Bonenkai season a blast for some, drag for others

December 16th, 2010 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

‘Tis the season to get drunk and candid, at least with your work colleagues. The term bonenkai literally means “a meeting to forget the year,” which always sounded inauspicious to us, especially considering it’s used to describe a Japanese custom that is supposed to be festive. But bonenkai tend to be associated in people’s minds with the companies they work for, and there’s the rub.

Forget about it

Protocol dictates that the company bonenkai tantosha (person-in-charge) schedule the party as close to the end of the year as possible and, ideally, just before a holiday or the weekend; which means the peak days for bonenkai this year are Dec. 17 and Dec. 22, since the 23rd is a national holiday and the 24th is Christmas Eve, when a lot of people have plans of their own. Company bonenkai are, of course, paid for by the company, and though no one says so, all employees are expected, if not outright obligated, to show up, since it is considered a part of “company activities,” a chance to blow off steam and one of the few settings where an employee can be frank to his superiors and co-workers. “Communication” is supposedly an important element of bonenkai, though the obligatory aspect often just makes people more uncomfortable. According to a survey carried out by Kirin, a company that has a lot at stake in bonenkai, only 33.5 percent of the 6,000 people they questioned nationwide said they were “eager” to attend their companies’ bonenkai.

The survey also indicated that companies may be willing to spend more on bonenkai, which should please eating and drinking establishments, where 90 percent of companies hold their year-end parties. December is one of the most crucial business times of the year for the food and drink industry. Kirin found that companies planned to spend on average ¥4,828 per person this year, a ¥45 increase over last year’s budget after three consecutive years of declines.

However, the survey also pointed out that many people, mostly those under the age of 40, are now having “private” bonenkai at their homes for friends and colleagues outside of work. Interestingly, 30 percent of the women surveyed said they hosted such parties while only 19 percent of men said the same, thus pointing out that men obviously associate bonenkai with work and not their private social lives. Another aspect that may alarm the restaurant industry is that, according to a report on NHK the other night, more companies are opting to hold their parties on their own premises. They use large conference rooms and hire catering services and even outside entertainers, thus saving money (no “table charges,” for one thing) and allowing revelers to revel even longer, since restaurants and izakaya usually limit the time for each party. The main drawback that we could see in this option was the atmosphere that usually comes with a conference room: Those overhead fluorescent lights are a guaranteed buzz kill.

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4 Responses

  1. Don’t forget that groups of friends, clubs, PTAs and neighbourhood associations also hold their own “forget the year” parties. One ghastly December (’99 I think) I was invited to 21 of them, some back-to-back! I thought I would die of alcohol poisoning.

  2. “Company bonenkai are, of course, paid for by the company”…
    Hmm, I’ve worked in Japan for 5 years, as a teacher in schools and as a translator in a large Japanese company, and never once was a bonenkai “paid for by the company”. The latter statement, “all employees are expected, if not outright obligated, to show up” is true however. Bonenkai > Christmas Party

  3. No, they are not “paid by the company,” though bosses and those in management ranks are supposed to pay more, or hand out significant amount aside from their share of payments.

  4. I can’t speak for the whole of Japan Inc., but I work, as a manager, in a Japanese company and at our last bonenkai, held in the company canteen, not one employee paid a cent. Did I get off easy? At any rate, maybe it’s safe to say that some generous Japanese companies foot the bonenkai bill, and some don’t.


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