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I manage a team of 10 at the place where I currently work. Next month, I will be travelling to Narita Japan with my team to visit division headquarters.

As part of the travel itinerary, there will be social activities during nighttime after work. My manager and our company hosts in Narita suggested checking out the Narita night life via bar hopping / pub crawl.

Some years ago, I lost my fiancee due to a DWI (Driving While Intoxicated) driver and a team member previously went through AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) counseling for a drinking issue. As a result I either avoid alcohol or minimize my drinking. Moreover, I am not familiar with city geography and there is also the need to be ready for work the next day. I dont want to drink throughout the night, maybe 1 drink but no more. My goals are:

  1. To minimize my own pressure to drink / bar hopping

  2. Minimize pressure to drink on my other team member who went through AA

  3. Minimize disruption to our company hosts who planned these social activities for our visit

How can I either professionally minimize drinking or turn down the invite to join the event?

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    The OP's concerns are exactly the type of reason that workplaces should not schedule team trips to bars. Jun 30, 2023 at 2:51
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    @GregMartin Drugs have been used for social and personal bonding since the dawn of mankind, with success. That's probably the reason why the custom prevails. You have a different rapport with people you have been drinking with. Jun 30, 2023 at 14:16
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    ... And in the case of Japan specifically company drinking parties are a huge part of corporate culture. Jun 30, 2023 at 14:26
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    @Peter-ReinstateMonica offers a typical one-sided response. The vague "with success" ignores all of the failures, including the specific ones brought up by the OP. Jun 30, 2023 at 16:39
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    @GregMartin: Should workplaces also never cater any food for any event, since people could be suffering/recovering from eating disorders? I think "should not schedule" is an overreach. "should make sure that they don't pressure people into" is something I'd be more inclined to agree with. "should not make mandatory" again I 100% agree with. But outright banning the planning of any event that may contain an activity that someone may have had a negative experience with? Way too broad.
    – Flater
    Jul 3, 2023 at 1:02

7 Answers 7

75

Japanese national here. Compared to 20 years ago, the culture has changed and declining to join nomikais is far more common now. So, if you prefer not to join or any of your team members prefer not to join, just say and don't join. You can elaborate on the reason but I don't think you have to. If you feel you have to, you can simply say "Tomorrow I have to wake up early" or something to that effect.

Going there and not drinking alcohol is an option, but there is a custom to offer alcoholic drinks to each other if there is a bottle around. This can happen both at dinner time and pub time. So you might find yourself in a situation where multiple people repeatedly try to pour drinks for you (you can minimize this by clearly holding a full cup of say oolong-tea).

There are also (although thankfully now rare) older bosses who get unhappy if you decline a drink and insist that you at least have one drink. This is now recognized as harassment, but nevertheless there are still people like that, so if you want to avoid the stress I would advise to skip that part altogether.

It would be a good idea to let the host know, because in many cases this type of planning is taken fairly seriously so if you convey your preference in time, the host might make the plan easier for you.

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    "Tomorrow I have to wake up early" or something to that effect Jet lag should elicit sympathy
    – Chris H
    Jun 30, 2023 at 8:31
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    @ChrisH Everybody on the team will be in the same situation, so the argument will not be convincing and may let the OP appear as a sissy. Jun 30, 2023 at 14:14
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    @Peter-ReinstateMonica or glad of the OP showing leadership. But it also depends on the ratio of visitors to hosts how easily you can make your excuses and skip out
    – Chris H
    Jun 30, 2023 at 14:54
  • Would it be OK to provide the organizer with the personal reasons for not wanting to go (if someone wants to share them of course)? Would it be a "bonus" (in the sense that the organizer/host will understand that there is something deep behind that and help you to make it a "proper refusal") or not?
    – WoJ
    Jul 1, 2023 at 9:28
  • Thinking of accepting this. What does Japanese culture expect though of managers covering for their direct team members for whom drinking may be unsafe / ill advised?
    – Anthony
    Jul 2, 2023 at 2:18
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Japan makes this a bit harder and social interactions are an important part of many jobs. That doesn't mean, however, that you need to stay out all night. In my experience you'll have a nice dinner and then maybe go to another bar. You can hold a Coke or other non-alcoholic drink all night and you should be fine. There may be some pressure but I have not seen any issues with sticking with your goals.

Again, the social part of going out in Japan is super important from what I've experienced. But it doesn't need to be a drunken debacle to have the correct impact.

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    If you make a point out of ordering a non-alcoholic drink this could also indirectly help the AA team member to make the same choice without publically admitting the AA history.
    – quarague
    Jun 29, 2023 at 6:58
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    What does AA mean ? Jun 29, 2023 at 7:24
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    AA = Alcoholics Anonymous. It's an addiction recovery program.
    – Nelson
    Jun 29, 2023 at 7:36
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    Find out if there is something like ginger beer available there--if I have soda while other people are drinking alcohol I get swamped with liquid. But something with a strong flavor like ginger beer encourages you to drink at the same rate. [For those that don't know, ginger beer is non alcoholic and has a much stronger flavor than most soda].
    – msouth
    Jun 30, 2023 at 0:26
  • In my, admittedly non-Japanese, experience many bars are stocking alcoholic ginger beer these days. Jul 1, 2023 at 6:30
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I don't claim to be an expert on Japanese culture, but from what I gleam from Japanese pop culture is that after-work bar crawls seem to be an important part of work culture in Japan.

But one excuse everyone should respect for not drinking alcohol is the medical one: Simply claim that your doctor advised you that you must not drink any alcohol because of medical reasons. Which is really only half a lie. While I am not a doctor, I believe that the consensus among medical professionals is that drinking alcohol is bad for your health under basically any circumstances.

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    There is no need for lies.
    – Stef
    Jun 30, 2023 at 7:39
  • That is definitely not the consensus among medical professionals. There is no need to lie about your own medical status, or about the status of the current consensus in the medical field.
    – user140332
    Jun 30, 2023 at 7:42
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    The World Heath Organisation recently published a report saying that any consumption of alcohol is bad for your health (who.int/europe/news/item/…). It's not yet the consensus of medical professionals, but there certainly are a growing number of medical professionals who are publicly saying that drinking alcohol is bad for your health under basically any circumstances.
    – Guy G
    Jun 30, 2023 at 8:22
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    I'm a long-term resident in Japan, and just a "Doctor Stop" when refusing alcohol will not be questioned. Assuming they will be having the party at the usual izakaya (bar/restaurant) with an all-you-can-drink option, there's usually plenty of soft drinks on the menu. When we have work events, there's always one or two people who have nothing alcoholic bar a small glass for the initial "Kampai!".
    – Ken Y-N
    Jun 30, 2023 at 8:22
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    @KenY-N: In the worst case, one can lie and say "the medical reason is that I am allergic to alcohol". I am of the firm justified opinion that such a lie in such a situation is morally blameless.
    – user21820
    Jun 30, 2023 at 8:47
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I live in Japan and work for a Japanese company. I see some dubious advice from people who don't even live in Japan on this thread... tread carefully. Anyhow, this is what I would recommend.

If you are invited to nomikai, I do not recommend that you decline outright. You should participate because it will help with relationship building. You absolutely do NOT need to drink alcohol. However you will need to drink something, otherwise you won't be able to participate in the 'kanpai' toast and the drink pouring activities thereafter with your colleagues. In the past oolong-tea was the go-to beverage for people who did not drink. This is fine, but it makes you stand out because the color and appearance are very different beer. I would recommend non-alcoholic beer instead, which should be standard fare at any izakaya (Japanese pub). The flavor of Japanese non-alcoholic beer has drastically improved, if that makes any difference to you, and the appearance is like real beer.

Regarding pub-hopping, I highly, highly recommend that you do not leave early. At the very least, you should stay until the end of the first leg of the event. This is because it is very likely that a manager or somebody of importance will say a few words in closing and possibly do a group 'clap' or something similar that involves everyone's participation. After this, feel free to go back to your hotel. You do NOT need to go to the next pub with everybody else, i.e. nijikai.

Regarding the AA perspective: I can almost guarantee that you will not be going to a 'bar'. You will be going to an 'izakaya'. This is basically a restaurant that serves a wide variety of sharable Japanese (and possibly Western) dishes with alcohol also available. Food and drink are intertwined in Japanese culture, and you should think of them as a set. People do not normally go out to just drink alcohol (unlike the West).

AA is relatively unknown in Japan. If you try to explain it you probably won't be understood. Just say that you don't drink alcohol--that should be sufficient. The number of young people that do not drink alcohol has been increasing in recent years. It is a very real phenomenon called "アルコール離れ" (arukorubanare). The choice to not drink alcohol, whether for health reasons, religious reasons, or philosophical reasons is not a strange thing anymore.

It bears emphasizing: the alcohol is not the important thing, it is the social bonds that are formed by going out eating and drinking together. What you choose to drink does not need to be beer or alcohol. In present day Japan there are many, many alcohol-free options that you can partake in. Maybe you should tell the event organizer in advance that you do not drink alcohol and would like to go to an izakaya with lots of non-alcohol options. This would sound like a perfectly reasonable request to me.

One last thing... even if you do not drink, there will be alcohol and some of the people around you will be drunk. This is just part of the Japanese 'nomikai' experience. I doubt you will see any aggressive drunks though (unless they are foreigners). If this sort of situation--being around alcohol and people who are drunk--might be psychologically stressing for you, then maybe you'll have to take a different approach from the one I described. Your psychological well being should take priority over socializing and social bonding.

I hope that this helps.

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    Thinking of accepting this. What does Japanese culture expect though of managers covering for their direct team members for whom drinking may be unsafe / ill advised
    – Anthony
    Jul 2, 2023 at 2:18
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    Past AA participant so should I ask of his comfort level in visiting a bar?
    – Anthony
    Jul 2, 2023 at 2:20
  • @Anthony no, past AA, should not even get close to the bar. Period. Jul 2, 2023 at 5:49
  • @DanubianSailor while 'bars' exist in Japan, they are less common and aren't the same thing as they are in the west. In all likely hood the OP will be going to an 'izakaya', which is a Japanese restaurant with alcohol available.
    – wrieedx
    Jul 3, 2023 at 0:38
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    "non-alcoholic" beer usually contains small amounts of alcohol. Both that and the taste makes it not a good option for recovering alcoholics. Kombucha and some other non-alcoholic beverages also contain small amounts of alcohol. Jul 8, 2023 at 9:45
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For many reasons, participating in work related social activities can be an important part of your career and your success in the workplace, so far as it relates to developing and nurturing interpersonal relationships with your colleagues. I'd suggest participating, but foregoing the drinking of alcohol if it's not something you're comfortable with or wish to engage in.

I personally don't drink alcohol of any kind, for no reason other than I have no interest in it or taste for it. That being said, I participate in work related social events but I forego drinking alcohol. I'll drink a soda or water. Nobody bats an eye nor do they care one way or another. My colleagues are respectful of my choice to not drink alcohol.

In my opinion, you may be over thinking this and giving it more weight than it warrants. Socialize with your colleagues and drink the beverage of your choice. My guess is that nobody is going to notice or care.

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    Are your colleagues Japanese? What's expected or acceptable in one culture might not be so easy in another.
    – Philipp
    Jun 29, 2023 at 11:24
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    @joeqwerty I agree with you that it does sound harsh, although it seems to be the case from what I was told about from colleagues who travelled there (edit: I don't drink).
    – Clockwork
    Jun 29, 2023 at 12:28
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    @joeqwerty: It's not quite as harsh, but going out drinking IS a big part of the traditional Japanese work culture, Much more so than in almost all other countries. It's getting better though: A few years ago the Japanese government launched a campaign to encourage young people to drink more: not just socially but also home. Apparently the younger generation drinks less than their elders and that resulted in decreased alcohol tax revenue.
    – Hilmar
    Jun 29, 2023 at 12:31
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    @joeqwerty Welcome to other cultures.
    – user140332
    Jun 30, 2023 at 7:49
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    @joeqwerty: It's not just Japan. Many cultures have some drinking culture, and the way it manifests can be different. In some cases, the pressure is from just peers. In other cases, the pressure is from colleagues. In yet others, one would be expected to drink with the boss if one wants a promotion or if the boss gets a promotion. In all cases, one has to learn to protect oneself, and decide to do it.
    – user21820
    Jun 30, 2023 at 8:57
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In Japan, such social events can be considered an important part of business, and a lot of it will depend on the culture of your company.

If there are 10 of you, I think you will get away with a few members not attending.

But if you do have to go, it is perfectly fine to drink non-alcohol drinks and leave after the first bar. It's more important to show your face than it is to keep drinking all night.

For large groups like yours, perhaps they will book a place that has all-you-can-drink that lasts 90-120 minutes. They also serve a large range of food and plenty of non-alcohol drinks, so it can still be enjoyable for non-drinkers. If this is the case, it shouldn't be too difficult to leave once it has finished.

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A suggestion. It may be difficult, or too late into planning, but perhaps you can change the social activity from nomikai to something else where (alcoholic) drinking is not involved.

Some options: karaoke, hanami, going to see a baseball match. Unfortunately all these tend to have alcohol, but probably with less pressure. Other options: visiting a park or an acuarium.

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