An enkai is the Japanese word for a party. I think the term can be used to refer to any type of social gathering, but I come across it most frequently when being invited to work parties.
Japanese teachers do have to work long hours; a ten hour day seems standard, but they sometimes stretch to 12 during busy periods. Whether they actually get more work done than their lazy 8 hour day western counterparts is another matter, and will be discussed at a later date. To compensate for their sacrifices, they reward themselves by having frequent enkais. These normally take place after extra effort has been put in to work life, for example after sports day, after culture festival, or after a school evaluation by “The Board”.
An enkai is certainly an important element of the school life, as it is deemed very important to have good relationships with your co-workers. It is also a mutually exclusive event – no husbands, wives, friends or family allowed. One of the best things about them for me is that I get to go to restaurants that I otherwise would not be able to visit, because they are normally traditional Japanese style with no menus, where you eat in your own private room, so you have to know what you’re doing.
There is always a quick speech given by a teacher to congratulate everybody on their hard work, and then a quick “campai” (cheers) and the party is started. Getting very drunk at enkais is very much encouraged, and in fact it appears to be part of the school rules. This is one of the few times when teachers can talk freely without the restrictions and hierarchy of school life.
One way they ensure that a drunken state is achieved is by never letting your glass get empty. However, it is a faux pas to fill your own glass; bottles of beer and sake are placed on the table and it is your duty to ensure that your neighbours glass is always full. I personally think that this responsibility is taken a bit too seriously. Many times I have taken a sip from my full glass, thereby reducing the volume of liquid by appoximately one cubic centimeter, only to be instantly pounced upon by my co-worker replacing the vital lost fluids and thus refilling my glass to its former full glory.
The most unusual food I have tried thus far has been at enkais. Whole river crabs, shell, legs, claws, crunch it up, - all down the hatch. Whole crayfish, antenna and all - the same way. Echizen Spider crab eggs, brain, and insides. All manner of sushi and sashimi (sliced raw fish) platters, cow intestines, pig intestines, boiled fish heads, deep fried stone loach (a tiny river fish) and a spectrum of mushrooms and vegetables.
It is also at enkais that it becomes apparent that my co workers can speak more English than they let on. Though alcohol is classed as a depressant, it seems to stimulate the linguistical lobes of the brain and aids the lines of communication. It works both ways though, with me trying
to speak Japanese as much as they are speaking English. Enkais seem to grease the wheels of social interaction – I have been invited on fishing trips, skiing trips, even wake boarding trips at enkais, and whilst I know the booze has had its part to play in the invitation, at the same time I’m sure they are genuine offers.
The so called “first party” is normally 2-3 hours of continuous feasting and drinking. Everybody shares several dishes which are constantly being renewed. I love this aspect of Japanese dining as it makes for a much more interesting and social meal, rather than every man for himself. As the first party winds down, its time to round up the troops and head to the next location for the “second party”. After such as huge feast, it only seems logical to head out for... well, another huge feast, what else?
So normally about half of the original group (usually minus the women) head to the next restaurant to continue feasting. I have been to enkais where we have visited no less than 3 restaurants in a night. Thankfully only one of my enkais has resulted in karaoke so far – where I was forced to sing a number of Beatles songs, (unfortunately no Busta Rhymes available). Bars are less common over here, so to continue drinking till the early hours, restaurants are generally the way the Japanese seem to go.
I always enjoy enkais, as they are a great way to get to know my co-workers better, a great place to practice Japanese, and just generally good fun, but the sad thing is that no matter how well you got on the night before, it always seems to be back to the slightly rigid “we can’t/don’t want to/ really speak English” (whilst reeking of booze) the morning after. Oh well – you just got to party like it’s the samurai era while you can.