Whether drinking in Japan for business, pleasure, or both, knowing how to say "cheers" in Japanese is essential for survival.
Things can and do get rowdy at some drinking sessions in Japan. You can avert a cultural disaster and manage to have a lot of fun if you arrive a little prepared.
Drinking in Japan can be a serious affair. In a culture bound by so many social protocols, tearing them down together builds trust. You may look bad if you hold back. Relationships, both business and personal, are often forged over getting falling-down drunk and singing terrible karaoke together.
You need some "remember that one time when...?" stories with your new Japanese friends.
Sessions can go for hours until someone finally bows out or passes out. Luckily, Japanese drinking etiquette is simple: be a team player and don't be afraid to cut loose.
How to Say Cheers in Japanese
The easiest way to say cheers in Japanese is with an enthusiastic kanpai! (sounds like "gahn-pie"). You may hear banzai! shouted at some point, but leave that to later.
Often voiced with enthusiasm as glasses are raised, kanpai translates to "empty cup" — the Western equivalent would be "bottoms up."
Tradition once dictated that people were expected to finish their cup of sake (rice wine) in one shot. That's why the cute cups are conveniently small. Now that beer is more or less the drink of choice, you can certainly get by with just raising your glass and taking a sip each time someone offers a toast. No need to revert back to your chugging skills developed at great cost in higher education.
Small sips are a good thing; there may be scores of toasts given throughout the night!
Pro Tip: The correct pronunciation of sake is "sah-keh," not "sah-key" as often heard in the West.
Drinking in Japan
As in any culture, following the lead of your local friends or hosts is always the safest bet. Don't step on the gas until it's clear they are heading that way. Settings vary, and sometimes people adopt more relaxed approaches to make Western guests feel more comfortable.
First, make an effort to meet everyone, assuming you don't know them already.
The number one rule of etiquette to observe when drinking in Japan is to never take a drink alone. Always wait for the whole group to receive their drinks before touching yours. Then wait for someone to offer a cheers in Japanese before you raise your glass and take the first drink.
Make eye contact with those nearest as you raise your glass. Angle your body and pay attention to whoever is giving the toast. Whether touching together or not, the glass of the most senior person should be slightly higher than yours.
What to Drink in Japan?
Beer is often the choice for social settings and business occasions in Japan. Sake is still popular, although whiskey and bourbon have gained a significant following. In fact, bourbon is so popular now in Japan that Japanese companies are buying iconic Kentucky bourbon brands — Jim Beam, Maker's Mark, and Four Roses to name a few.
Your Japanese cohorts may prefer to drink sake with you just for the experience. The rice wine has been an important part of the culture since at least the 8th century. Although technically not required, ordering the same first drink as others in the group is good form and makes sharing easier.
Don't go for your usual cocktail choice, especially in formal settings. That gin and tonic can wait. Instead, be a "team player" and stick to beer, sake, or whiskey. Drinking in Japan is about having a shared experience. Today, beer most often accompanies a meal, while sake is enjoyed with appetizers or light fare.
Japanese Drinking Etiquette
It is customary to allow others seated close to pour your drinks from their beer or tokkuri (sake bottle). You should reciprocate, assuming that you are drinking the same thing. Don't dictate their drink choice!
Typically, the younger or lower in status pour for the senior members of the group (or honored guest) first. Hierarchies are especially observed during business meetings.
When someone is filling your glass or sake cup, show courtesy by holding the glass with both hands and being attentive to their gesture of goodwill. Avoid looking elsewhere (especially at your phone) or talking to someone else when your glass is being filled.
For bonus points, make a mental note so that you can return the gesture later. Remember to pour from your own bottle when filling someone's glass!
Tip: Sake is given as an offering to gods, is shared at weddings, and is used in important ceremonies. Kamikaze pilots drank sake in a ritual before their missions. Show respect when handling the spirit. Women (and men in some settings) often hold a sake cup with both hands. The fingers of the left hand should be resting gently on the bottom of the cup.
Be a Team Player
Be cautious about sipping from your glass alone throughout a meal. Japanese drinking sessions can turn into full-on drinking marathons. Don't start strong and then fail to finish. Sip water instead and wait for the group to before drinking whatever alcoholic beverage.
If you do need to sip beer just to help wash down your meal, you don't really have to offer a kompai! each time. Simply raising your glass and meeting eyes with someone is good enough.
If someone makes eye contact with you and wishes to drink, lift your cup. Ignoring the gesture or not taking at least a little sip is considered impolite.
When drinking in Japan, or in any formal group setting, more emphasis should be placed on the group as a team rather than the individual. Individuality (e.g., being the most gregarious at the table) can be considered culturally rogue and impolite.
Other Ways to Say Cheers in Japan
Although sometimes used as a way to say cheers in Japanese, otsukaresama deshita (translates to "you're tired") is most appropriate in a business context when someone is leaving.
Telling an associate that they are tired is an extremely nice way of saying that they are a hard worker, have given their all, and deserve to go retire. Expressions such as these are a part of the culture of giving and saving face. Understanding the basics will greatly enhance your experience in Asia.
As the night wears on and the sake flows, don't be surprised to hear an occasional shout of banzai! ("to live 10,000 years"). Don't be the one at the table who apparently isn't excited about living 10,000 years.
Enjoy the cultural experience. Drinking in Japan is all about the group experience — including hangovers!