What to expect at a Japanese work party
In spite of its infamously rigid societal structures (or perhaps because of it), Japan will jump at any excuse to let loose, eat good food, and celebrate. In the workplace, that can mean informal visits to bars or karaoke or more formal enkai, parties. Enkai are held in celebration of a conclusion of some sort and are normally held in private banquet rooms at hotels, inns, or higher end restaurants. They feature speeches, multi-course meals, and copious amounts of alcohol. And because of Japan's strict drinking and driving policy, they're often also accompanied by an overnight stay.
Anatomy of an Enkai
When you enter the room, the first course is already laid out, but no matter how good it looks you aren't allowed to touch it until everyone arrives, the first drinks are ordered, and things officially begin. In the case of a school party, the vice principal will stand first to start the party with a simple "let's begin," defer to the principal to give a few remarks, and stand again to propose the opening toast.
The food is always seasonal, and, while I can't speak for what things are like in really big cities, it's generally locally produced as well. Your first course will include lighter fare like sashimi and a small assortment of bite-sized dishes. Next will come the heavier items and food that's best served fresh (i.e., fried things). Because it tends to be fancier food, there will be some things that even native Japanese won't easily recognize. It's all delicious though and part of the experience, so I advise eating it all anyway and asking questions later!
As you make your way through the dishes, you might find yourself wondering where the rice is (it is a Japanese meal after all) but don't worry, it'll come - at the end. You don't want to fill up on rice before you have the chance to eat all this good food, do you? It normally won't be plain rice and will often come accompanied by a soup.
The Constant Refills
If the enkai isn't all-you-can-drink, then you're not really at an enkai. Japan has this strange, probably kind of dangerous relationship with alcohol where it's often seen as an excuse for your actions. As such, besides the inhibition drop that comes as a physical effect drinking, there's often also a psychological component that really gets people wanting to get drunk. Additionally, because even a drop of alcohol in your system will land you in cuffs, a single drink means you can't drive, and if you can't drive anyway, might as well go all out right? (Similarly, though, if you're driving, everyone is extra serious about making sure you don't drink, so that's a great way to get out of it if you're not looking to get smashed)
You'll notice that no one ever pours their own drinks. If someone sees someone else's cup is looking a little low, they'll take it upon themselves to fill it up (as well as offer some to everyone else in the vicinity). Often, the most junior person in the room will be unofficially charged with occasionally standing up and making a round with the bottle.
While you can order separately (and many people do throughout the course of the night), the drink of choice is beer.
Once people have mostly finished eating and before dessert comes around, it's time for speeches. The people with the most stake in whatever event just happened will stand and give their thoughts on what just happened. And depending on their level of inebriation, it can get pretty entertaining!
This particular enkai was in celebration of the school's sports festival (which I did a post on last year!). Speeches were given by the PE teacher who was in charge of the whole thing, the head teachers for each grade, and the teachers for whom this was their first sports festival at this school.
In my schools, other enkai are held for the completion of cultural festival in November, the end of the calendar year in December, and the end of the school year in March.
As a JET, particularly if you have multiple schools like I do, you'll be invited to attend perhaps more enkai than you want to seeing as they can get pretty expensive ($50+). That being said however, each enkai is an invaluable opportunity to connect with your coworkers, most of whom you won't interact with on a daily basis. Regardless of how much Japanese you know, because of busy schedules, it's possible you might regularly only talk with the English teachers, so enkai are a great way to interact with everyone else. Especially when, after a few drinks, everyone suddenly "knows" how to speak English! And is that really something you can put a price on?