Etiquette is important in Japan.  There is a “correct way” to do almost anything, and in social situations like drinking with coworkers or new acquaintances, doing things “incorrectly” can lead to embarrassment.  Your good buddies will let you slide, but your boss will not.  We’re spending our mid-week break from the series on places to drink in Japan, to focus on what to do when you get there.

There are too many different types of sake to cover in the scope of this article; indeed, there are entire blogs devoted to nothing but sake itself.  Cloudy, filtered, warm sake, chilled sake… We won’t be getting into these details today, only how to drink it and how to serve it.

Tools Of The Trade

Sake is typically not served from the large glass bottles or other containers that it’s purchased in.  Instead, it will be served from a small flask called a “tokkuri”, and often into small cups called “ochoko”.  Sake may sometimes be warmed by placing the tokkuri in a pan of warm water.

The Heirarchy Of Pouring

It’s considered rude to pour your own drinks.  It makes you look greedy and self-centered, in what should be a social bonding experience.  So, if you’re not pouring drinks for yourself, who is?  Well, most likely whoever you just topped off.

It’s considered charming and feminine for women to pour sake for men first.  This might seem sexist for some, but it’s as ingrained in Japanese culture as it is in the west for men to pull out chairs or open doors for women.  As for how that makes you feel, your mileage may vary, but try to remember that other cultures may have very different viewpoints.  Of course, it is customary for a gentleman to then fill her cup in return.

The overarching rule is that “juniors” pour for “seniors”, in whatever context that might involve.  For example, a son will pour sake for his father.  A student will pour sake for their teacher.  A waiter will pour sake for a customer.  An employee will pour sake for their boss, regardless of gender; expecting your female manager to pour for you just because you’re a man can cause a lot of friction.  At special celebrations like going-away-parties and birthdays, everyone will be in a position to want to pour for the person being celebrated.

If everyone’s pouring for their seniors, do the juniors go thirsty?  Not at all!  Even if there’s a gap in status, reciprocating a pour is important.  The employee pours for their boss first, but the boss should always pour for their employee in return.

Of course, there’s also a certain degree of flexibility for proximity.  If your boss is sitting at the far end of the table from you, you’re expected to pour for the people sitting closest to you, not move across the room to pour for your senior first.

The Art Of The Pour

When you pick up the tokkuri, you should be able to feel by its weight if there’s sake inside.  Don’t look into the bottle, or swish it around and listen to see how much inside, it’s terribly rude!

The sake bottle should be picked up with both hands, to hold it steadily.  This is also a “humble” looking mannerism.  Always make sure at least one hand is under the bottle to support its weight; keeping the hand open and fingers together but extended, provides a wider base.  If this is the first round of drinks, the recipient may not lift their glass, which is fine; for later refills, they’ll most likely pick up their cup with one or both hands, and hold it at a slight tilt to make it easier to refill.

If your tokkuri bottle has a “mouth”, a small dip on one side, make sure you pour from the opposite side.  This may seem entirely counter-intuitive… After all, if the bottle has a spout, why are you actively avoiding using it?  This is because that mouth is called the “en no kireme”, or “rift of relation”.  It conjures up such thoughts as the proverb “Kane no kireme wa en no kireme”, meaning “if the money stops, so does the relationship”.  Just avoid it.

Don’t fill someone’s cup all the way to the top.  Your goal is about 8/10 of the capacity of the cup, so that it doesn’t slosh out when someone picks the cup up one-handed.

Receiving Sake

It’s an old custom to gently refuse refills of sake when offered, after which the host will insist.  This allows the recipient to appear humble, and the host to appear hospitable.  It’s a somewhat old-fashioned way of doing things, but can be considered charming.

If you’re a junior to the person pouring for you, or considered on the same social level, you should hold your sake cup with both hands while someone is pouring for you.  If you’re their senior or superior, it’s acceptable to hold the cup with one hand.

What happens when you’re done drinking?  Well, if you try to politely refuse, it’s likely that it will be taken as a symbolic gesture and you’ll wind up with another cup anyway.  If you’re through for the evening, leave a sip left in your cup.

The First Round

All of these rules apply most heavily to the first round of sake.  Once everyone’s sake has been poured, there will most likely be a round of cheers (“kanpai!”).  The meaning of the word is “dry cup”, so it’s akin to saying “bottoms up!” before drinking.  Don’t take a sip before the cheers!

After the first round has come and gone, many rules begin to relax.  The more rounds you go into the night, the less strict the ceremony.  Which leads us to…

Get Drunk And Go Wild!  …or maybe better not…

Japan has a rather relaxed attitude toward intoxication.  There is something of a “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” attitude toward a night of drinking.  This doesn’t mean that alcohol gives you full authorization to get blitzed and tell off your boss; that’s a terrible over-simplification that’s been made famous by the 1992 film Mr. Baseball.

While drunks are given certain leeway for their behavior, this doesn’t mean that feelings can’t be hurt, or that people won’t remember what was said.  You see, the Japanese are well aware of how frustrating their own social customs can be when it comes to trying to communicate issues with their seniors.  An employee may not be able to say “I think it was very unfair that I was overlooked for that promotion”to their boss’s face, but after a few cups of sake or a few beers, no one will bat an eye if they speak more freely.

On the other hand, you can’t just say anything.  If you get drunk and tell your boss that he’s a nepotistic asshole and should be fired before his dumb kids run the business into the ground, he’s probably not going to just laugh it off the next day.  Choose your words wisely.

What About Beer?

Beer is pretty common in Japan!  If you’re not drinking sake at an izakaya, you’re probably drinking beer.  Often times, beer will follow the same sorts of traditions, because in an izakaya environment, beer bottles are shared among the table and poured into smaller glasses!  When in doubt, follow the sake rules… and don’t drink directly from the bottle.

Tomorrow, we return to the series theme of places to drink!  We’ll be stepping into the classy, relaxed atmosphere of the Japanese cocktail bar.


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