If you are employed by a Japanese company, you will often have opportunities to have drinks and meals with your Japanese boss and colleagues. In Japanese society, certain norms exist even in these kinds of situations that do not appear to be related to work. However, these norms (activities placed outside of the office) are essential to a Japanese company. Therefore, it is important to understand them (even though such activities are not part of your job description).

In this article, I will summarize the uncodified rules when it comes to going out for dinner and drinks with Japanese colleagues and supervisors. This article is aimed at foreigners currently working for Japanese companies, or interested in doing so.

Restaurant Reservations

The distinctive norms of dining with Japanese colleagues start already with the restaurant reservations. It differs depending on the case, but the task of booking a restaurant is generally reserved for newer employees.

Once a meal with Japanese colleagues or one’s boss has been arranged, the work begins with reserving a table for your group. Unfortunately, most receptionists in almost all restaurants in Japan can only speak Japanese.

Thus, even a task such as phoning restaurants for the purpose of reserving seats and/or a table can be stressful for foreigners. In such cases, you should seek support and let somebody else take the initiative in making these reservations.

You should at least keep the following points in mind when making a restaurant reservation:

  • How many people will come?
  • Is there a dish that your boss or co-workers like or can’t eat because of preference and/or allergies?
  • Time flexibility

You need to be particularly careful about time flexibility since some Japanese companies frequently require overtime work. Even though you may expect to finish work at 18:00, you could be staying as late as 18:30 or even 19:00. Therefore, it is important to choose a restaurant where punctuality isn’t a must; a restaurant that can provide you with some flexibility in terms of the reserved time.

Seating

When you take a taxi from the office to a restaurant, or when you arrive and are seated at a table, your seating position is determined according to hierarchy; it depends upon age and/or who has the higher position in the company.

Your seating position in a taxi

When taking a taxi to the restaurant, the person with the highest status sits behind the driver. Decades ago, the safest seat in a car was behind the driver, thus, as a legacy from the old days, this seat is always occupied by the person with the highest status in the company.

The person of the lowest position, on the other hand, must sit in the passenger seat to be able to guide and pay the taxi driver. However, this particular seating order is not always set in stone as some people (of. A higher position) prefer to sit in the front for accounting purposes or simply due to the larger space. In such cases, you should be flexible and switch seats.

Your seating position in the restaurant

This is another remnant of the old days, but it is said that the safest seat in a restaurant is the one farthest from the door, hence, that’s where people of high status sit. On the other hand, people of low-ranking positions sit closest to the door to make it easier for them to order.

Yet, as with taxis, this also differs depending on the people and company in question as some people simply prefer to sit near the exit too, for example, be able to go outside for a smoke. The important matter to understand is the norm of high-low positions in cars and restaurants.

What foods and drinks you should order

Commonly, Japanese drinking parties start off with beers. The Japanese say “toriaezu nama de”: beer for the first order. “Toriaezu” means “for now” and “nama” means “beer”. It is possible to order other drinks, but, if for example 3 out of 4 people are ordering draft beer, it may not be appropriate to order another drink for just one person. Since, if only one person were to order another drink, it would take time to make that drink, which could lead to one person missing the timing of the initial toast. Such a discrepancy does not look good in the Japanese society which values ​​harmony.

Since some Japanese companies have close relationships with certain beer companies, you also may need to be careful regarding the choice of beer to drink. Specifically, Kirin Breweries has a strong relationship with Mitsubishi (Mitsubishi Group, Mitsubishi Bank, etc.), Asahi Breweries with Sumitomo Group (Sumitomo Group, Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation, etc.), and Sapporo Breweries with Fuyo Group (Nissan, Mizuho Bank, etc.). If your company belongs to one of the above groups and your bosses are conscious about these relationships, ordering another company’s brand of beer can be offensive.

When it comes to food, since Japanese people have a culture of sharing dishes with others, it is safer to order a lot of food that everyone can enjoy rather than ordering one dish for one person. Examples of popular foods that are frequently ordered in this kind of context are french fries, salads, yakitori, and so on.

Photo of Sapporo beer

At checkout

As previously stated, in Japan you need to adhere to particular norms. One such norm is to make sure to pick up your wallet when it’s time to pay; even if your boss is paying the bill, everyone else should pull out their wallets as it is vital to showcase that they are willing to pay. The attitude of “I deserve a treat from my boss/company” is frowned upon.

If your boss says: “I’ll pay for this”, you ought to stand outside the restaurant by the door until your boss comes out. This is because it is considered rude to stare at the payment procedure.
When your boss (or the person who treats you the food) comes outside, be sure to bow and say “Thank you for the food”. Furthermore, when you arrive at work the next day it is important to thank the person again, for example by saying: “thank you for yesterday”.

By thanking the person in question on the next day of having dinner with your colleague/boss, you’ll be showing them your gratitude and will be seen as very polite.