The Nomikai – Part Two: Variations on a Theme
For most of us, we envisage a nomikai as being a group of young employees, either the customer's or the boss and some of your colleagues, heading down to a smoky robatayaki or yakitori joint under the railway tracks. Indeed, for many freshly arrived foreigners, this is their first experience of the alcohol-induced "wet" side of the Japanese business culture. The creating and binding of relationships over a beer or chuhai. Whether with a boss or a customer, the nomikai is an invaluable way of making business go faster and easier.
As I mentioned last week, I personally don't like doing nomikai and I have found that as an older, experienced foreign businessperson. I am now allowed to introduce variations on a theme. Usually if at a business meeting I sense that there is a relationship to be built, I try to make the first move, so that I can set expectations and also offer the other party the opportunity to try something a bit different. Interestingly, I still play the role of the outsider with my Japanese host, but I subtly equalize the playing field by doing the nomikai in a Western restaurant.
My PA is really excellent at picking suitable restaurants for nomikai. I don't want anything too expensive, else the other person will get the wrong idea about the importance of the meeting- or worse, if they're a potential client, they may feel that I'm a spend-thrift busting to get my hands on their money... So she tries to pick somewhere reasonably priced and for atmosphere somewhere you can find plenty of other foreigners or a unique type of food.
Just a couple of weeks ago, I hosted an older, very well connected salary man who is the Eigyo Bucho (Head Sales Manager) for his IT company. We had initially met at a cold call sales pitch I was doing and he told me that he'd spent some time overseas and really enjoyed it. This is a classic "come-on" from your opposite number to go do a nomikai. I thought he was an OK guy and escalated the invitation.
The thing was, though, I could imagine that that this guy was a smoker and probably loves to eat Yakitori, so I decided to head him off at the pass, by inviting him out first. We met at a restaurant in Nishi Azabu that is highly popular with foreigners and has lots of ethnic food. He looked a little bit out of his environment when we first met up, but after a beer or two, he started to relax. The restaurant specializes in food most Japanese salary men would never eat: hummus, flat lebanese bread, fusion salads and really fresh lamb and other dishes. All night, he couldn't stop commenting on how good it tasted, and told his colleague, "We'll have to come back."
Mission accomplished. Without having to take a superior role, the restaurant staff did an excellent job of telling my guests what everything was and how to eat it, and I was able to let him educate me on doing business with the Japanese government and how his customers make buying decisions on IT security products and services. The next day, he sent me an enthusiastic email and said he'd like to become a reseller of our products, and that we should get together again sometime.
Thanks to this rather western-style nomikai, I had made a friend and a business partner that I hope to maintain a relationship with for another 10 years - until he retires.
Lastly, a housekeeping point that probably most readers don't need to be told. When you're attending a nomikai in an employee or student role, the payment system is either that the boss picks up the tab, or that everyone splits evenly. You don't get to say. "Oh, I didn't eat this or that, so I should pay less." If on the other hand you are doing the inviting, then you get to pay. Yes, it can get expensive - especially if you have a guest like mine, who likes foreign wine! We got through 3 bottles that night. However, if you've chosen your dining/drinking partner(s) well, the investment should be well worth making in the long term.