Is this the last call for Japan’s afterwork “nominication” drinking culture?

Bottoms up?
Bottoms up?
Image: REUTERS/Issei Kato
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Pour one out for “nominication.”

This Japanese afterwork practice takes its name from “nomu” (飲む) the Japanese verb for drink, and the English word “communication” (ニケーション). Combined, the hybrid term refers to compulsory post-work drinks for managers and their subordinates.

Boozing with the boss, the theory goes, helps teams bond in a relaxed environment. For those on the ascent, it’s a good way to get their manager on side. For those already at the top, it builds relationships, busts stress, and—when the check comes around—helps discreetly remind pesky subordinates who’s in charge, whether in an exclusive club, a karaoke lounge, or the company baseball diamond. It is almost as meticulously codified as a Japanese tea ceremony, and in some respects at least as culturally important; attendance is very much not optional.

But nominication may be facing its final round. There’s a growing backlash against the practice, especially from Japanese working women, many of whom find it an exclusionary and sexist unfair expectation.

“Managers should not invite a workplace subordinate of the opposite sex to drink with him or her alone or misunderstandings may surface that can make their work unnecessarily complicated,” writes Kazuaki Yamauchi, from the University of Aizu, in a 2011 conference paper on best practices in nominication.

For Japanese women eyeing the top of the corporate ladder, edicts such as this are at the very root of Japan’s workplace gender problem. Men make up 87% of managerial positions in Japan, while the gender wage gap is 24.5%—the third worst in the developed world, after Korea and Estonia. Women, if they work at all, tend to do so on a part-time basis for relatively little money.

This unfairness, as well as the strain it places on working parents of small children, has led Mitsubishi banking unit executive Saiko Nanri to call for an end to nominication, starting with her own team.

Nanri has told her colleagues that they should not hold their breath waiting for any raucous post-work carousing, Bloomberg reports. “It’s not as if I have any special knowledge to share with my staff by drinking with them every day,” she said. Though it isn’t wider company policy, Nanri hopes that younger women will have an easier time as a result. “If it works, I’ll recommend it to other departments.”

Whether the suits will follow suit is less certain. An academic survey of 30 Japanese managers—including CEOs, company presidents, and the head priest of a Buddhist temple—described nominication as playing “a vital role in Japanese society to help build relationships and conclude business agreements.”

That’s despite the fact that Japanese workers have begun to question (link in Japanese) certain workplace habits, including heavy expectations that leave salarymen chained to their desks deep into the evenings; karōshi, or death from overwork, is a lethal effect stemming from a culture in which overtime is the norm. Post-work visits to hostess bars (paywall)—where paid female “hostesses” sink drinks with male clients, sing karaoke, and may perform illegal sexual favors—are another outdated tradition that keep women on the sidelines.

Abandoning nominication may have additional benefits for the office landscape. Kumiko Nemoto, a professor at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies in Japan, told Bloomberg that the “dated practice shuts out working mothers, along with fathers who want to help out more at home, and foreigners who are used to a better work-life balance.” By putting an end to it, she said, Japan might begin to take meaningful steps toward “increasing diversity, performance-based promotion, and open communication during work hours.”