You wouldn't know it from my blog but Japan is a very alcohol oriented society. Neither Tetsu nor I are drinkers so we are pretty much out of the drinking culture, but drinking plays a large part in social and business relationships. I was reminded of this last night.
Yesterday I had to attend a general meeting of the Traffic Safety Association. This is a slow moving, extremely formal recitation of last year's programs, this year's budget and general approval of the new chairpersons. Many formal speeches given by various members, formal introduction of new members (me), and formal asking of guidance (by me) to the rest of the members in the association. Lots and lots of bowing... Formal is the word.
But... after the meeting, everyone shed their formality and we moved into a banquet room for a sit down Japanese dinner and general party to welcome the new members (me).
It was a delicious meal but I'll be glad if I don't have to do it again for another year! I sat across from two men (assigned seats) and the man in front of me never touched his dinner at all. He bounced to his feet after the official opening of the banquet and came back with two individual bottles of osake. He must have gone through at least 8 on his own during the evening but that wasn't all.
Besides osake (warmed and iced) there were an infinite number of beer bottles on the tables and one could call for a Japanese style aquavit too. True, there were a few bottles of tea and soda but except for a couple of us, those were basically ignored!
Since I'm not a drinker I don't really get the etiquette right but pretty soon the 30 some people in the room were making the rounds of greetings. There I'd sit and someone would come by and say hello and grab a bottle of something (anything) and try to fill my glass. I persuaded everyone that I really was enjoying my sodas but the man across from me eagerly downed his glass and held it out for more. And he wasn't the only one! For the next two hours people milled around filling each other's glasses and getting more and more rowdy (and raunchy...) I mean, these were the somber faced businesslike men and women whom I'd met at the city hall and police station a few weeks ago and now they were yelling across the room, laughing uproariously and getting slightly beyond my comfort zone in the topic of conversation...
I tried my best to properly fill my dinner partner's glass, (stand when serving the other party, hold the bottle in two hands). And I was reminded that it wasn't polite to refuse the reciprocal drink nor was I being polite if I tried to fill my own glass with more soda.
I came home with a slight headache and I was one of the few people in the group that wasn't going to be nursing a hangover!