I once commented to my host father that Asahi Superdry was the king of Japanese beers in my mind. Last Monday marked an adventure in alcoholism one month in the making since that very comment. My host dad Katsuhiro and I hopped a bus and headed downtown to the Asahi Beer Restaurant to drink like there was no tomorrow. My host dad was dressed in a really interesting brownish-yellow suit that made him look like Colonel Mustard from Clue. In the sea of black suits I would soon be swimming in, my jeans and pink polo shirt had gaijin written all over them.
The Asahi building houses a regular brewery style restaurant on the bottom floor and a larger banquet room for special events on the second floor. Since the doorman knew my host dad by name, I figured correctly that we would forgo the formalities and head straight up to our malt liquor castle in the sky. Little did I know that we would soon be joined by forty or so of my host father’s work colleagues (all male). There was no name tag for me so I had to write my own name in Japanese on a slip of white paper. I then had to sign my name vertically in the guest book. The greeter was afraid that I couldn’t do it so he kept turning the book horizontally until I told him that I wasn’t drunk yet and could manage.
I had previously thought that my host father was Yakuza (Japanese mafia), because my family has a lot of money and I never saw him wear any short sleeve shirts (a sure fire sign to me that his body was covered with licentious tattoos). As it turns out however, he works for a venture capital company, and specializes in computers, though he quickly points out jokingly that he knows nothing about how computers work. I figure he must be pretty darn high up in the company by the number of people that came over to introduce themselves to him throughout the evening.
My evening, which lasted from 7 PM till 2 AM was a fantastic opportunity to test how much I could actually drink before death set in (I had always been wondering).
The Japanese drink their favorite crisp, cool nama (draft) beer in what are called “jokki” ("joke-y") or big beer mugs. These mugs come in three sizes: Housewife, college student, and businessman. The largest businessman sized jokki holds about three beers. Beer runs as thick as blood in the veins of the average Japanese company worker. Just for comparison to American fathers, my Japanese host dad loves Asahi Beer so much that he not only gave me an Asahi polo shirt and key chain (two items out of his massive Asahi paraphernalia collection), but he also has a keg as a permanent installation in his room at home for when the boys come over.
I began drinking beer as the night began and found my favorite Superdry to be as delicious as ever. Several members from my host dad’s company came up and gave speeches at the microphone, welcoming everybody, and extending wishes for continued success. I was quite happily guzzling jokkis of beer, when my host dad politely told me that I shouldn’t drink while the company heads were speaking. I swear I saw at least four other guys doing it though. After each speech we would all stand around the rectangular table formation as if we were at a cult meeting as the person at the microphone would bark out “XXXXX KANPAI!!!!!” We would all respond by screaming KANPAI!!!! and downing the rest of our mug. Examples include:
“Suteki na kanojo wo sagasu KANPAI!!!” – “For finding a sexy girlfriend…KANPAI!!!”
- An individual kanpai that I shared with a 20-something business man.
“Motto beer wo nomou KANPAI!!!” - “For drinking more beer…KANPAI!!!”
- Yelled by a drunk guy a good way into the evening.
Thanks to the amazing service staff, by the time I finished one of my jokkis, another full one was already waiting. About halfway through the evening, representatives from Asahi Beer came to join our party and gave us cans of Prime Time, an Asahi brand that has not yet hit the shelves. My host dad, who was already several mugs ahead of me by this point, would mime shoving the can underneath his jacket and laugh hysterically as he said we should smuggle them out. The Asahi rep (always concerned about his customer’s opinions) went around and individually asked everyone in the room what they thought of the new beer. I said it tasted fine, but just about everyone else gave him nothing but criticisms of the “disgusting” flavor as his reddening face dripped beads of sweat.
I was told that there was going to be food to counteract the effects of the massive alcohol intake. To be fair, there was food, however Japanese delicacies like sliced raw fish and tofu don’t exactly fill you up when you are drinking nothing but beer. Throughout the evening there were no water glasses and no alternatives to do anything but drink. Because of this, the group got progressively more and more rowdy and incoherent.
As the night progressed I quickly lost count of my intake. There’s a hierarchy of words to describe being tanked, smashed, or wickedly f*cked up in Japanese. The highest word is “beron beron.” I wasn’t quite beron beron yet when I started making some interesting cultural observations in between trips to the bathroom:
1) Japanese businessmen like to rub each other when drunk. This isn’t a sexual rubbing; rather, it most closely mimics how a trainer would rub his prize fighter’s shoulders as he rests in the corner between rounds. There’s nothing you can do to avoid this. As the drunken men circled the room, regardless of whether they had met me or not, I would get the boxer's rub. At one point I recall seeing my host father cradling another man in his arms as he laughed and whispered in his ear.
2) The greatest practical joke in the world is a foreigner who can speak Japanese. I cannot tell you how many times my host dad nearly collapsed to the floor in fits of laughter upon playing out his favorite put over. Whenever a businessman would come over to bow deeply to my host father, that same businessman would simultaneously have to make a decision as to if he wanted to engage the already visibly incoherent gaijin or not. If he chose to do so, he would nervously say “Hello” or “Hajimemashite” to me while presenting his business card (I now have a stack of these from people I cannot remember meeting). Even as drunk as I was, I could still muster “Hi, I’m Ben, nice to meet you” in Japanese. Regardless of the businessman’s reaction to my utterance, my host father would burst out with tears of laughter saying, “Bet you didn’t think he could speak Japanese - BAH HAH HAHA.” He would then tell the business man that I was “his son” (referring to my status in the host family) and make a joke about sleeping with another woman.
3) My Japanese doesn’t get better when I drink – I simply don’t care as much about the mistakes I make. At one point I remember a gray haired businessman telling me all about his motorbike tours around the mountains. At that point my eyes were creating a nifty strobe light effect and my face felt like it was modeler’s clay. I watched, almost outside of myself, as his Japanese words shot by my ears as incomprehensible projectiles. I remember smiling and nodding a lot and saying, “uh huh, uh huh." I also remember that I really wanted to participate in the conversation so I took it upon myself to comment on whatever individual vocabulary words I could identify from his lecture. For instance, if he said, “And when I took the bike up past 50 around the winding lake road, you wouldn't believe the view of the sunset!” I would respond with something along the lines of, “lakes are filled with water.”
4) In a land where public humiliation is worth its weight in gold, I am King Midas. I was in the bathroom when I heard my name being called over the microphone. I knew that the minute I left the safety of my heated Toto washlet, I would be fair game. Pairs of hands ushered me up to the microphone (probably a good idea because I couldn’t walk too well) as I tried to say “this is a bad idea” in Japanese. I had given away the fact that I could speak Japanese by enacting my father’s practical joke to virtually everyone in the room, so now it was time for me to deliver a speech in front of the now 50 or so stinking drunks (myself included) in the room.
My first line was killer (you’ll have to imagine my drunken Japanese voice): “I’m really tanked, so I’m not sure if you’re gonna be able to understand me or not.” This line produced a lot of laughs. After that, I rambled incoherently in a mishmash of honorific Japanese as I tried to wholeheartedly express my gratitude for the invitation and the experience. I ended with a kanpai to “yukoh” or friendship and watched as my host dad drained his jokki in three seconds flat.
I eventually was taken home in a taxi by one of my host father’s colleagues who lives nearby. My host dad would continue to drink through the morning with his buddies and not come home (something that angered my host mom). My chaperone initially took me to another bar to drink more, but when I truthfully told him that I had had enough, we went back to my house.
I made it to school the next morning with the worst hangover of my life. I rode the bus (standing room only), because biking was out of the question, and it was all I could do to hold it together as the cabin swung back and forth. It became a personal goal of mine not to defile the middle school girl text messaging on her cell phone in front of me.
Once at the center, I found that if I sat perfectly still on the couch with my mouth slightly eschewed and a can of closed Candian Dry Ginger Ale positioned in my right hand, I could avoid the urge to blow chunks. Once in the classroom however, I got severe motion sickness as I tilted my head downwards to read the newspaper article positioned on the table. I took the article slow, one character at a time, like I was a Japanese preschooler.
Somehow the word must have got around that I was hung-over - maybe the fact that I was stoically sucking on a lemon wedge gave me away (the lemon was my host mom’s surefire remedy). Please remember for the future, when one of your friends is visibly exerting every ounce of their strength to not throw up, it is of the utmost importance that you ask them repeatedly, “Hey, do you have a hangover? Huh? Do ya?”
I got better as the day got longer. At one point my host mom called the center to ask if I was alright (she didn’t seem that concerned when I left the house gagging in the morning). All the ladies who work in the office then took turns laughing and gabbing about how I was “yowai” or weak when it came to alcohol. Ah well, I deserved it I guess. While drinking, I asked my host father if this get-together was a special event because of all the people that were present. He told me that these nomikai or drinking parties happen every month. So, there’s always next month!