My new favourite song: haru ichiban

Today, as a special treat, I thought I’d share my current favourite song, Haru Ichiban, originally released in March 1976 (two months before I was born!), by Japanese girl group Candies:

I only know of its existence because three of the female teachers at my school dressed up as French maids and performed it at a recent enkai – a Japanese word which roughly approximates to a work drinks party, but is, more precisely, a curiously formal way of getting smashed on booze and forgetting about formalities for a couple of hours.

When I arrived in Tokyo for my orientation as a JET, they gave us plenty of advice about how to behave at an enkai. They gave us so much advice, in fact, that they made it seem like life in Japan is just one endless round of enkais, and at the very least I expected my fellow English teachers to arrange some sort of drinks reception to mark my arrival. As the long hot summer rolled on, however, it became increasingly apparent that there would be no welcome enkai for me, and it wasn’t until Christmas that I experienced my first one. Since then, I’ve been to two more – one was a retirement party for my former principal; the other was the annual welcome party for the new teachers who arrive in April.

They’ve all followed the same formula: sit down, and drink.

And all that advice that they give you at Tokyo can pretty safely be boiled down to: do what everybody else does, smile politely, and don’t worry if you make a mistake. (Which, I think, is pretty good advice for pretty much any formal situation.)

Where enkais differ from western-style works parties is in the methodical extent to which the drunken chaos is organised. First, you’re given a seat number at random. After you sit down at your random seat, you might exchange some small talk or pleasantries on your table, but basically, at the enkais I’ve been to, you’ll sit and wait in near silence for proceedings to begin. Then you sit and listen to some speeches. Then, at the end, everybody raises a glass for the official ‘kampai’, at which point you’re allowed to start drinking and eating.

What then happens is (normally) two hours of speed-drinking madness. Since it’s considered impolite in Japan to pour your own drink, at some point you’re expected to grab a bottle and wander around the room, pouring drinks for other people (giving you an excuse to chat to them). For the rest of the time, you are being inundated with drink. And then, just as everyone else’s face turns bright red from the booze, and your vision starts to become slightly hazy, there will be a set of closing speeches and organized cheering led by the school ouendan, or cheering squad, who go through a series of hand gestures and banshee screams before everybody shouts ‘Banzai’ as loud as they can.

And that is what happens at an enkai.

(They’re normally followed by a second part but I have yet to be invited, so I’m still waiting to know what happens at one.)

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