How to: Survive a Japanese Banquet

by Charlie Harrington Oct 12, 2011
Even if you make a mistake during the evening’s social and culinary befuddlement, don’t worry – everyone will probably be too drunk to notice.
But I don’t have a thing to wear

Somewhat paradoxically, most banquets are designed to allow the guests to relax as much as possible at a formal event, and having a toned down dress code is common. Usually the only people in suits and ties will be the folks who organized the event.

Unless it’s a wedding banquet – when you’ll be wearing the same clothes you wore to the ceremony – casual slacks and a buttoned down shirt or blouse will probably be fine. Women should avoid pencil skirts or dresses because it’s possible the seating will be on the floor. You’ll be spending the night without shoes, so women may want to slip into a pair of socks after arriving in heels. And be aware of exactly what you have on display: a friend of mine once showed up at a banquet in sandals, and the biggest discussion that night was the state of his overly long toe nails.

Ask a friend or the person organizing the banquet if you’re worried about the dress code.

Sit your butt down

Seating will likely be assigned. Cushions will be arranged in front of foot-high stands holding trays. An aisle – for the use of servers and guests – will divide the rows. You sit in one of two ways: ankles together tucked under your butt (seiza style), or ankles crossed in front of you with your knees in the air (agura method).

Ankles under your butt is considered proper, and is usually reserved for formal occasions such as tea ceremonies or meeting the in-laws. The floating knee approach is more casual, and in my opinion much more comfortable. Sitting with your legs off to one side, next to your butt, is considered fine for women but odd for men to do.

If you do opt for the formal seiza position, expect numerous recommendations to relax a bit and sit ankles crossed. As with many things in Japanese culture, the suggestion will likely come accompanied by beer or sake.

How you sit (and drink) will play a big part in making or breaking the evening, and like social gatherings everywhere, a lot depends on how you get along with the people near you. It’s a good idea to arrive at least 30 minutes early so you can get to know the people you’ll be sitting with during the festivities. I once had the misfortune of being stuck with a sociologist writing a paper on expatriates. I had to tell him I was overseas because of a fictitious arrest warrant so he’d stop badgering me, and I could enjoy the meal and the company of other guests.

It all starts with a toast, or two

One of the main parts of banquets is welcoming everyone at the start of the event and toasting to the reason for the gathering. If it’s a wedding, expect a toast of congratulations to the newlyweds; if it’s an end of year business get together there will be speeches of the “We did good, let’s do better” variety. A rosy-cheeked organizer – likely mid management, likely one of the only people in suit and tie, and likely already drunk – will give the speech and probably pass it off to one or two others, just as drunk, for more orations. At the conclusion, with a loud omeidaitou – congratulations – everyone will knock back another shot of their chosen beverage. Try to avoid toasting with water because it’s bad luck.

Little drinks, big drinking

As mentioned, the first course at banquets will be of the liquid variety, and you will have little to no control over how much repeatedly goes into your glass. It’s a custom to never pour your own drink in Japan, but to tip out drinks for the person who tops off your glass. I want a drink and therefore so do you. Here’s another glass full. Where’s mine? With beer bottles roughly the size of whiskey containers in Europe and the US, and glasses of Lilliputian measure, it’s hard to judge how much you’ve had over the course of an evening when you can’t control the pouring. A 700 milliliter bottle can go unexpectedly fast.

Some folks, often older, will opt for the rice-based sake. It is served in small, porcelain flasks which are warmed in the winter and chilled during the summer months. The same pouring etiquette applies. The beverage wild cards at Japanese banquets are soft drinks, which will probably have to be brought from the kitchen in individual glasses – because a two liter bottle of Coca Cola just looks ugly in all settings.

If, for whatever reason, you prefer not to drink alcohol, explain to the people sitting with you and pouring your drinks, and it shouldn’t be a problem. But realize that drinking is considered a big part of the fun, and in general, the best advice is to drink whatever is offered to you unless you have a good reason not to.

Tip-toeing round the main course

While the audience is distracted by the often humorous speeches, the servers will have brought out the trays of food for the guests. The delivery is conducted in overly hushed tones and with an exaggerated tippy-toe which draws more attention to the servers than if they walked normally. Each tray will be balanced on the stand in front of the seated guests, with the rice, main dish, soup, and drinks all in the exact same spots on each of the trays, and often covered by lids. Lifting the lids off the plates is done as one collective, with obligatory “ooohs” and “aaahs”.

What is under the lids depends on where you are in Japan, as each region has its own specialty. Google the region in which you’re eating and find out the local delicacies, and you’ll get an idea of what will likely be on the menu. At a banquet I attended in Wakayama, for example, mackerel was the chosen dish, along with an abundance of miso-flavored side plates – because of the region’s historical connection to the two.

Know your raw fish

Sushi (raw fish on top of a rectangle of rice) and sashimi (slices of raw fish) are simply picked up and dipped in sauces for consumption. The sauces are mixed by the guests to each person’s liking in a small saucer using the wasabi, soy sauce, and sometimes radish, that come with each meal. There is no need, or expectation, to use all of the condiments during the meal. A pile of pickled ginger on the plate is the last bit of the main course, and is believed to help with digestion of the raw parts of the meal.

Slurp those noodles like you’ve never slurped before

Common to most areas of Japan will be noodles, which have playful rules all of their own. The two main styles are udon, thick white noodles, and soba, a darker, thinner variety. Both are flavored with a sauce that is put into a separate dish in which you dip the noodles, the same way that sushi and sashimi are dipped into a mixture of soy sauce and wasabi. This is fun to watch and try when everyone’s been liquored up by their friends and co-workers, with the full intention of seeing who falls over first.

The noodles will be served in a bowl with a light, almost tasteless broth. Reach in with your chopsticks, grab a bunch of noodles, twirl them around like spaghetti, and take them out while gently shaking off the remnants of broth. Then dip the noodles into the sauce, and shovel them into your mouth while making loud slurping sounds. The louder, the better – because it shows you’re enjoying the noodles and don’t care who knows it. Similar rules apply to drinking the broth, or indeed any soup. Pick up the bowl with both hands and loudly, proudly slurp like you’ve never slurped before. Watching people do this drunk is about as entertaining as people-watching can get.

Death by chopsticks

One thing that most people can do surprisingly well while under the influence is use chopsticks. The chopsticks – or hashi – will come in a paper sleeve that some people use to make an origami wedge to place them on when not in use, again showing great drunken dexterity. The basic rules of chopstick etiquette are:

  • don’t use the part that goes into your mouth for picking up food from a communal tray or from another person’s plate
  • try not to point or gesture with chopsticks
  • harpooning morsels of food with one stick never looks as cool as you think it will, and is also deeply frowned upon
  • and for the love of all things Shinto and Buddhist, never stick chopsticks straight up in a bowl of rice, because that is only done when offering food at a person’s grave
No need to leave (much) room for dessert

For some odd reason everywhere tends to offer child-sized offerings of vanilla ice cream accompanied by a bit of fruit. Like the main course, what is served often depends on where you are. In Wakayama it was a small orange, because a majority of Japan’s oranges come from the southern prefecture. In Tottori, pear growing country, it will be – surprise surprise! – pears. In the larger cities it might depend more on what is on sale or in season.

Last man standing crosses the Ts

Similar to flicking the lights on and off at a bar, tea is served as a final reminder that the evening is coming to a close. Small, individual pots of piping hot green or brown tea are brought out by the still tip-toeing staff, along with heavy ceramic mugs. The final speech of the evening will be given around this time by the most senior person in the room still capable of standing. This is the sign that the official side of the evening is truly over.

Spend the rest of the night making sweet music in the bars

Like bars any place in the world, they can kick you out at closing but they can’t make you go home. After the formal get together has finished, people at every Japanese banquet I’ve been to have divided up into groups and gone off to other bars, karaoke, or any place with an open tap. With many karaoke and drinking establishments having flexible hours for closing, the drinking and singing can last all night and into the morning – which is one reason why most of the banquets are scheduled for weekends. Basically, it’s not over until a majority of people pass out drunk, hopefully somewhere comfortable.

Just make sure you have a bottle of aspirin to hand for the next day.

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