to the party. The man was mercilessly ribbed about his performance for months afterwards.

One innovation to the December party season this year is the introduction by a Tokyo rail company of women only cars on its late night trains. The new measure is in response to trouble in the past with intoxicated male Bonenkai revellers groping female passengers. The company started running the cars with “Women Only” stickers on them and two guards to keep watch after numerous complaints. The service, which started last week, will run until December 23.

Some company workers take the Bonenkai as an opportunity to say things to their bosses they would never dare to under normal circumstances. The complaints are usually taken in good part and offence is not taken because this is the one time of the year everybody can drop the carefully composed fronts they present to each other during the year. Some of these grievances, though spoken in jest, under cover of an alcoholic haze, may be acted upon in the coming year. So the Bonenkai can be said to have a useful social function as well as a good excuse for a party.

As the celebration is not confined to companies and can as well, be laid on by clubs, associations and informal groups of friends, some people have many Bonenkai to attend in the month of December. It can be hard on the liver. Also, in anticipation of the parties there are many more police on the roads doing spot checks for drivers over the alcoholic limit.

Food, drink and uninhibited behavior are not the only attractions of the Bonenkai. Depending on the company, there is often karaoke, giving colleagues further opportunities for un-office like interaction. Professional comics too may be engaged to set the mood of hilarity which is the one essential ingredient of the Bonekai. Kampai!

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