John Updike described America as a ‘vast conspiracy to make you happy’. Japan, a wonderful place to live in many ways, at times seems like the opposite; if not a vast conspiracy to make you unhappy, at least anxious, uncomfortable, and exhausted. This is especially true for those legions of salarymen and women sighing inwardly at the dread prospect of the ‘bonenkai’: the obligatory end of year company party.
It comes as little surprise to learn that many Japanese loathe these jamborees, which they have to attend, whether they like it or not. A survey for the Asahi Shimbun newspaper suggests many regard bonenkai as unpaid overtime, and would rather head home to their families, or bed. But there is no escape: non-attendance would be as egregious and unforgettable an insult as skipping a family funeral.
Bonenkai’s stated aim is to ‘forget the year’ but the real purpose seems to be to foster a sense of unity within a strict hierarchical structure. Underlings at bonenkai must sit and make appreciative noises at the wit and wisdom of their sempai (seniors) as they get unamusingly drunk, refilling their bosses’ superior’s glass at precisely the right moment. There are also strict rules for who serves who food. Everything must be distributed equally, with fussy precision. Giving an extra tomato by mistake is a faux pas that will mark your card.
You can’t even have a good old gossip. In theory bonenkai are supposed to be easy going affairs. But the reality is that communication is painfully constrained by the Japanese language, which has three different registers (keigo) each employing different vocabulary. The choice of register depends on the trajectory of the relationship of the interlocutors: lower to upper, equal, or upper to lower. It’s fiendishly complicated and hardly makes for a relaxing, carefree, atmosphere. One unfortunate Japanese worker told Asahi Shimbun that the whole bonenkai experience was ‘utter torment’.
But the bonenkai isn’t the only way some Japanese seem determined to suck the fun out of the season of goodwill. Over New Year, instead of feasting on something delicious chosen from their magnificent repertoire of sophisticated cuisine, most Japanese opt dutifully for osechi; preserved processed food, whose only merit is that it can be left out for a few days without spoiling. The custom has its origins in the days before refrigeration, when, with shops closed, housewives could take a well-earned rest. In the age of fridges and takeaways, that rationale is obsolete. But this bland, peculiar, and often unidentifiable fare has been mystifyingly retained.
Then there is the tiresome ritual of the nengajo, New Year’s greeting cards which ought to be written by hand with an individualised message for each recipient. It is a sweet idea, but the problem here is that nengajo are not just for your nearest and dearest, but practically anyone who might conceivably take offence at not receiving one, however tenuous your relationship. Some people send hundreds of nengajo, many to people they barely know, including very casual business acquaintances. Filling these out can be the equivalent of a week's work, which must be factored into already busy schedules.
To understand why the Japanese put themselves through all this means considering the concepts of ‘gaman’ (endurance), and ‘giri’ (duty) which have been elevated into sublime virtues. The amount of boredom, discomfort, and misery you can tolerate in the apparent service of one’s company or fellow citizens is a mark of your individual worth. This, coupled with the natural inertia that prevents ending or adapting long-standing customs, has ensured the survival of these traditions long beyond their useful lifespan.
There is some hope for the bonenkai-phobic. Lockdown has wreaked havoc with the end-of-year parties, with data from the analysis firm Tokyo Shoko reporting that 94 per cent were cancelled in 2020, and 70 per cent would be this year. This still high figure is a little suspicious in a country where Covid cases remain relatively low and there are fewer restrictions than in other countries.
So why have so many parties been called off? A friend working in a marketing firm has the answer. ‘Nobody enjoys it. It is just a nuisance, so we are using Covid as an excuse. And next year we’re going to say it’s too much trouble to restart it’, she told me with evident relief in her voice.
It’s a typically subtle Japanese solution to a knotty problem of etiquette, one that the Spectator’s own Dear Mary would undoubtedly appreciate.