The Nomikai - Part One: Understanding Your Role
One aspect of Japanese work culture that I've never really got used to is the Nomikai - going drinking to socialize. Personally I have a low tolerance for alcohol and for tobacco fumes, so doing one really is 'work'. But having said that, what you can get achieve with a hold-out customer by doing a nomikai is so outstanding, that I know it's work that needs to be done.
The nomikai has been a part of Japanese business culture as long as anyone can remember - most likely stretching back into the feudal era. Just like other bursts of excess that Japanese culture allows as a release valve for a highly competitive society, the Nomikai lets wrung out salarymen, and women, find a way to socialize and to let go a little bit. This is very deeply ingrained in the culture, and people almost have an automatic reaction when they do one - that reaction being to quickly switch from an uptight controlled persona to an extremely emotional one.
For an astute business person, this offers a marvellous opportunity to get to really know your opposite number at a deeper level. While you may still have days of tough negotiations ahead of you, after a successful nomikai, at least you will have an idea what makes him/her tick and understand how you should position your pitch or approach thereafter.
The best foreign participants for a nomikai in my opinion are younger foreigners with strong Japanese-language skills. The reason being that if they can crack a few jokes like a native and yet take on a humble role as the 'foreign student'- they kind of get adopted into the group and can thereafter learn amazing amounts of corporate intelligence - all of course, over a pint. Over the years, I had a number of colleagues who have become past masters at this, and they are as connected as any Japanese could be - perhaps even more so, because as an outsider, the normal rules of care and attention by their companions somehow don't seem to apply.
The next best participant for a Nomikai is a foreigner not living in Japan but with enough experience here to know the general context of life and customs in Japan, so they can operate at the deeper level of understanding - and not shock - needed for a successful nomikai. The relationship here can be one of equals, but with the Japanese host offering guidance and opinions on how Japan works. The role for the foreigner here is to stay foreign, and offer glimpses of life at home and contrasting them with Japan. This works especially well if life at home is good, since Japanese salarymen really do suffer, and there's nothing like a little bit of self-pity to get someone talking...
Not that I am cynical about nomikai or about my Japanese colleagues. There is a genuine place for this type of communication if you want to get to know the other person better and make lifelong friendships. For myself, I'm choosey about who I go out with, and I enjoy having friends who think like I do and trust me as much as I trust them. Some people go for Nomikai with any prospective client. I feel that this is cheap behavior and the other party will see through it - the next day, if not that particular night.
Remember that in a nomikai, the alchohol is just the gateway not the purpose, It's a passport to a deeper friendship, if you want it. The implication here is also that if you really want to get to know the other person, then the communication can't be just a one way thing. If in your guest's sharing his/her deepest confessions or expressions of feeling under the protection of alcohol, then you must also be prepared to contribute to the emotional relationship in a personal and meaningful way as well. Hard to do the first time, but after a while it becomes second nature. Oh, am I turning Japanese?